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Desert Highway
Thoughtful writing authored and shared by members of of the Thinking Collaborative community to support others on the journey.

Sustaining the Journey

Coach as Ethnographer and Designer

Authored By:

Thinking Collaborative


August 20, 2018

A qualitative case study of three coaches uses metaphors to capture their lived identities. The author deeply explores the relationships with a principal who was a partner to the coach (engaged and collaborative with the coach), one who is interfering (engaged with the coach and not the staff), and one who is neglectful (disengaged with the coach). She analyzes the thinking and actions of the coach in each scenario and provides great insight to assist coaches who may be working in similar contexts. The overall conclusion of her research is, “The environment shapes what each coach does and the coach influences the environment.” Wheat Townsend explicates the complexity of the coaching position and assists those studying the position in ways to think and act in order to do authentic context-specific coaching. This week we will briefly explore Wheat Townsend’s findings for the second case study of Ryan.

Ryan worked in an elementary school with a fairly negative climate. He respected his principal and was aware that they had very different styles. The principal came to Ryan seeking understanding of issues within the school and sometimes actually spoke to the fact that she couldn’t understand why the teachers came to Ryan instead of to her. Ryan felt the staff had two styles: one group who wanted to be told what to do and one who genuinely wanted to by inquirers regarding their work. Ryan saw the principal as authoritative and someone who was inconsistent in her responses often confusing the staff and sometimes interfering with the ongoing work of the staff with mixed messages. He believed it was important to collaborate with the principal and took a nonjudgmental stance about her style, instead focusing on how to move the school as a whole. In doing so, he became an ethnographer, a student of the culture, and a designer, one who intentionally created experiences to build on the climate and culture of the school.


As a teacher, Ryan had been a kid-watcher. He was easily able to transfer those skills into observing the culture. He was conscious of the necessary cautions of being a participant-observer as well. His main sources of data were observational, noticing patterns of behaviors, communications, norms, and use of language. He also carefully paid attention to the unusual. Much of the ethnography work focused on understanding the principal and her impact on the work of the staff.


As a designer, Ryan was required to consider how his observations might serve him in designing strategies that would not only support effective instructional practices but also move the culture of the school. He carefully integrated practices shifting back and forth and integrating observation and design, seeing them working fluidly as one. Working holistically required a much greater emphasis on the principal than we saw with Taylor as Ryan’s designs had to address the conflicting messages and even misrepresentations by the principal.

Integrating Ethnographer with Designer

Ryan’s two identities required high consciousness as they were so intertwined, each one informing the other. He was constantly moving from one to another. Because of the pattern of interference and conflicting messages from the principal, much of his work as designer focused on the principal.

The Work

Instructional coach observes principal behaviors to design

Coaching Moves

Studies principal leadership approach

Designs experiences to enhance collaboration with the principal

Observes principal response to teachers and students

Designs coaching conversations to use with the principal

The Work

Instructional coach observes the unusual in the usual to create opportunities for shared learning among staff

Coaching Moves

Identifies contradictory messages sent by the principal

Creates common understandings among staff

The Work

Instructional coach takes an emic perspective and collaboratively designs products to enhance the school experience

Coaching Moves

Observes how adult actions influence students

Designs products collaboratively with staff

Ryan wisely saw the need to collaborate with both his employer (the principal) and the staff (the consumers) in designing processes and products to serve the whole school. He demonstrated the importance of the coach working not just with instruction but with the systemic influences in the school that impact climate and culture. His intentional coaching of the principal in a nonjudgmental way allowed him to have systemic impact.

This week, again, consider the following questions:

How important is the relationship of the principal to the coach?

How does the climate of the school impact the work of the coach?

How can a coach maximize effectiveness given the context of the school?

How does the identity of the coach impact his/her work?


Wheat Townsend, J.D. (2016). Context-Specific Coaching: Discovering the Complexities of Using Coaching with Teachers and Principals (Doctoral dissertation).

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