COACHING WITH AUTHENTICITY
This is the first article I ever wrote and submitted to an educational entity in an effort to meet their standard of excellence. Needless to say, my submission was rejected. One day I hope to look back and see the growth in my writing, but also show appreciation for the little voice inside that said “even if you don’t feel like you’re ready, submit it anyway because the trust you have in ME is all you need.” So I say thank you in advance to myself for this fearless post of inspiration. I pray I make your dreams proud.
Ms. Dawson* replied with her usual textbook responses, educational jargon, and polished smile as I went through my coaching feedback protocol to support her instructional growth. My instincts were tugging at my heart because I knew this conversation needed more than a protocol to yield high impact. I knew this conversation needed authenticity.
As an instructional coach, the secret recipe of successfully supporting adult learners is often never found in the systems and processes created for the role. Although extremely valuable and helpful, the reality of what you’re being asked to accomplish is quite daunting. “The work of leading teams does not begin with setting agendas or finding the right protocol. It begins with the minds of both learners and those responsible for leading the learning.” (Macdonald, 2013) If principals lead teachers and teachers lead students...where does that leave you?...right in the middle of the two worlds. You still have a responsibility to impact instruction that not only leads each teacher, but supports your principal as well. Having a clear picture of the type of support you want to provide is critical to the success of such a partnership. In the Art of Coaching, Elena Aguilar explores this type of partnership, “...whether we are appointed to lead or facilitate a team, whether those in our team see us as a leader or a facilitator. Leaders often have more positional or situational authority, which often grants them more decision-making rights. Facilitators are more likely to guide a process and to have either decision-making power equal to the rest of the team members or no decision-making powers at all.” (Aguilar, 2016) Do you see yourself as a leader? Do you see yourself as a facilitator? Or do you have the capacity to manage both and redefine what it means to be an instructional coach?
Most of us have been tasked to work miracles without the power of the pen or the established understanding of the role’s purpose. It’s not uncommon to experience an overwhelming pressure to balance it all, but this is an unhealthy way to thrive. Trying to thrive in this way by supporting the needs of everyone without defining your middle will result in visionless leadership and facilitation. “Knowing who you are as a leader involves a lot of exploration—into your emotional landscape, your personality styles, your skills and abilities, and the cultural construction of self.” (Aguilar, 2016) Learning to work in the middle is a huge investment of your time and effort, not only in others, but most importantly yourself. The contradictory truth of becoming an instructional coach is that you must first invest in coaching yourself as a person without limitations. Tell yourself the truth. Be honest about your intentions and remember that you are still a teacher. “Teaching, like any truly human activity, emerges from one’s inwardness, for better or worse. As I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my students, my subject, and our way of being together...teaching holds a mirror to the soul. If I am willing to look in that mirror, and not run from what I see, I have a chance to gain self-knowledge—and knowing myself is as crucial to good teaching as knowing my students and my subject.” (Palmer, 2007) Defining your middle and acknowledging the internal conflict that exists is a real thing. Transitioning from teacher to instructional coach involves a bit of reluctancy. It’s as if you have left your why, your connection, and your home. It is imperative to realize that a home is what you make it. Dismiss the guilt of feeling like you left something behind; you’ve expanded your scope of impact and simply added more square footage. Knowing yourself as a teacher will help the work you do in efforts to define your middle as an instructional coach. Systems and protocols won’t be able to disguise your motives when faced with the everyday challenges of learning to work in the middle. In order to do this, you must define your role and embrace the identity shift taking place within. Your normal has been altered and it is necessary to adapt to a new set of truths that will allow you to foster healthy, growth-oriented relationships. What type of capacity are you trying to build within the teachers you serve? The role of an instructional coach supports multiple worlds on any given day. Your service will always reflect your intentions. Define the type of instructional coach you want to be and have the vulnerability to answer this question: What does your middle look like?
So about three questions in, I decided to challenge her passive resistance to my coaching support with direct transparency. I began to question her willingness to receive support. I questioned her beliefs. I questioned her values. I questioned her identity as a teacher. Ms. Dawson* seemed taken aback at the thought that I would dare doubt her intentions. I can still see the look in her eyes....it said everything without uttering a word. And honestly, I think she was surprised that I had the audacity to omit the script and tackle the elephant in the room which at the core was her state of mind and with that, she began to share her truths and I listened.
You must understand this one thing. The training I received taught me to script my feedback. The training I received taught me to always have predetermined guiding questions. The training I received taught me many things about how to coach, but one thing it could never teach me is how to be me. My goal as an instructional coach was to support Ms. Dawson’s* development through what I knew to be true....me. And for me to support her in a real way, I needed to be honest. I needed to be authentic. Brene Brown (2010) expresses that “authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It's about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.” What choices was I willing to make? Ms. Dawson* needed to hear the truth about her behaviors, regardless of how indirect they might have seemed, her passiveness was still resistance. Her fixed mindset would soon hinder her capacity to improve instructionally. Macdonald (2013) says that a team member’s mindset influences how receptive he is to learning and change. A teacher with a fixed mindset does whatever he can to continue to look and feel competent among his colleagues." Continuing to put on a good face with scripted support did not reflect the type of support I wanted to provide in that moment; it just wasn’t what she needed at the time and I think she appreciated the fact that I didn’t mind getting to the heart of the matter. My middle had to be defined; I knew my middle needed a coaching style that included authenticity at all times. Mutual purpose had to be established. I think she knew that if I didn’t truly care about her well-being, I wouldn’t have challenged her the way that I did. For me, instructional coaching wasn’t about overcomplicating the obvious, it was about simplifying the obvious by getting to the root cause of the resistance. I knew her heart was in the right place, it just needed to be open to the process again.
What I’ve Learned About Coaching Authentically
Seeing teachers grow right before your eyes, knowing that students are receiving better instructional experiences because of the instructional coaching relationships and practices… I knew I had made the right decision. The choice to leave what I called home, my classroom, was worth it. Now this doesn’t mean that I didn’t stumble along the way. It took years of missteps and right steps to find my middle. If I could give any advice to myself prior to being an instructional coach, it would be to understand that…
1. Resistance is easy. It is the safest place for teachers to live. The act of resisting is a defense mechanism that protects teachers from being vulnerable. Don’t take it personally. Coaching relationships provide teachers the opportunity to create new safe spaces. It is your responsibility to uphold this truth.
2. Change is hard. So, don’t force the change, influence the change. You are more than positional or situational authority. You matter. You have everything that you need inside of you to be of influence.
3. Consistency matters. Beliefs and behaviors must align on a consistent basis. This is where positive impact is cultivated. The teachers’ commitment to the process of receiving coaching support depends on your ability as an instructional coach to be consistent. If you say you believe in something...practice living your beliefs with every action.
In a way, coaching authentically helped me become more confident in being authentic. Think about it...who’s better at being you? Coaching is about service and support. Develop trust in yourself and believe that your innate abilities (the gifts or genius you were born with) will lead you on a path that clearly reveals your purest intentions to coach in the first place.
*Names have been changed to respect the privacy of my clients.
Aguilar, E. (2013). The art of coaching: Effective strategies for school transformation. San Francisco: Jossey- Bass, A Wiley Brand
Brown, B. (2014). The gifts of imperfection: Let go of who you think youre supposed to be and embrace who you are. Charleston, SC: Instaread Summaries.
Knight, J. (2018). The impact cycle: What instructional coaches should do to foster powerful improvements in teaching. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, A Sage Company.
MacDonald, E. (2013). The skillful team leader: A resource for overcoming hurdles to professional learning for student achievement. Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press/Learningforward.
Palmer, P. J. (2007). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teachers life. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.