The Utility of a Third Space During Difficult Conversations

At various times when I have been studying or discussing instructional coaching, I've been reminded of the importance of "the third space."  I know what is meant by this, but the thing that is difficult is explaining it in a way that makes sense.  I looked at a few resources in preparing for this entry, and discovered that the concept of a third space is different according to whom you ask.  The closest explanation I found in reading about this concept came from Homi K. Bhabha, a post-colonial theorist.  He shades the idea by explaining that the third space is a place or a topic where oppressor and the oppressed can connect and find some unity.  Like I said, it's close, but it's still a tough pill to swallow when you look at the concept through that lens.

If we take Bhabha's conceptualization at face value, that puts the coach into the position of the oppressor and the teacher who works with them in the position of the oppressed.  While in some cases this could be the case, it most generally is not, since coaches are generally non-evaluative.  What it does recognize is that there is a power relationship at stake here, or at the very least a relationship.  This comes in the form of the coach and the person they're coaching.  In this case the third space is the thing being worked upon in the coaching appointment.  And it functions as a place of consensus and provides the goals for the work to be done.

An example: a coach has been in to observe a teacher, and the teacher had asked for the coach to take data about how often they interacted with students of color.  In addition, the quality and purpose of the interactions were to be noted.  Once the data is collected, the teacher and the coach sit down to discuss outcomes.  The coach noticed that the teacher gave less wait time to students of color, called on them less, and in one case gave a light reprimand for something that only moments earlier had happened with a white student, who did not get a reprimand.  The data has the potential to not lend itself to a pleasant meeting.

But here's the thing.  A conversation like this, if the goal is to move the teacher toward progress, requires that the coach focus on the data collected.  There should be no blaming or shaming, because that leads to negative outcomes and lower motivation to change.  In fact, chances are, that the teacher would already be hard enough on themself and may end up discussing their feelings around the issue.  These should be validated, though not lingered upon, and then re-directed toward the data.  Here's an example: "It sounds like you're feeling some guilt around this right now.  Is that correct?  I'm sure this means you're concerned about your classroom, and would like to see this data change in the future."  At that point, the coach would then return to the data, as a way to make sure that there is not too much time spent watching the teacher beat themself up, or worse, assisting in it.  Emotions are real, but they are not the whole picture.  There is agency in the teacher, and it is the coach's job to build that capacity.

One might think that the third space in this sense is a crutch, or a cheap out.  True, it could be used that way, but that's not the goal.  In fact, it can open the door to a lot of difficult or sensitive issues.  If there is progress in a teacher's work as a result of using the third space, it builds the teacher's capacity, and it creates trust in the work the coach and the teacher are doing together, so that there may be even deeper dives into difficult work in the future as the teacher embarks on their own improvement.

As a coach, the work is hard enough as it is, and at times, I have had to revisit the idea of the third space, because I've found myself diverging from the goals I have set with my teachers.  But when I trust the process, I see that I am able to get back on track.  It's not always easy, because often teachers in situations like this will say things like, "Do you think I'm a bad teacher, because of.... "  I've never told a teacher yes, I think you're a bad teacher or no you're a great teacher.  I bring it back to the data, and help them to unpack their concerns effectively.  I'm not working with them to judge them, I'm working to support them in their growth, and by relying on the third space we can direct ourselves together toward the same goal.  The one right in front of us.