Sunday, July 31, 2022

Transformational coaches and why they matter

I've been listening to a lot of podcasts the past year or so. One that has particularly intrigued me is Against the Rules with Michael Lewis. The second season was about coaches. The first season was about referees, which was also interesting. I recommend the podcast. Period.

But for this blog post I want to focus on the last episode of the second season, "Aim Higher." And not just because he interviews Bette Midler and Emily Blunt, although that is a bonus. As Helen Zaltzman of The Allustionist podcast might say, there is a Category A swear. 

Yes, you should listen to the podcast yourself, although not right now. Or you can bop over to a Medium article that gives you a generalized synopsis of the entire season and the coaching stages I'm discussing from a specifically educational perspective.

For example, at the very beginning, Lewis notes that he's learned a couple of things about coaching because of the series. First, good coaches can make an impact. Please note the adjective "good," but also note that there might be an implication that more of us need coaches. If you listen to any of the other episodes, that will become clearer although I will go on record here that in a prior episode Lewis seems to imply that anyone can be a coach and I might dispute that.

The second thing he learned is that the "people who get the best coaches aren't always the people who need them the most."

I will also note that, to me, this is the most self-indulgent of the episodes but I appreciate that Lewis puts himself through the coaching process with conflicting emotions. In my work as an instructional and administrative coach, I think there are many who have a similar sense of conflict in that they feel like they don't really need a coach so they put up with the process.

So keep that in mind: he put himself through the coaching process with some reluctance as much to be coached as to explore the process and his own response to it. As a coach, I got some really interesting insights.

A little more context: Lewis chooses to work with a voice coach and not just any voice coach, but someone who has worked with people like, well, Better Midler and Emily Blunt. Eric Vetro. Why? Lewis perceived a weakness he knew he could not fix on his own. 

In February 2018, I wrote a blog post about instructional coaches. At the end I remind folks to look for these qualities in a consultant/coach: "mentor, listener, encourager, researcher, curator, disseminator, PD coordinator/collaborator, partner, and learner." Most of that remains the same although I might put less emphasis on PD coordinator/collaborator unless that's what's important to the teachers and the school. I think it's imperative that whoever is a consultant/coach is also a learner. 

Let me note here something about transformational coaching. The model may have first been popularized by Elena Aguilar, author of The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation (2013). Aguilar's model focuses on three domains: beliefs, behaviors, and being. She offers strategies to help the client understand his or her own sense of being--non-verbals and emotions are key indicators. She includes strategies to help individuals understand their behaviors, how they affect others, and what might need to change. Throughout, the transformation coach assists the client in a clearer sense of their being--who they are and who they want to be. Aguila stresses the importance of a coach being a non-judgmental mirror.

In the first 90 seconds, we learn Lewis's strategy has been to hide his weakness. Huh. Now, some of us might say that means we are trying to work to our strengths. But what if our weakness matters? What if that particular weakness interferes in some way with our ability to do our jobs or to pursue our passions? Depending on the weakness, a coach may be the way to rectify the situation OR to find better ways to manage the weakness. Just food for thought.

While Lewis's journey is an interesting one, what I found more interesting is that he identified five stages of being coached.

Stage 1: Mutually beneficial

Vetro won't take someone as a client unless he believes he can help them. Would that be true if he were at the beginning of his career? Based on Vetro's own story, I think so. And based on Vetro's telling of a person with whom he chose not to work, I think that if he believed he could not help someone achieve what they needed and wanted, he would choose not to work with that person. So despite Lewis's self-deprecation, a self-defense mechanism many of us use, Vetro was willing to see Lewis again. And even though Vetro is an amiable and easy-going guy, he has expectations and will hold Lewis accountable.

But here is something else I noted. Vetro gently pushed Lewis to identify what he wanted to accomplish and why. Because Vetro is an experienced coach, he knew there were certain things they needed to do and Vetro likely does with all of his clients. We heard something similar in other episodes as coaches asked a lot of questions to get to the heart of what the person really wanted to accomplish, really wanted to do, really wanted to learn.

So yes, the experience must be mutually beneficial, but if the coach doesn't listen well and doesn't ask good questions and keep listening well rather than mentally crafting a solution, the coachee, the person being coached, is not going to benefit.

Stage 2: The coach gradually takes control

In education, the coach-coachee relationship has got to be a partnership. The classroom teacher has more expertise about what's going on in her classroom than I do because she's with those students every day. And if she's an elementary school teacher, she's with those kids all day every day. The building administrator knows far more about his building than I will ever know. Unless he is new to the district, he knows the history of that building; there are influences affecting him that he doesn't even realize. Yet. The superintendent quite possibly spent her entire career in that school district. She may have taught in one building or even in more than one. She may have been an assistant principal in that or a different building. And so on. She knows something about every single building in her district. She has stories. She knows stories she's forgotten she knows. As a coach, I know what I see and hear from that teacher or administrator or what I observe based on the day or few days a week or a month I am able to be on site, if being on site is even an option.

If my coaching is completely virtual, my only lens may be that person and that person may not be completely honest with me. The dishonesty is typically unintentional for so very many reasons, so my job is to ask questions and to listen very, very carefully. All. The. Time.

At some point, however, the coachee recognizes the partnership and trusts the coach really does have his or her best interests at heart and in mind. Any time there is a need for a courageous conversation, the coachee knows that the coach is pushing for the coachee's best.

In the podcast episode, Vetro sounds a bit exasperated when he asks Lewis why he's still drinking carbonated beverages when Vetro has told him not to. Lewis deflects and tries to joke about it, and while Vetro goes along with joking, it's possible to hear how serious Vetro is. Maybe it seems stupid to force a grown man to stop drinking carbonated beverages as part of his journey to become a better singer, but is Lewis really going to argue with all of those stars who have worked with Vetro?

While the Medium writer identifies this as "controlling behavior," I see it as the coach forcing the coachee to make a choice. 

You want to improve at this thing. You have entrusted me to help you. I have some expertise and I see what you cannot see about yourself, so you have to trust me when I say to stop (or start) doing this thing.

And that will eventually lead to Stage 3: Buy-in

At some point, the coachee decides the coach really does know what he or she is doing and really does have the individual's best interests at heart. If there is more than one coachee in a building or in a district, they will talk among themselves. When they learn the work of the coach is not boilerplate, there will be even less resistance because they realize the coach isn't working with Emily exactly the same way she's working with Bette.

Coaches have to understand that getting to Stage 3 will take time. It is rare that a coachee welcomes a coach with enthusiasm, but it does happen. Whenever the buy-in happens, there will be a noticeable shift in attitude and behavior because the person being coached now gets it and is further invested. It's also possible the coachee will push for more and other because they will have captured a vision of the possible; they will have seen how they might transform and how it will benefit their students.

Stage 4: Connecting to Your Center

In the podcast, Lewis notes that this is the stage at which there is a shift to wanting to be sure the coach isn't disappointed. That is true in some fields and disciplines, but I think less so in education. When the people I coach see me as a partner in their work, they trust me to hold them accountable and, by the same token, they are willing to hold me accountable or challenge me if they think they need to be pushed more. Of course, I'll also hear about it if they think I'm asking too much of them and that's a different conversation. I have to keep in mind that their reasons and expectations for being coached are ultimately about their work with students. This has nothing to do with a spotlight center stage.

Stage 5: Wandering About

Lewis notes that an outcome of a good coach is the coach can persuade the coachee to shift the focus on their attention so they are exploring "who [they] are or might be" (41:00-41:18). 

In the episode, Lewis talks about wandering about after a lesson and that he just keeps singing. That's not really an option for educators, but reflecting on what they've done, what their students have done, and what they all might do differently could be a form of wandering about, at least in the teacher's head. Reflection on a "performance" matters. Reflection about what worked and what didn't and why it did or didn't work is movement towards change and improvement.

Why transformational coaches matter

At some point, an educator recognizes the power of the coach as a mirror, as a trusted partner, and as an accountability partner. Teachers who want to improve their craft are just like any other professional who might get coached to improve their craft or to adjust something in how they do what they do. Think about golfers who have swing coaches and putting coaches. Every sport has multiple coaches for positions and for specific functions of the game.

Teachers are lucky if they have access to one instructional coach once a month. Good coaches know that there may be a list of things that could be changed or improved or eliminated, but it may be that only one thing will help transform how the educator perceives her work, her craft, and her students. So the coach works to get to that one thing even if it takes all year and they touch on other things along the way. Even a small step forward is still a step forward.

Anyone who has done coaching has stories of those who are just going along for whatever reasons and those who are genuinely interested in improving. 

Teaching has always been harder than it looks because the really good teachers make it look easy. I think teaching is just going to get harder and for far too many reasons that don't matter to this particular blog post.

But the teachers and administrators who are willing to try, willing to get coached,  and become willing to participate in the process, will understand how a good transformational coach can help transform at least one thing they do in the classroom. And then they have something on which to build so the transformation can continue.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

The Inner Game and the Educator

Most educators and parents are familiar with negative self-talk: that inner critic whose voice is constantly demeaning, undermining, and otherwise self-sabotaging, though sometimes attempting to excuse an expected poor performance. We can all be victims of negative self-talk.

Teachers are often combating student negative self-talk, and I think there are times they say something without realizing the damage it's doing to them. I had a student who, at the beginning of the school year, would preface every comment with "This is probably wrong, but. . .". Was it wrong? No, it was his opinion and perspective? Did that perspective sometimes need more evidence? Sometimes, but his thinking was "wrong."

Students learn to say "I'm so stupid" when they struggle with something. Is every student adept at math? No. Does that make them stupid? No, it makes them less adept at math than the person who thinks calculus is amazing. Is every student a great writer? No. Does that make them stupid? No, it might mean they haven't figured out they should take that time to go back to proofread their work to fix those fragments or they haven't taken the moment to learn how to recognize a fragment. A student's struggles with something in a content area doesn't make them stupid or bad at that thing, it just means they are struggling to learn that thing and that they're probably putting too much pressure on themselves because they are also comparing themselves to parental expectations or their friends or the teacher isn't very good at coaching or the student hasn't focused enough on learning that thing or. . . . the list goes on and on and could be a combination of a bunch of things. But being stupid isn't one of them.

The other day I listed to a podcast episode about the inner game, which led to how an entire industry of inner mind coaching has developed to combat the inner critic but also just to help people learn. Because the original focus on the inner coach seemed more about focusing on the learner than the instructor.

Tim Gallwey seemed to be a typical tennis instructor when he first began. As I listened to the podcast, I was reminded of my experience with a golf instructor. 

My somewhat short aside. The first time I played golf I was in college and went out with two of my roommates, one of whom was at USF, Tampa on a golf scholarship. We were just out. I was doing okay although I have zip recollection of the score; we were having fun. Somewhere on the back 9 a guy on a golf cart shouted out a pointer or two. The rest of the game was less fun for me. Fast forward some years later and a friend of mine and I would go to the driving range; she had base privileges at the time at Patrick AFB in Satellite Beach, FL. I think she actually played golf, but I was fine going to the driving range and whacking balls as hard as I could and as far as I could. Fast forward some more years; I was (and am) living in IL. Another friend of mine and I decided to go to the driving range; she actually played occasionally as part of a foursome and wanted some practice. I'm in my happy place of whacking balls as hard as I can as far as I can. It's a good stress reliever, that. Then she suggested we take lessons. Okay. Sure. My first lesson the golf instructor was on and on about my head, my chin, my hips, my knees, and I don't even know. But I do know I left that day with blisters, in spite of the golf glove, and incredible frustration. I haven't touched a golf club since.

However, as I listened to the podcast, I also reflected on my approach as an educator and as a coach. I'll just say there were some revelatory moments.

The Coach in Your Head is a really good episode, although it does come with a language warning. And there were some bits I will fast forward through when I listen again as I, personally, didn't find the on-demand coaching bit all that helpful. However, the parts with Lewis's daughter I found really interesting.

You might also watch this MasterClass with Tim Gallwey or this TED Talk with Brett Ledbetter who interviewed 15 coaches who had over 8,700 wins and 21 national champions among them to learn that  "they focus less on the result, more on the process, but they recognize that character is what drives the process which drives the result"

In fact, in distilling Gallwey's work, one of his primary points is that individuals should not focus on the result or the outcome, but on the process. There's a great example in the podcast of Gallwey working with a professional tuba player. It's wonderful and perfectly illustrative. Lewis asserts that maybe that means that everyone can be a coach, and maybe everyone can be a mind coach, but probably not. ;)

The example with the tuba player, with Lewis' daughter, with others is that they were focused on the outcome: being able to make a particular sound, being able to clear the bases, etc. That's outcome. Gallwey's point is that we need to focus on the process first and there is clearly considerable support for that.

So when a student struggles with calculus, it may be partially because that's a level of math in which they're not really interested, but it could also be because there are details and nuances of the process to solve a particular problem they just don't understand. When my students tell me they are terrible writers, well, honestly, that could be true but that's focusing on the outcome not on how they approach any given writing project. Often those students compare themselves to others for whom writing is easier or who just write differently. 

When teachers gush over the student who writes in a particular way, those who don't write that way feel stupid and incapable. But the student I'm thinking about preferred shorter and sparser sentences, akin to Hemingway. So write shorter sentences, I told him. There is no rule that says all essays have to have compound-complex sentences or that an essay that is only compound-complex sentences is better than anything else.
I have several points:
  • We do a disservice to our students when we model something and say something like, "See how easy that is?" It may be easy to us but it may still be opaque to some of our students. We need to be mindful not to give more fodder to their inner critics.
  • We need to help students focus less on the outcomes and more on the process. That's an uphill battle for many of us because of benchmarks and testing, but we all know in our teacher hearts that if students learn the process of solving that particular calculus problem or if they really understand the events that informed a particular historical event or if they have developed strategies to recognize active voice and identify rhetorical choices, the outcomes of their work will be fine. AND, even more important, they will have established a foundation on which to continue to build as they continue to build.
  • Because learning should be, I think, about the process of learning.
  • As we continue to help them develop those skills and strategies and figure out the process, we can also help them learn to quell their inner critic.
For me, this is also a matter of being more patient with students. Just as I do with coaching a teacher or administrator, I have to listen to the student. I have to pay attention to the words they are saying, but also all they are not saying that is expressed in their facial expressions and body language.

At some point, I think I also have to be honest with them they have to do their part as well. I've told students I'm willing to work them but they have to work with me. I know I do them a disservice when I find ways to enable the process so they get the outcome they want. And we all know that helping students to unlearn the value of the outcome is hard work.

If we can help students focus not on the outcome but on the learning and the process to achieve the outcome, they are more likely to achieve the outcome for which they have capability and capacity, which might not be an A or a home run or whatever they think measures their intelligence or worth.

I have one last story (at the moment, for this topic). I was working with a second-grade teacher in a school with a lot of challenges. A second grader was trying to complete a math worksheet in a workbook, so they could look up information or look at examples if they needed. She threw down her pencil with disgust and said to me, "I don't know how to do this!". And when I kneeled down and told her the point of this activity was to learn and reinforce learning, she clearly did not believe me. When I helped her find what she needed in the workbook so she could reason through the problem and solve it, she still wasn't sure. When she checked with the teacher, she decided I wasn't lying to her. When I talked with the teacher, we both realized that even in second grade, students had developed an expectation that they were supposed to know stuff they had not yet learned. That they were already focused on the outcome rather than the process of learning.

Just sit with that for a moment as you reflect on your preparations for the upcoming school year, whether an administrator or a teacher. I know I've revamped lessons four times as I keep thinking about my expectations for my students and my purpose in being their professor in whatever class I'm teaching.