Monday, August 29, 2016

Questioning Game for Coaches

I recently attended a great conference on The Art of Coaching hosted by Elena Aguilar, the author of the book The Art of Coaching . I've read a lot of books on coaching over the past ten years, but Elena's perspective stands out because of her commitment to social justice throughout the text. She helps us move beyond looking only at the interaction between coach and teacher to consider the implications of systems thinking, systemic oppression and change management, among others. Her book is changing how I think about coaching, and I have a feeling I'll be referring to it in future posts as I digest and attempt to apply her approach.

Elena mentioned that in coaching interactions, the coach should only speak about 1/3 of the time. This stems from her belief about coaching, which I paraphrased as: Most of the time, people are able to solve their own problems. Therefore, coaching should be about helping people solve their own problems. To do this, we need to let teachers talk, we need to draw out their beliefs and help them connect these to their actions, we need to tap into who they are being and who they want to be, and we need to understand their core values.

Over the course of the two day conference, I realized that I am much more tempted to solve people's problems for them, in an effort to be helpful and speed things along, instead of doing the harder and often more time-intensive work of helping them grow themselves so that they can solve future problems on their own.

To get better at this, I think I need to start by listening more, so I'm going to attempt something I'll call the Questioning Game. It's based on those Improv game shows where contestants can only ask questions:

I'm wondering if making myself ask a series of questions will encourage the person I'm with to think through their dilemma and possibly solve it themselves. I imagine it might go something like this:

Teacher: I'm really worried about my low group of kids. Their DRA scores show they're reading more than a year below grade level and a lot of them struggle with writing anything more than a couple sentences.
Coach: What have you tried so far?
T: Well, they all go to Mrs. Y for intervention and she's working with them on sight words and some of the comprehension strategies. But they miss most of my writing mini-lesson because they're gone to intervention, so I'm worried that they're falling even farther behind in writing.
C: Do the kids have to leave during that time? Is there a way to rearrange the schedule to make it work?
T: Well, unfortunately the intervention teacher's schedule is tied to everyone else's schedule, so I don't think she can pull them at another time. [pause] I wonder if I could move my mini-lesson back a little so they could be here for that and leave when we do independent reading?
C: Would you feel better about that?
T: I think so. Then they'd get to hear the mini-lesson from me AND receive intervention.

Of course, it can get awkward to answer everything with a question, so if I'm ever at a loss on a question to ask - like the comedians in the clip, there's a point at which you draw a blank - then rather than trying to solve the problem for the teacher, I'll try to restate what they've just said. I find that easier when restating emotions: It sounds like you're frustrated with this situation for instance.

In today’s stressed world, it can be tempting to take the “most efficient” route by solving people’s problems for them. But then they don’t own the solution, and can leave the interaction feeling less energized and empowered than when they arrived. So, my new goal is to ask more questions and act as a mirror by restating the thinking teachers are doing as they talk with me. I’ll let you know how it goes… 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Facing Down Imposter Syndrome

Becoming a coach is not an easy transition. Actually, part of being human is realizing that there are no easy transitions - becoming a teenager, moving to a new home, getting a divorce - most change is hard for us fragile beings.

I suppose much of it comes from discomfort with a lack of control. Most of us like feeling that we know what we're doing, and transitioning to a new place or a new position puts us in a place of Wobble, as my friend Bob Fecho calls it. Wobble is good however - it means we're changing, growing, and learning, becoming more than we were before. But it is also often uncomfortable.

Sometimes, those of us in this period of change subscribe to what is called Imposter Syndrome, or the feeling that we should “fake it til you make it." Imposter Syndrome is that uncomfortable feeling that you SHOULD know something, that others are depending on you for the answers, and that to not know them would appear weak. It can manifest as a feeling of guilt or shame or even in some cases in defensive behaviors such as anger.

I remember as a new coach, in a new building of teachers I didn't know, I felt I had WAY more questions than answers to give people. After several days of telling folks I would get back to them, I didn't feel like I'd helped anyone with any thing. I wasn't at all sure that they'd hired the right person for my job, that perhaps I'd just be better off going back to the classroom where at least I knew what I was doing. I remember wishing I could skip the next two years and just magically become an experienced coach who knew the answers.

If I'd had the words to label what I was feeling as Imposter Syndrome, I think it would have helped. I needed to know this was a perfectly normal feeling for a new coach, or even for a new teacher or new principal. I wish I had confided these feelings to someone, and that they had advised me to enjoy the Wobble that came with this new experience. There would only one time in my life I would be a new coach, and I could learn a lot from the experience if I only let myself reflect on it, pay attention to it, and use it.

If this is you this year, or if your next door neighbor down the hall is new this year (to the school, or the grade level, or to teaching), watch for the ugly evidence of Imposter Syndrome and do your best to squash it. Instead, tell yourself (or the other person) to enjoy the Wobble as a sign of growth. Embrace the chance to stretch yourself. And know that to not know something is never a sign of weakness. It is, instead, a sign of transition as our fragile selves change into something new.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Power of Teachers

Years ago, on the first day of school, Nicholas walked into my classroom. Nicholas was a full head taller than the other kids, and though he wasn't necessarily older, he was much more confident than the other newly minted second graders. He hadn't come with his parents to “meet the teacher” afternoon earlier in the week, so I hadn't been sure he was still enrolled at our school, and yet here he stood at the door to my trailer classroom loudly asking the nearest kid, “This Mrs. Wall's class?” before walking in like he owned the place. His parents were nowhere to be seen - this 7-year-old had gotten off the bus, asked around, found our class, and simply presented himself. It was a perfect depiction of his personality in a nutshell, and it gave me a hint of how he would take charge of my class in the coming days.

Kids like Nicholas are in every classroom in the country. Kids with louder-than-the-teacher voices, kids who expect their classmates to obey them, kids who struggle with reading, and kids with very little parental support. It would have been very easy, that first morning, for me to harden my heart to Nicholas and mentally set him up to be the problem child, the negative mascot of the class who garnered most of my attention and whose name my husband would come to know from my daily rants.

Something was different that year, however, and for some reason I chose to really learn who Nicholas was and try to get inside his head. Perhaps it was because it was the second year I had done home visits with all of my students, and something about seeing these kids' earnestly cleaned bedrooms and their drawings on the refrigerator, and being introduced to the family pet while mom cooked Hamburger Helper suddenly brought into focus where school ranked in the overall picture of their lives. While I had Nicholas in my classroom for 6 ½ hours a day, there was another world in which he lived that we teachers had never seen.

Kids like Nicholas are why I love teaching. The power we hold in our hands as teachers is stomach-droppingly powerful. We decide whether a kid has a good year or a bad year. We can influence how a parent responds to their child, how that child feels about himself, and whether school becomes a place of love and safety or a place of shame and self-doubt. How we choose to respond to a child, every child, contributes to those children's beliefs about themselves and their own abilities for years to come. It's an awesome responsibility, and one we should be fully conscious of as we enter these first days of school.

My hope for teachers as this new year begins is that we all have the contemplative space we need in our days to be fully aware of this power we wield. Here's hoping we can come to understand the stories behind all of our little Nicholas's.