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Big Lessons From a Year of Coaching: Stop Talking and Be Fearless

The end of the school year offers a perfect opportunity to engage in reflection on our teaching, leading, or coaching practice. In addition to writing and providing trainings and doing a whole bunch of other stuff, I continue to coach leaders. At the end of the year, I always guide them through a reflection on how they've grown and what they've learned (you'll find more about that here and the prompts and process in The Art of Coaching) and then I engage in reflection on my coaching.

This year I have five big takeaways, which I arrived at after considering the high and low points of my coaching, my sense of successes and accomplishments as a coach (and the evidence that supports this) and my areas for growth.

I only need a couple good questions

I always tell coaches to talk as little as possible, and yet, I still talk too much. Furthermore, I've realized that I really only need one or two good questions in a coaching session. When I listen to recordings of my coaching sessions, I notice that I might ask up to 15 questions in an hour. Some of those are simply, "tell me more," but I also find that I ask a lot of questions that don't really seem to help the client get anywhere meaningful. And then I ask that one question that packs a reflective punch, and usually when I'm asking it I know it's going to be The Question, and when the client says, "That's a really good question," and I know I've hit the jackpot of questions. I've been working on asking fewer questions, and letting the client talk more, and carefully constructing that one good question.

Lean into the vulnerability

Recently a client that I've worked with for years shared something big and deep. I watched his facial expression and body language shift as he spoke, and I could see his vulnerability in a way I'd never seen it before. This made me feel uncomfortable for a moment—I was taken by surprise, I had no idea he was headed in the direction he went--and saw myself literally lean back into my chair. I recognized my discomfort with his vulnerability, and then I leaned into it—I said to myself, "Elena, don't be afraid."

(I also realized that as much as I talk about emotions and how we need to explore and express them, I'm still a bit more uncomfortable when men express emotions—in this case, it was sadness and fear—and that was a HUGE learning for me. I'm going to think about this a lot more this summer.)

So I took a deep breath, and I leaned forward, and I said, "Tell me more about what's coming up for you." And he did. And it was okay.

Coach the person, not the problem

I practice transformational coaching, which addresses and explores a person's behaviors, beliefs and ways of being. When a teacher tells me about a problem they're having with a student, this means that I don't focus on that problem (the student behavior, let's say) and I focus on the person in front of me and who they are being, what they are doing, and what they believe. This is hard! This is really hard especially when you know things about what someone should (or could) do to address student behavior. And it's not that we never get there as a transformational coach—we do share suggestions, strategies and resources—but we want to focus on the person in front of us and not the problem. We facilitate their exploration of the problem, so that they can come to their own conclusions about what to do. This results in a far more empowered teacher/leader/person than if we were to direct them to get there—and our world needs more empowered people! I tell myself this over and over, all the time, "Coach the person, not the problem."

Don't try to fix things.

And again, this is something I tell others to do all the time—don't try to fix problems!—and I find that I still want to do this. I hear a principal talking about a problem they're having at their site and my inclination is to leap forward with suggestions and ideas and strategies. But when you leap to do this, you strip that person of a tiny bit of their autonomy. You act on an underestimation of what they are capable of. You haven't given them the chance to figure out their own problems—and they know their problems really well. Yes, we all have blind spots and sometimes we can't see other options for action because of our mental models and blind spots and all of that, but in coaching, we always want to give others the chance to figure out their problems. We guide.

I love coaching

My final reflection year is one I've arrived at many times before, which is that I love coaching! I am so grateful to be a witness to the learning that my clients experience, to be present with their vulnerability and struggles and successes. Of the many things that I do in my professional life these days, coaching remains at the top of the things that give me great satisfaction.

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