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How to Coach the 'Delusional' Teacher

"Everything is fine," she said, over and over, a tense grin stretching across her face, her eyes wide but expressionless. Her body was still as she provided highlights of her first few months in our school: The kids are "nice," parents are "involved," she was happy that she'd taken this job and she appreciated my coaching. Caroline (a pseudonym) had moved across the country to work in our middle school in Oakland, Calif. She'd taught for five years but wanted a change, she'd said in her interview.

I was assigned to coach Caroline on integrating literacy strategies into science and math. However, every time I went to observe her teach the strategies we'd planned for, I never saw them. Caroline rarely got through a lesson: She'd spend 20 minutes on the Do Now, going into tangents and minilessons on remote (and irrelevant) topics. Students then disengaged and got distracted, which sent Caroline into a spin as she tried to implement the behavior systems we used as a school. Caroline would often then deliver a monologue about how students needed to take advantage of their learning opportunities so they could "make something" of themselves, and then students checked out even further. When, 30 minutes after the period had started, Caroline attempted to return to her lesson plan, she'd recognize she was far behind and try to rush through the content. Students got frustrated, complaining and calling out, "I don't understand" and "Slow down!," which in turn made Caroline even more anxious and upset.

I observed classes like this nine times before I decided to have a conversation with Caroline about what was going on. I opened this conversation with a simple statement, "Let's spend some time in our meeting today stepping back from our work on literacy and science and just check-in about how things have been going this fall." To which Caroline responded, "Everything is fine!"

Everything was not fine. I remember thinking, This woman is delusional. Today, I would not use that word to describe Caroline, but then (many years ago at the beginning of my life as an instructional coach) I thought there was something very wrong with Caroline. Things were not fine at all: To start with - kids weren't learning, and she looked miserable most of the time.

It took several conversations, over several weeks, before Caroline and I could deconstruct "fine" and before Caroline was ready to look at and talk about what wasn't working in her classroom. While I know it might be valuable to share exactly what I said and what she said in response, I'm going to leap to my learnings and suggestions for how to coach a "delusional" teacher.

Don't use the term "delusional." The first thing I needed to do was to see Caroline differently. When I saw her as "delusional," I was saying there was something almost pathologically wrong with her. I needed to shift my stance, open my heart, and get curious about what was going on with her. I needed to connect with her, and using terms like "delusional" created a barrier between us. I could control how I viewed her, and so I needed to first make this shift in my perceptions because she wasn't delusional, she was scared.

Explore the underlying emotions. When I became truly curious about what was going on with Caroline, I started wondering about what she was feeling. As I observed her nonverbal communication (frozen like a deer, her body tight and still), I suspected she might be experiencing fear. In one coaching conversation with Caroline, I floated this suspicion. I said, "If everything wasn't 'fine,' then what would it be?" Caroline looked at me, her eyes opening even wider than usual, and she said, "I can't even think about that! I'm terrified to consider what it would be if it wasn't fine." There were other feelings mixed in with the fear, including shame, which was reflected in this statement she made: "Sometimes when I imagine that I'm watching myself teach, I'm so embarrassed by seeing who I am and what I'm doing. That's just not me!" There was also some anger mixed in. One afternoon, as we were walking through our school, Caroline said, "I don't understand why they [students] won't listen," her tone more strained than I'd ever heard. "Sometimes they just irritate me so much," she said. Ah, I thought, there's a bit of anger. And there was sadness, too. "I moved here to make a difference for these kids," Caroline shared one day, "and I don't know if I'm doing that, which makes me disappointed in myself and also makes my heart ache."

All of these comments about emotions were sprinkled here and there in our conversations. I never once asked directly about her emotions.

Here's the takeaway: When we experience a thick soup of uncomfortable emotions, one way to respond - when we don't have good tools - is to flatten those emotions and shove them away and look in a different direction and say, "Everything is fine!" Caroline knew that things weren't fine&, but acknowledging the underlying emotions was not something she was ready or perhaps able to do. It also took me a while to recognize and accept that this was something that I, as a coach, needed to include in my coaching - an acknowledgment of emotions. 

Build trust. As I reflected on how I'd coached Caroline over that first fall that I worked with her, I recognized that I'd often rushed into conversations about instructional practices without knowing much about who she was or what motivated her. I also hadn't defined the role of coaching at our school. I didn't realize this until midwinter when Caroline asked me how often I met with our principal to talk about how she was doing. I was surprised - I never met with our principal to talk about the teachers I coached. "What made you think I would do that?," I asked Caroline, who shared that at her previous school, the coach and principal co-evaluated teachers and met regularly. This, as you can imagine, was a moment of epiphany for me. The trust between us was fragile and full of holes.

If you perceive a teacher as being delusional, if they tell you everything is fine, it is most likely, more than anything, a reflection of their lack of trust in you. This could come from actively distrusting you based on things you've done, or it could come from not knowing you or understanding what it is you're doing with them. Learn about what trust is and intentionally build it.

Acknowledge emotions. You don't have to fix what people are feeling. You don't have to probe into emotions. You can simply say (with your voice full of sincerity), "I hear a lot of sadness in what you're sharing, and some frustration, and also perhaps some fear. What do you hear in what you're sharing?" Open a space for emotions to exist and be discussed. We are human beings, and human beings have emotions, and if we could talk about these in our places of work more openly and constructively, we'd be far better off.

Clarify criteria. As I got to know Caroline better, and as she expanded on what was going on in her classroom, I also learned some very important things about her and her previous teaching experiences. What this boiled down to was this: In comparison with the other school she'd taught at, things in her classroom were truly more or less "fine." Kids might be off task, but they weren't fighting with each other every day (as they'd done in her previous school). She didn't get through her lesson plans very often, but she felt that what she was teaching was of far higher quality than the scripted, textbook-based lessons she'd delivered in her last job. Parents hadn't complained about her to the principal (again, as they had in her last school), and so she felt like she was developing a good relationship with them.

As I understood what Caroline was referencing, I saw how she could categorize her current reality as "fine." This made me realize that I needed to be more explicit in sharing our expectations for instruction, student behavior, relationships with students and parents, and more. I needed to show Caroline what "fine," or exemplary, looked like in our school. Just as we show students models of exemplary essays or projects, we need to show teachers what great instruction looks like.

Coaching any teacher is a process of peeling back layers of the onion to figure out what's really going on - which is usually a whole mix of things. As when coaching any teacher experiencing strong emotions, it's always important to slow down, build relationship, get curious, and open your heart.

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