Two Essential Conditions for Essential for Collaboration:

Active Listening and Norm Setting

For this week, my investigation into the ISTE Coaching Standards focuses on Standard 3, Collaborator. Standard 3a emphasizes that coaches establish trusting and respectful coaching relationships that encourage educators to explore new instructional strategies.

In his book Peer Coaching: The Power of Collaboration, Les Foltos refers to a conclusion made by Garmston and Wellman that “collaboration needs to be taught and learned.” As a teacher, that makes sense. I expect that most teachers have collaboration as a learning goal and are intentionally teaching their pupils collaboration skills. But I was most struck by Foltos’ subsequent observation that, “These aren’t the kinds of skills that educators pick up intuitively” (2013, p. 79). Teachers are teaching collaboration to their students, but are they practicing collaboration?

Collaboration is the New Normal

One of the most amazing transformations I have observed over the past six months is in the area of collaboration. Prior to the Covid-19 lockdown getting teachers to collaborate with a peer coach would have been an uphill battle. Since March, 2020, teachers have been reaching out to each other asking for help and offering their own expertise. There is a level of vulnerability I haven’t seen before. Teachers are using the challenges of the lock down and forced remote teaching to raise their game. There is a collective cry of, “I’m going to try something new to reach my students; if I don’t know how it works, I’ll ask a teaching buddy; if it doesn’t work, I’ll try something else.”

Teachers are more open to peer-coaching, but as a peer-coach, I don’t want to take advantage of their time and willingness to engage. Foltos’ observation that collaboration skills are not intuitive means that, as a coach, I need to be intentional about practicing collaboration skills. Foltos suggests that the two foundations for successful collaboration are communication skills and collaboration skills.

Communication and collaboration skills are a prerequisite to successful collaboration.

Les Foltos, Peer Coaching:The Power of Collaboration

Active Listening is foundational to successful collaboration

I’ve always considered myself a good listener, but was rather humbled when I read the following eight listening habits to avoid in a post on Education World’s blog titled, Top Tips for Active Listening. I know that without intentionality, I fall into the trap of each of these. So often I have to bite my tongue and practice the 80/20 rule – patient, intentional listening for 80% of the time.

If you, like me, have a difficult time with active listening, here are some suggestions from the Centre for Creative Leadership:

  1. Limit distractions. Silence any technology and move away from distractions so that you can pay full attention to the other person.
  2. Pay attention to what is being said, not what you want to say. Set a goal of being able to repeat the last sentence the other person says.
  3. Be okay with silence. You don’t have to always reply or have a comment.
  4. Encourage the other person to offer ideas and solutions before you give yours. Aim to do 80% of the listening and 20% of the talking.
  5. Restate the key points you heard and ask whether they are accurate. “Let me see whether I heard you correctly…” is an easy way to clarify any confusion.

The most important coaching competency, according to Coaching Journey, is Active Listening.

Coaching Journey: Active Listening is the most important coaching competency.

Setting norms is foundational for a collaborative partnership.

While thinking about norm-setting, I was struck again with the thought that this is something teachers do so well with their own students, usually at the beginning of the year – we set norms and protocols (classroom rules) for our students and we may even have a poster somewhere in the classroom as a reminder of how we engage respectfully with each other. Just as we teach active listening, we teach norm-setting, both are necessary skills for collaboration that should be practiced.

Johnson and Rodman, in their article Collaborative Learning for Educators, highlight the need for schools to create a culture of coaching. They remind us that, “collectively, we crave thought partners, individuals who both push our thinking and hold us accountable for progress.” But, it is the last line from their article I love most: Coaching others is people work, not process work, and connections matter. This statement is a reminder that collaboration is fragile. When we are working closely with people we need to thoughtfully honor their time, their expertise, their goals and their dignity. Connections matter. One way that coaches and their learning partner can ensure a strong working relationship is to proactively set the rules of engagement – the norms.

Coaching others is people work, not process work, and connections matter.

I laughed out loud when I read the following in a paragraph from The Power of Team Norms, by Kathryn Parker Boudett and Meghan Lockwood, titled Leaning into Joy:

When norms that support equitable participation come alive, people start to feel like they can bring their full authentic selves to their team’s work. They can spend less time silently fuming and more time laughing out loud at how many reminders everyone needs to live up to the expectations for inclusive teamwork that they have set for themselves.

Oh dear, the number of times I have ‘silently fumed’ in meetings and professional development that have not set any norms or ignored the norms that have been set. My pet peeve is when a meeting runs over time. What’s yours?

Johnson and Rodman suggest that coaches co-develop norms. They suggest that, “Norm-setting lays a foundation for communication and allows team members to celebrate progress while engaging in healthy and productive crucial conversations.”

Les Foltos would agree. He suggests that it is trust-building when coaches set norms together with their learning partner: “If you think about norms that encourage discussions of ideas instead of people, show respect for the ideas of others, and assume positive intentions, it should be fairly clear how these norms build the kind of relationship essential to successful coaching” (Foltos, 2013).

Basic Norms

Here are some basic norms that should be established at the beginning of a coaching partnership:

  • start and end on time
  • listen carefully to each other
  • keep student learning paramount
  • presume each is acting with the best of intentions
  • speak clearly, honestly, and respectfully
  • judge the idea, not the person

All the readings I have done specifically on norm-setting have suggested that for meetings to be efficient and beneficial norms should be re-visited before each meeting and changed or added to as the need arises.

My big take-away from this investigation is INTENTIONALITY. To be a successful coach I need to honor my learning partner by LISTENING (actively) and by being PREDICTABLE (sticking to the norms.) Honestly, neither are my strong suit … so grateful that these are skills that can be practiced.


Foltos, L. (2013). Peer Coaching : Unlocking the Power of Collaboration. Corwin.

ISTE Standards for Coaches. (n.d.). Retrieved October 19, 2020, from

Johnson, B., & Rodman, A. (2019, November 19). Collaborative Learning for Educators. Retrieved October 25, 2020, from

Lee, H. (2015, January 30). The Most Important Coaching Competency – Active Listening. Retrieved October 25, 2020, from

Parker Boudett, K., & Lockwood, M. (2019, July). The Power of Team Norms. Retrieved October 25, 2020, from

Provini, C. (2012). Best Practices for Professional Learning Communities. Retrieved October 25, 2020, from

Top Tips for Active Listening. (2013). Retrieved October 25, 2020, from

Use Active Listening Skills When Coaching Others. (n.d.). Retrieved October 25, 2020, from