What My In-Laws Reminded Me About Coaching
I have found coaching inspiration in the most unexpected places during COVID. Sure, I’ve learned from the webinars I’ve watched, books I’m reading, and, of course, from reflecting on my own attempts and missteps during this transition to virtual coaching. But, what has been most surprising, is the revelations I’ve had in everyday life - watching my virtual fitness instructors, interacting with my friends during Zoom game nights, and especially from doing yard work with my in-laws.
Like many of you, when my husband and I realized we were going to be stuck at home for longer than initially thought, we began looking for quarantine-appropriate home projects. We settled on a massive lawn renovation project, including removing the current deck, demolishing the existing fences, re-grading the lawn, installing a retaining wall, inserting a paver sidewalk, building a new fence, and planting new garden beds. It’s okay if I lost you there. I have oftentimes felt lost myself during this project. I don’t know the first thing about any one of these tasks. But, here’s the thing: My husband and I had help from my in-laws.
What I realized, as my in-laws showed up every weekend to painstakingly spend the summer on this project, is that they were acting as coaches. Even though they weren’t (and aren’t) experts in landscaping, nor are they professional carpenters, they were still effectively coaching us through this lawn renovation project. (And, were you to ask my in-laws, they would tell you I was a “resistant teacher” in this coaching metaphor.) As I look towards the start of this new school year, my in-laws reminded me that impactful coaches seek to:
Find a shared understanding
They started by getting an understanding of the scope of the whole project and where we wanted to end up. Once we had a shared understanding of our end goal, they helped us break it down into concrete phases of work.
Coaching Takeaway: As coaches, we have to know what our teachers or school leaders want, and be invested in their goals. Having a shared understanding of how they want to grow, and defining together what is necessary and best for students, allows you to jointly create a clear path forward to those goals. It can help to start by asking: “What learning conditions do you want to create for students this year? How do you want/need to grow professionally in this new environment to create that? How can I help you grow?”
Be a thought partner
Our family group chat this summer was filled with yard-related questions, pieces of advice, and tips & ideas that pushed my thinking, made me reconsider, and/or inspired an idea I hadn’t thought of before. I didn’t always like or agree with the ideas for my vision of my yard, but all the ideas helped me to better clarify and confirm what I did want. They didn’t make any decisions for me but, having my in-laws there to ask questions and talk through the decision-making process, helped me to process the information, prioritize, and adapt & adjust course as needed.
Coaching Takeaway: Coaching can help teachers distill the overwhelming input they get to make intentional, values-aligned decisions around their key priorities and end goals. When we’re “in it” we don’t always see our own blind spots, but a coach can expand that vision and, thus, expand what’s possible.
Provide tools & resources
In my yard project, I mean tools in a very literal sense. My father-in-law brought over sledgehammers, drills, saws, a tiller...you get the point. But my in-laws also sent us countless articles they researched, found deck designing software to make our designs, and shared inspiration pictures they found that aligned with our goals.
Coaching Takeaway: As coaches, we find and share best practices videos, tools to analyze student work, and exemplars to study, to help push thinking, practice and beliefs closer to the shared end goal.
Demonstrate what it could look and sound like
While not experts, my in-laws did have some prior experience that helped us along the way. My father-in-law built their deck a few years ago, and my mother-in-law designed their landscaping. On several occasions, we simply watched while they demonstrated what they knew and learned from their experience. When my mother-in-law showed how to transplant plants into new soil, she broke it down, showing and naming easy steps for me to follow.
Coaching Takeaway: Time & time again, teachers and leaders give me feedback that they learn the most when I demonstrate, or model, something for them. Especially as everyone is learning to navigate virtual instruction, the most effective tool can just be to show what it can look like or give language for what it could sound like.
Make time for practice & feedback
After showing me how to transplant plants, my mother-in-law watched me do it. I must’ve repeated “fill halfway with soil amendment, water, wait, and top off with ground soil” several dozen times, asking her to come check my work each time. She noticed what I tried, asked me questions for understanding, and gave me feedback on where or how I could try it differently.
Coaching Takeaway: Teachers deserve safe places to practice new skills with their coach, before implementing with their students. This creates space to practice the new skill or behavior, reflect & make adjustments, and unpack and cement their understanding.
If you’ve ever watched any show on HGTV, you know that these projects never go as planned. We’ve hit numerous roadblocks in materials, skill, and capacity. At one point, we’d done all the research, designed a phased plan for execution, and created a materials list to build our fence, only to find out that there weren’t any fence pickets left in the entire state. (There really are a lot of people doing outside home projects right now.) The entire plan hinged on these pickets! My in-laws just listened, without judgment, while I processed everything I was feeling at that moment, before offering any ideas or solutions.
Coaching Takeaway: We need coaches to help us process our emotions. We are emotional beings, working a difficult job, and now we are in an extremely challenging situation. And we are all coming into this uncertain school year with knowledge gaps (what will hybrid instruction look like?) and skill gaps (how can we make our instruction culturally relevant and anti-racist?) that will evoke strong emotions. Sometimes teachers and leaders won’t even know what their emotions are, but coaching offers the space to elicit, understand & process them.
Hold the space
My in-laws showed up every weekend (and some weekdays!). They were there and I knew I could count on them. Just showing up allowed me (and, sometimes, forced me) to hold the space to do the work.
Coaching Takeaway: Coaches create space for others to do their own reflecting and learning. Holding space and time for these conversations is as important as any outcome. We just need to be there for teachers and school leaders right now.
With many simultaneous and competing demands in education, and less access to tools than before, the expectations feel impossible to meet this year and the consequences weigh heavier than ever. But, within the challenges we are facing, we also have the opportunity to completely reimagine education, which means we also have the opportunity to rethink how teachers can be developed and supported. We need teachers - and teachers deserve support that communicates our trust, centers their needs, and empowers them in an evolving educational environment.