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What Should a Coach Do?

I was recently asked to share my thoughts about what a coach should do. In order to share my thoughts about the five things that a coach must do, I'm going to frame this with a story, so that I can give you examples of how these ideas play out.

I want you to imagine this scenario: I've just started working as an instructional coach in an urban middle school. At this school, coaching is optional. Before the school year starts, one teacher, I'll call her Jane, has told me she'd like coaching. She's in her fourth year as a teacher, teaching 8th grade humanities. She's told me that she's pretty confident in her teaching but she'd like to polish up on some practices. Jane is pretty positive and enthusiastic, and we decide to wait until the school year gets started to launch our work, although she says I am welcome to come into her classroom at any time. "Great", I say, "I'd love to stop by to see what's going on."

The school year starts and in the second week, I decide to stop by her room. I open the door to her room, and the first thing I see is that on both sides of the door there are individual desks and seated in that desk is an African-American male student. I look around the room and see that almost all of the other students are seated in groups of four. Except that there's one other black male  also sitting alone, near the front of the room. I quickly count: there are a total of four black males in this class of 28 students. Whereas the groups of students are engaging in discussions about a text, the students who are sitting alone—the three black male students—are filling out a worksheet, or that's what they're supposed to be doing I take it.

One has his head down, the other one is doodling on his paper, and the third is listening to the conversation happening at a table near him.

Jane has been conferencing with a group of students and when she sees me standing on the side of the room, she comes over and welcomes me with a big smile. "Have a seat," she says and motions to her desk chair. "They just read a persuasive essay and now they are using their academic discussion prompts to share their responses." "Great," I say, as she hands me a copy of the prompts that kids are using.

"I'm curious," I say, "What's going on with those three boys?"

"Oh," she says, "They can't stay focused and on task when they sit with groups, so they have to sit by themselves. It's better for them and the rest of the class."

I let her know that I'll just be there for 10 to 15 minutes.

Now, let me tell you the five things that a coach must do, and what this implies for my work with Jane.

1) Listen: Listening is the foundational skill of a coach. There is no way you can be a good coach if you're not a highly skilled listener. And it's really, really hard. It takes practice. When we listen, we so often go on mind journeys. We hear the words that someone else says, and then we go off: making judgments about what they say, recalling our own experiences, wanting to ask questions, or we space out.

When we listen skillfully, we learn about our clients. We can figure out how to support them on their journey. Our job is not to fix anyone, it's to be a partner with them on a journey—and we can't be a good partner if we don't know them, and we can't know them if we don't listen.

When we listen, we create space for them to reflect and get to know themselves. Our deep, committed listening reflects our belief in the power of the coaching process. We know that by just listening, coaching can be transformational. And so when I meet with Jane, the teacher I'm starting to work with, my first job is to listen. To hold space for her to reflect, to explore herself as a teacher, to explore what teaching is.

2) Learn: Teachers must learn about pedagogy, coaching, adult learning, emotional intelligence, what's going on in the world, and ourselves. We must know ourselves—this may be the most important learning that we do. We must know about our own listening and the judgments we make. We must know our triggers and some strategies for responding to our triggers, to the strong emotions that we inevitably will experience. We must learn about how to take care of ourselves. We must be aware of our areas for growth. We must be engaged in our own process of transformation if we are coaching others.

3) Interrupt educational inequities: This is a moral mandate that I believe we have, as people with privilege. That we have as Americans, as upholders of a democracy. I believe it is incumbent upon us to interrupt inequities.

Let me define what I mean by equity, educational equity, because it's one of those terms that I often hear used in schools without clear definition. So here's the short definition I use: Educational equity means that every child gets whatever they need in order to be successful and to thrive in school every single day. Every child, regardless of the zip code in which they live, the languages spoken at home, regardless of race or ethnicity, regardless of socioeconomic status, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, regardless of ability—every child gets whatever they need to thrive in school every day. Every child, every day, period. And when I say thrive, I mean academically as well as social emotionally—because children need literacy and numeracy, and they need art and science and PE, and they also need community and belonging and love.

And so when we see that there are students in a class who aren't getting what they need and deserve, it is our responsibility to do something. We must learn how to apply a lens of systemic oppression to see, surface, and address the inequities that are rampant in schools. And this means seeing racially disproportionate discipline and suspension rates.

So back to Jane. She works in a district in which one of every three African-American middle school boys is suspended for at least one day per year. In contrast, suspension rates for white males is one of 14. This is also a district where some 35 percent of African-American boys do not graduate from high school.

This means that I have to attempt to do something about the fact that three of the four African American male students in Jane's class were sitting alone. They were isolated from their community. They were not getting access to same kind of learning as the other students. She had determined that they were problems in the second week of school. It is my job to attempt do something about this inequity. And in order for me to be able to skillfully do that, I will also need to know myself, know how to skillfully respond to the emotions that come up for me, and to know a huge bank of coaching strategies for engaging in conversations about implicit bias and systemic oppression. And that's a lot of knowledge and skill to have—and it's my job.

4) Transform systems: Another thing that a coach must do is think beyond the classroom to understand the ways that various systems—from the school, to the district, to the state and the country and the world—impact a student's experience. It's our job to understand those and to also work to change those. This is hard, and it's complicated—but it might start with just aligning grade level practices, or raising questions with administrators or a leadership team about discipline policies. We do not exist in isolation of other things and we are far more effective as coaches if we use a systems thinking approach and work to impact larger systems that deeply affect the work of a classroom teacher and a student.

5) Love unconditionally: Compassion is our most effective tool, or weapon, to transform schools. We must love our students. We must love teachers—including the cranky difficult ones—and we must love ourselves too.

I think that the central paradox of coaching is that in order to be an effective coach, I have to love my client completely. No matter what she says, no matter what she does. I can disagree with things she says and does, I can not like them, but I still have to love her. And at the same time that I have to love her, I also have to remember that I am responsible for the children that this teacher serves.

So when I'm meeting with her, I see her in front of me and I love her. I deeply care about her and I believe in her ability to find the answers within herself and to transform. And while I am in that conversation with her, I also recall the 30 or 130 or 800 students that she serves, and I visualize them around her face—perhaps their little school portraits. And I remember that I am also accountable to them, that I might be the only person who has her toe in the door who might be able to coach Jane around working with her black boys.

I know that in that moment I have to use my strategies to calm my racing heart—because I'm triggered by teachers who seat their black boys by themselves—and I have to stay present and listen deeply and love her.

And that's what a coach must do!

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The opinions expressed in The Art of Coaching Teachers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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