Questioning Coaching Commitments When a Teacher Is in Crisis
By guest blogger Lizzie Salzfass
"I support you. I'm here for you." I heard myself saying this to my client, but I was feeling less and less sure about it. I wanted him to succeed, to turn things around in his classroom, to learn and grow and actualize his goal of becoming a strong and effective teacher. But how much—and for how long—could I ethically "support" someone whose challenges were so directly and so adversely impacting so many eighth-grade students?
I subscribe to Elena Aguilar's model of transformational coaching: Effective coaching can guide clients to change not only their behaviors but also their beliefs and ways of being. This teacher was open to coaching and committed to improving. I had pledged to work with him as much as necessary. The questions remained, however: Is it fair for a student to wait out their teacher's transformational process? What about the content they needs to be learning right now? What about their sense of self as a learner, their self-esteem?
Working with this teacher was presenting me with a moral quandary. Only four weeks into the school year, I was already hearing constant complaints about him from other teachers and students.
"My students are coming from his class to mine and they're exasperated," teachers would tell me.
"He doesn't teach us anything!" the students in general would tell me.
"He always sends me out!" the Black students would tell me.
"I hear you," I would respond. "I'm working with him. Don't you see me in the back of the classroom with my walkie-talkie and him with the earpiece in his ear?"
Then, during the fifth week of school, frustrated by the student behaviors he could not manage, this teacher, an older white man, said something to two of his Black male students about how they should behave because they would get fewer chances in life, fewer chances in high school. If he had built trust with these students beforehand, they might have "heard" what he said differently and assumed positive intent. But that was not the case.
All his students—not just the boys to whom the comments were directed—were outraged. They ganged up in support of one another, in solidarity against a teacher who was now perceived to be a common enemy.
Suddenly my words felt hollow. "I'm working with him," I repeated. I continued to dedicate time to his classroom doing real-time coaching and helping individual students who were frustrated, angry or lost. I also reached out to our Restorative Justice (RJ) Coordinator so that he could attend that class to run an RJ circle. I spoke to some of the more vocal students one-on-one outside class, listening to their experiences and showing them they mattered. I had them write things down. I read what they wrote and found it appalling: "He thinks I'm retarded," one said. "He doesn't want us to succeed."
What was my role here? As his coach, was I supposed to double-down on my work with him, sharing literature and videos, mediating conversations with students and do whatever I could to shore up his major cultural competency gaps? Or should I break confidentiality by going to the principal and suggest he send the teacher packing? Could these students afford to wait out this teacher's learning process?
I decided to do both. Following the RJ circle, I sat down with the teacher for a coaching conversation, to see if the circle had helped him appreciate the students' perspective and understand why his comments were so harmful. I asked him this directly several times. He didn't know the answer. Finally, I let him read what one of his students had written about him. "This is heartbreaking," he said. "I don't know what to do with this."
I also talked to the principal, breaking confidentiality. I told him it was urgent, that this teacher needed to have his feet held to the fire; he was doing harm. Something needed to be done.
Within a week's time, the teacher was gone. Transferred to another site—to Special Ed of all places (no training in that, either). It was made to seem like the teacher's choice but ultimately the principal didn't leave him an option.
Am I glad he's gone? Largely, yes. I'm glad for the students. I'm glad they won a victory, knowing their words and opinions matter. But it's a sad situation. Sad and unjust that such an unqualified teacher ended up in this position in the first place. Sad that it was so hard for him, a man with so much privilege, to see something that to his students and many others was so clear. Sad that I didn't get to see if my coaching efforts could pay off and if I could transform his methods and this situation. Ultimately, as Elena helped me to understand, the teacher's growth timeline and the students' needs timeline just did not match up. In the end, the students must come first.
Lizzie Salzfass is an Instructional Coach in the Oakland Unified School District, (Oakland, CA) who strives to promote equity and cultural competency through professional development, new teacher "Boot Camp" training, and transformational coaching. She will be presenting sessions at the annual Art of Coaching Conference.