How dialogue and coaching build teacher agency

By Deirdre McCracken on November 30, 2021 in Leadership

Educational leaders are well aware of the importance of enabling teachers to take charge of their own learning in their professional settings.

In essence, teachers having agency as learners. Through our work with various leadership teams in schools, we have been reflecting on what it takes to effectively coach teachers and empower them to take responsibility for their own professional learning. It takes deliberate attention to and the development of the micro-skills that contribute to open and honest dialogue.

Many of you know that we work in partnership with estimeed educator Joan Dalton. Our Leading Adult Learning team and Joan have pooled their wisdom about what leaders can focus on when building teacher agency, and engaging in the dialogue of coaching to help that agency.

Teacher discussion

“Why is coaching effective?”

This is a question we often get asked by leaders and teachers in our Leading Adult Learning work. Firstly, let’s explore the meaning of each of the key words in the title of this post.

When we refer to dialogue, we meet far more than having a chat. For us, dialogue helps people to freely and creatively explore issues, listen deeply to one other and suspend their own views in search of the truth. Teachers who engage in dialogue have access to a larger pool of knowledge and collective brain power. The main purpose of dialogue is to expand ideas, not to reduce them. It’s not about a point of view being accepted as ‘the one’, but rather exploring every point of view put on the table, and agreeing to do what is accurate and fit for purpose.

Dialogue helps teams to be open to ideas, engage in effective communication and build trust. To promote an environment that supports dialogue, it’s important to:

•    Ask questions: Clarify what others are saying, and ask others if they understand what you are saying.

•    Make suggestions: Build on your teammates’ ideas. Acknowledge their contributions and integrate their ideas into your own suggestions.

•    Encourage others: Have the courage to express your ideas and the consideration to listen to others. Make it a point to encourage others to contribute at least one new idea.

•    Ask for feedback: Ask others what they think of your ideas and give constructive feedback on other people’s ideas.

•    Look for common ground: Share and build on everyone's ideas, looking beyond the positions to the deeper issues. Identify areas of agreement or “common ground” to serve as a foundation for positive discussion.

Secondly, let’s connect dialogue to teacher agency. We all know about learner agency, but how often do we make the connection between learner agency and teacher agency?

Teacher agency is about having the power and choices to be active in your learning, and about making decisions that make a positive difference to your professional growth as a teacher, and to the rangatahi you serve. Being able to engage others adults and your learners in dialogue about your practice is a hallmark of an agentic teacher.

But, seriously. Why is coaching effective to promote teacher growth?

By design, coaching is purposefully differentiated and flexible. Leaders who coach teachers provide targetted, timely feedback that addresses the teacher’s areas of concern.

An effective coach:

•    has expertise but is not necessarily ‘the expert’

•    positions themselves as a learner

•    focuses on enabling growth of the other(s)

•    unlocks untapped potential

•    builds trust with the teacher.

Coaches support teachers by provoking thought to deepen the teachers’ thinking. An effective coach keeps the student outcomes in mind at all times and helps the teacher to do the same.

Learning conversations - dialogue that promotes learning

Teachers are engaging in deliberate dialogue in various ways to empower and enable each other, be it with their ākonga, their colleagues, whanau, iwi, or the wider community. For many in education these are known as ‘learning conversations.’ By doing this, teachers are positioning themselves as learners and inquirers rather than knowers and tellers. It is a more inclusive and collaborative approach. As we look to the future there is a need to develop the education system as a learning system.

This aligns nicely with teachers developing their ability to hold a learning stance during conversations and to nurture their inter-personal capability. Teachers are doing this in deliberate ways. For example, they do this during:

•    team hui

•    Professional Learning Community (PLC) kōrero

•    Practice Analysis Conversations

•    collaborative teaching opportunities

•    restorative practice kōrero

•    āko teaching and learning in the classroom

•    Professional Growth Cycle (PGC) coaching conversations.

Wonderfully, participation in the new Professional Growth Cycles encourages and supports leaders to facilitate such learning conversations. We are all expected to focus these conversations on improving teaching and learning, and developing a common understanding of the Standards or Nga Paerewa in our own context, and what meeting and using them in their practice looks like.

Through coaching teachers can gain agency over their professional learning which is key to continuous professional growth. Embedding effective coaching into a school’s system, structure and routine can have a positive and significant impact on teacher improvement. Developing effective coaching capability requires us to hone particular skills in order to effect teacher agency and meaningful shifts in practice.

“While our world, and our understandings of learning and knowledge may have changed, many of the ways we talk together and the language we use is caught up in old paradigms and past ways of thinking.” Joan Dalton, 2010

For teacher agency to be enabled, leaders need to be deliberate about empowering their teachers to take responsibility for their own professional learning. One of the best ways is to do this is to engage in ‘learning conversations’ with a coach.

In part two of this blog, we’ll look at the micro-skills of effective dialogue.

If you wish to learn more about how to develop a highly effective learning conversations and coaching in your own context, we have variety of workshops on offer next year. We can work with you directly in bespoke ways personalised for your Kāhui Ako, kura or school.


Dalton, J. (2010). Learning Talk: build understandings. Hands On Educational Consultancy PTY Ltd.

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