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Don't Give Up on Coaching a Teacher

"How do I know when to give up on a teacher,?" the coach asked. "I've given her so much coaching and she really isn't improving. She tries and tries, but she's not getting better."

"How long have you been working with her?" I asked.

"It's been about four months," the coach responded.

"Not yet, then," I said.

Thumbnail image for aguilar_patience.pngMy response wasn't just because four months isn't very long. This wasn't a technical answer—it's impossible to assign constraints such as a set number of months around a learning journey. My response had to do with the coach in front of me who was visibly frustrated with her teacher and who was contemplating "giving up." My response came from my understanding of the dispositions that a coach needs in order to do transformational work.

Six Dispositions of a Transformational Coach

As a result of my work training coaches, as well as from my own experiences, I've identified six dispositions that a coach must demonstrate. In conversations where the coach is anchored in these dispositions and speaks and listens from these dispositions, the coach has the potential to cultivate powerful change. This is what often makes the difference—this place that the coach works from, rather than a carefully crafted sentence stem or a probing question. I'm always watching for evidence of these dispositions, considering what it looks and sounds like to act from them.

These are the six dispositions:

  • Compassion: Demonstrates unwavering compassion for all.
  • Curiosity: Is insatiably curious about others, what is possible, and one's self.
  • Trusts in the coaching process: Is able to manage their own ego and be open to possibility; recognizes that the journey of transformation is a long one and isn't caught by urgency.
  • Humility: Is aware of and appreciates the reciprocal nature of learning and the potential for their own improvement through the process
  • Appreciation: Is genuinely grateful for the opportunity to work with others.
  • Learner orientation: Consistently reflects on their own learning and development and actively seeks out ways to develop in skill, knowledge, and/or capacity; models transformational leadership and demonstrates awareness of how they are perceived by others; attends to own transformation; identifies professional areas of strength and growth; feels inspired and energized to continue developing.

Trusts in the Coaching Process

When the coach asked me about "giving up" on a teacher, what I thought of was the phrase, "recognizes that the journey of transformation is a long one..." She had described an underprepared new teacher who was a difficult situation. I listened to her report on the coaching strategies she'd used and I suggested some additional ones. I offered strategies to pay more attention to the teacher's Zone of Proximal Development and to gradually release her into the new instructional approaches she was adopting—I suspected that the coach had too quickly released this new teacher into too many new approaches. (This is a common challenge for coaches—we often don't scaffold the learning enough for the teachers or leaders that we work with).

I also said this:

"As a coach, your job isn't to determine when to give up on a teacher. Your job is to believe in her potential, to coach and coach and coach her, to put your own anxiety to the side, and to recognize that the journey of transformation is a long one. Your job isn't to make judgments on the pace at which she's learning. At some point, an administrator may need to make that call—but that's not your job."

I know that for many coaches it's hard to trust in a process that you've never experienced as impactful. I recognize that I can't just tell you to trust this process. I also know that you may not feel equipped with the skills and knowledge to make coaching effective. Most coaches get so little training or ongoing PD in coaching. It's incumbent upon us to get that training—to advocate for our need and right to be learners and to refine our craft. And then we can trust in the coaching process. It works.

Transformation is Ugly

If we are truly coaching for transformation, then we need to pause for a moment and consider that the journey of transformation isn't always smooth, easy, linear, or pretty. In fact, in the context of coaching in schools, if we're exploring beliefs (particularly beliefs about race and gender and equity and so on) then it most likely should get ugly—we're going to need to speak about some hard things. We'll need to hear those hard things. We'll need to explore our own hard things.

As a symbol for transformation, the butterfly has done us a disservice. The process of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly has been romanticized and idealized—which has given us distorted notions of what transformation looks like. In her novel Regeneration, Pat Barker describes a doctor who "knew only too well how often the early stages of change or cure may mimic deterioration. Cut a chrysalis open, and you will find a rotting caterpillar. What you will never find is that mythical creature, half caterpillar, half butterfly...No, the process of transformation consists almost entirely of decay."

The process of transformation consists almost entirely of decay. The early stages of change may mimic deterioration.

I think that within our human world, within the domain of school transformation, we've wanted a transformation process that's clean, quick and beautiful, and it is none of those things. It is slow and tedious and messy and occasionally contains decay, and we have to be patient and trust in the coaching process.

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