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How to Coach a Teacher in Crisis

The first time a teacher I coached broke down in uncontrollable sobs and told me she was going to quit, six weeks into the school year, I panicked. My mind lunged to my insecurities: This was proof that I wasn't a good coach, that I didn't know what I was doing; another coach would have prevented this. From my anxiety, I made promises to the teacher that I couldn't keep ("I'll co-teach with you, everyday!"). I adamantly assured her it would get better ("Everyone goes through this! Just hold on until after Thanksgiving!)". I hurled suggestions and ideas and resources at her like a hail storm. She cried and cried. I passed her a box of tissues and my anxiety escalated. "It'll be okay," I kept saying.

Here's what not to do when a teacher is in crisis:

1. Don't panic. Don't get sucked up by your own fears about your performance or worth.
2. Don't talk and talk and talk.
3. Don't make promises or predictions—not about what you can do nor about what will happen.
4. Don't go into fix-it mode.

I've coached a lot of people who quit their jobs. Sometimes this makes me feel sad and a little insecure. But their decision had little to do with me or my competence. I also refrain from passing judgment on whether their quitting was a good or a bad thing—that's not my job as a coach. Yes, it was hard on kids to loose a teacher six weeks into school but it's not my place to judge. And yes, the teacher I just told you about in the opening of this blog quit. And it really sucked. Even more so because I'd played a role in hiring her and so I felt even more insecure and incompetent. But this blog isn't about me, nor was her decision to quit.

Here's what to do when a teacher is in crisis:

  1. Stay calm. Breathe. Tell yourself, "This has nothing to do with me and what I need to do right now is be present for this person in distress."
  2. Be quiet. Listen and listen and listen. Say, "Tell me more...." And then use paraphrasing to reflect back what you heard, "I hear you saying....did I get that right?"
  3. Ask the teacher what they're feeling. See if they have language for their emotions (see this as a resource for you and possible for the teacher: Most Common Emotions.pdf). If they don't have language, try saying something like, "I hear that you're feeling anxious." See how they respond. Be cautious about labeling the emotions of others, but sometimes it's helpful.
  4. Communicate absolute acceptance and unwavering compassion for the person in distress. Do this through your body language, eye contact, and posture. The teacher is feeling scared, afraid of failing, and afraid of the judgment of others. If you notice judgmental thoughts arising in your mind, acknowledge them, and banish them. Now is not the time. You can revisit your judgment later, but now be present for your distressed teacher.
  5. Ask, "How do you think I could be helpful?" See if the teacher can identify what she needs. By doing this, you subtly communicating confidence that she can tune into her own needs and articulate them. You're saying, "I know the strong part of you is in there. Come on out."
  6. When I've asked, "How do you think I could be helpful?" what I've heard most often is: "I just need to talk and just have someone listen." Which is why you need to be quiet. And be a good listener.
  7. Pass the box of tissues. And don't be freaked out by tears and snot and strange sounds. If you feel absolutely sure that your physical contact would be welcome, and I mean absolutely sure, you can attempt a little hug or a hand on a forearm. Touch is a powerful transmitter of compassion and assurance and love, but of course, use your judgment.
  8. When you talk, mostly reassure the teacher that you are there to help: "Let me know what you need and I'll do my best." Don't over-promise! But do communicate that your role is to help.
  9. Help by cultivating the teacher's sense of empowerment. Help her figure out what she needs—guide her through this process. In doing so, you'll help build a foundation for the next time things get really hard. Help her figure out what's going on that's provoked this crisis, but do so as facilitatively as possible. Crisis involves fear, fear that we are not capable and cannot manage life. In a coaching conversation, when you incorporate opportunities to reconnect with and act from an internal sense of power, you defuse that fear.
  10. Check in on how the teacher is taking care of herself on a most basic level. Ask, "How many hours did you sleep last night?" And, "What did you eat for breakfast? Lunch?" And if you get directive or insistent about anything, do so about self care.
  11. Walk. Once the initial intensity of emotion has subsided, suggest a walk around the neighborhood. Physical movement helps us process emotion. Sometimes when coaching someone in crisis, I ask if they'd like to walk; other times I just say, "Let's go for a short walk," and then I get up and we go.
  12. Once the intensity of emotions has subsided ask, "Would you like to think of some ways to manage what's going on? Do you feel ready to create a plan for some next steps?" When they say yes, make a do-able plan with only 1-3 next steps. Anything more will be overwhelming. Guide them to identify the highest leverage steps. This may be hard—it can be challenging to identify those high leverage steps or how to sequence them. But do your best.
  13. Determine the next time you'll talk or meet, or when you'll check in on them again. You might say, "I'm going to text you tomorrow morning to see if you slept," and of course, don't forget to do that.
  14. As you close the conversation, ask them how they're feeling. Ask them what helped them shift their feelings in the conversation. Ask them what they learned about themselves. You might also genuinely thank them for their honesty and vulnerability—but be careful not to make this about you. Keep your appreciation brief and short.

A Caveat: It's very important to know the indicators of clinical depression and anxiety, and to know when to suggest that someone call their doctor for help. Some research suggests that up to 10 percent of educators (teachers and administrators) experience depression and anxiety—this is far higher than the average population but it also doesn't surprise me given how hard our work is. If you have any doubt about the mental well-being of someone you're coaching, please raise this with them. In those cases, here's what I say:

"I really care about you and I want to make sure you're taking care of yourself. Do you know the symptoms of depression/anxiety? Do you have concerns about whether you might be depressed or anxious? I'm wondering if you've thought about checking in with your doctor?"

If the person says yes to any of these, then I nudge toward action. I ask when they will call their doctor and make an appointment. And then I follow up to make sure that happened. Of course, you need to be cautious when raising this—some people won't respond well to being pushed in this area, but if you're concerned about their well-being, you may need to do that. Use your judgment.

More than anything, don't get freaked out by crisis. It's a normal part of life. It happens. We can all learn from crises—our own and those of others. They can make us stronger and more resilient. A truly transformational coach can learn to be with someone in crisis and remain curious, compassionate, humble, and open to whatever happens.

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