Lessons Learned from Coaching, the Finale

This final post in this three-part series is a celebration of the great educators I get to work with in the Dell Mentor Certification process. We’ve had some rewarding moments together, and my current cohorts are no exception. In Jim Knight’s book he notes, “Coaches make it possible for teachers to take time to have real conversations about teaching.” It’s sad that many teachers don’t get that time to reflect with someone, because it’s really powerful when teachers do have that time.

“Coaches make it possible for teachers to take time to have real conversations about teaching.”

Jim Knight

First-Order Challenges Often Mask Second-Order Barriers

I’ve been a fan of Peg Ertmer’s work for a while, so you should know how great it is to be able to work with her on our technology integration textbook (under revision for the third edition, by the way). One of my favorite pieces of Peg’s is a think piece she published a while ago in ETR&D (1999) about how second-order barriers often underlie the more often mentioned first-order barriers, and are the true barriers to effective change. First-order barriers are extrinsic barriers that are often relatively easy to address. They can be perceived as things like a lack of time, limited access to devices or support, or lack of professional development. I agree with Karen Cator, the former EdTech Director for the U.S. Department of Education, when she said at an ISTE conference that there are lots of ways schools can and do address these types of barriers. First-order barriers can be and often are overcome through simple strategies of resource allocation, scheduling, and varied modes of services.

Time is one of the most often cited first-order barriers; however, it’s easy to observe and catalog where teachers spend their time and find ways to help them better organize their time to get a bigger payoff. They can even use technology to save time, as technology can easily perform routine teaching duties, like taking attendance, assessing knowledge comprehension, and recording evidence of student work. Even limited access to devices and PD can be overcome through strategic—and sometimes creative—use of resources (time, people, and money) and getting people across a school or district to work together rather than in silos. But once that happens, technology initiatives often have to deal with the underlying intrinsic barriers to change, or second-order barriers.

These barriers often relate to our very own philosophies and perceptions of who we are and how we think people should act, especially ourselves. Since I work in education, second-order barriers often relate to a teacher’s basic understanding of what a teacher should be, how they manage a classroom, and how students should behave in that classroom. In other words, second-order barriers can be challenges to our foundational understanding of what we think and know to be true about ourselves and our profession. Pretty heady stuff.

The Power of Coaching

During a visit this school year with one of my Dell Mentor cohorts, the candidates observed classrooms and then participated in a role play exercise to practice their coaching conversation skills. Some had the option to pretend to be one of the teachers we observed or they could choose a professional issue they were working on as the focus of their conversation with their peer. What resulted, literally every time, was magic.

In one, a young teacher worked with one of the other coaches on what to do with students who complete their work early in class. He noted that some of his students rushed through their work and would begin socializing at the end of class and it became disruptive. He wanted them to remain quiet and busy. When questioned, he noted that the students that finished their work early also often did well on their assignments, so he didn’t have the leverage of poor performance to get them working. After some conversation, and working through our summarizing and clarifying questioning techniques, I asked, “Does it upset you that they finish early, even though they’re doing well?”

His response was a vehement, “YES! They don’t act the way I did in school! They don’t push themselves to do more.” At this point, it may be obvious, but we went from discussing the first-order barrier of keeping student busy during class to the underlying, second-order barrier of a perception that his students have different motivations or possibly work ethics when it comes to a topic this teacher is passionate about. It was really quite a breakthrough facilitated primarily by his conversation with a colleague. What resulted afterward changed the direction of the conversation and the types of support he was offered.

That type of breakthrough seemed to happen each time one of my groups completed their role play. At another school, one of the coaches pretended to be a teacher we observed and started out asking for help on using a technology, but her colleague helped uncover that the teacher was really seeking approval from her students. In another, a veteran teacher had a conversation with her younger colleague that began with frustration with students and parents. She had been trained in and was trying more student-centered pedagogies and her students were pushing back. They “just wanted to know” what to do without having to take on so much responsibility for their own learning. The underlying challenge her colleague uncovered was that this new approach changed her role in the classroom so much that she was feeling a bit uncomfortable. It was very different from what she, and her students, had done in the past, but she felt the gains in learning were well worth it. In all of these conversations, having someone—a trained someone—to share concerns and open up became a great catharsis.

These teachers are lucky because they had someone to talk with. Upon completion, these newly certified Dell Mentors will be additional resources for the school district to support more collegial conversations. Having a trusted someone to talk with about your teaching–whether a coach, an administrator, or another teacher–is an important component for helping teachers feel and be successful. I appreciate the honor of working with so many coaches and teachers and look forward to learning more from them in the future.

Please note: Over the past year I helped develop the process for Teachers and Mentors to become Dell Certified and was happy to work in two school districts that had educators successfully complete the process. This work is coordinated by Advanced Learning Partnerships for Dell Education. 


Ertmer, P. A. (199). Addressing first- and second-order barriers to change: Strategies for technology integration. Educational Technology, Research and Development, 47(4), 47-61.

Knight, J. (2007). Instructional coaching. A partnership approach to improving instruction. NSDC.