How we Talk About Teachers Matters

This is my eighth year as an instructional coach, and in that time, I’ve had the opportunity to witness tremendous growth and change. I feel fortunate to be a partner in this work, to be aware of what is (so often) going on behind the scenes.

I’ve learned to be patient, to have great faith in people, and to pounce like a wildcat when a window opens.

Just as I believe all kids can learn, I believe that all educators can learn. Everyone is coachable. We don’t all learn at the same pace (like kids), and we don’t all find the same learning relevant (like kids). Most importantly, we don’t all benefit from or require the same level of support along each learning endeavor.

As a coach, it’s easy to go where the obvious energy is. To make assumptions that the teachers not seeking out coaching have no interest in learning. Now, obviously, I know this isn’t true. But if even sometimes I allow myself to make a decision around who/when/how to collaborate with a teacher with an assumption like that in the back of my mind. . . How might I be contributing to in-equity around teacher learning in my building?

Which teachers might be missing out on opportunities to learn and to share their expertise because of how their readiness or potential is being (mis)interpreted by others?

I just finished reading Shane Safir’s article in the March 2019 issue of Educational Leadership, “Becoming a Warm Demander.” She makes a compelling argument that the coaching stance of instructional leaders with teachers should parallel an equity-centered teaching stance in the classroom. Through an example from her own teaching life, Safir illustrates how her own learning (and the experience of a particular student) might have been dramatically impacted by an administrator who not only believed in her capacity to problem solve a challenging situation, but who trusted her enough to coach (not consult) her through it. (If you have not yet read her piece, I highly recommend it.)

According to Safir:

“. . . Warm demanders are instructional leaders (coaches, principals, assistant principals) who expect a great deal of their colleagues, convince them of their own capacity to improve, and support them with a range of resources and coaching moves” (Safir, 2019).

I would expand Safir’s clarification of the term instructional leaders to include all teachers—to all members of a professional community. The learning embedded in our daily work with colleagues and kids is powerful, and the stance we take toward each other can reinforce or sabotage the coaching stance of our administrators or instructional coaches.

Most of this embedded learning (if we’re doing it right) is happening outside of the traditional staff meeting or professional development session. Teachers are collaborating in ways that shine a light on our stance toward each other. Trusting relationships are essential both within and across grade level teams. In our school, the PLC process has transformed our collaboration from surface level and congenial to truly interdependent. We no longer teach or learn in silos.

And yet, sometimes I’m aware of an undercurrent of thinking and talk about colleagues that can only be described as deficit-based. Language we would not use when talking about kids that is sometimes creeping into the shadows of our conversations with and about each other.

What does deficit-based language sound like when we’re talking about colleagues? It’s not that different from language we know is not okay to use when talking about kids: He can’t. . . she won’t. . . that group will be resistive. . . well, you know that team. . . her students always/never. . . It’s not pervasive, by any means. It’s the exception and not the rule. And yet. . .

What is the impact of this kind of talk (or even thinking) on professional communities?

What does this deficit-based language communicate about our own mindsets for learning (even if it’s only happening a little)?

I keep thinking about these questions, because deep down I know that their presence in a professional community (even if it’s just a little) is corrosive. It is a data point around our culture that matters.

If we really believe that all teachers can learn, in what ways do we make that belief visible? How might we apply what we are learning about equity for students to our work with adults? If we are not holding each other to high expectations because we carry a belief that not everyone is capable, then we are denying colleagues equal access to their full potential. We are limiting ourselves as a professional community.

Playing this line of thought out a little bit. . . Do we invite all colleagues equally into conversations and learning experiences? Do we show all colleagues the respect of engaging in cognitive conflict, or do we make assumptions about how certain colleagues will respond and avoid challenging conversations? I would argue that those are the exact types of conversations that lead to the highest levels of reflection and growth (for all parties).  

When certain teachers aren’t offered opportunities to be in the mix—to grow their practice, their perspective, or even to potentially correct the misconceptions held about them—our professional communities fracture. This kind of deficit-based thinking reinforces the divisions between professionals and erodes trust. Excluding (or dismissing) fellow learners because of fixed beliefs about who they are as educators or human beings (or who we think they are) communicates a lack of belief in their capacity to grow and change. This type of thinking also implies that what we think or believe is “right,” and that we are not open to better understanding other perspectives or practices.

As educators, shouldn’t we share a belief that everyone has the capacity to grow and change?

Shouldn’t we speak up when when we recognize in-equity rearing its head in our professional interactions, as we would do when we see it happening in relation to work with students?

A line I loved in Shane Safir’s piece was when she differentiated between calling someone “in and up to their fullest potential,” rather than “calling them out.” Calling someone out is evaluative, whether it is coming from an actual evaluator or from a peer. Calling someone in and up to their fullest potential is collaborative, side by side, professional to professional. Choosing not to have the conversation at all because we assume another professional isn’t capable of learning or change—or rationalizing that the conversation will be uncomfortable because we assume this individual will surely disagree with us—this is putting a cap on someone else’s potential.

And isn’t this exactly what the equity movement is striving to make everyone more aware of? We don’t want to place biased-based limits on kids, on our colleagues, or on ourselves. Once we decide that we are forever “right” and a subset of others are forever “wrong,” we have stopped learning ourselves.

Change doesn’t always happen quickly—and it doesn’t always happen out in the open where we can all see it—but it does happen. Rather than assuming it’s not happening, how might it impact a community to hold the positive presupposition that it is? Might we look at each other differently? Ask different questions? Have different conversations?

Ultimately, it will take more than just leadership adopting the stance of warm demander. We need to take a warm demander stance with each other. As teachers, it is not our job to judge or evaluate each other. We should be supporting each other in growing “in and up to our fullest potential.” We should be creating learning spaces that welcome and appreciate everyone’s strengths and goals.

How we as teachers talk about our students matters. How we as coaches talk about our teachers matters. And how we as teachers talk about each other matters, too. Everyone deserves to live and learn in an environment where his or her capacity for growth is expected, encouraged, and celebrated. We are side by side in this work.

Safir, Shane. “Becoming a Warm Demander.” Educational Leadership. March 2019.


  1. Tamara Jaimes

    This is important and insightful. Now that you’ve shed light on it, I see how corrosive this is to school culture, and I’ll work to call myself and everyone around me “in and up to our fullest potential.”


    1. Amy Ellerman

      Thanks, Tamara. It’s so challenging to speak up in that moment, but I’m finding that some people interpret silence as agreement. I think we have to (warmly) expect (and demand) better from ourselves and others.


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