I spent this weekend at a training for instructional coaches (read: teachers’ teachers) that covered the art of coaching and how to be an effective coach for teachers. I am not a coach. I had no real reason to attend the training other than feeling like I needed to learn more, and do more to learn, and engage more actively with the opportunities I was being provided.
But somehow the past two days have been much more than that. They’ve been strangely transcendent, opened my eyes to a lot of things, and brought me to a sense of clarity I’ve rarely felt before.
Only a small portion of this experience was tied directly to the workshop. It focused at many times on self-reflection in thoughtful and intentional ways, which I think I needed. But the real catalyst for everything was the roommate I was assigned by Teach for America, which was paying for the cost of my attendance and hotel for the training. She just needed someone to stay with at the hotel and I, always the odd man out, fell straight into that box.
I was nervous about having a roommate because meeting people is awkward and deeply uncomfortable. Sometimes I hit it off immediately with people, but more often than not, I get a lot of dead air and empty space. My roommate immediately suggested we get dinner, and I was thrilled. I got to meet someone new in a nice way, and I didn’t have to spend my night alone!
At dinner we talked — I explained that I’d had some frustrations with my job and in interactions with my coworkers, but that I recognized I was taking a deficit mindset and needed to think about what I could do and acknowledge what is possible. My goal, and the goal I’d set for myself at the training, was to learn to communicate toward positive change in a way that would promote teamwork among colleagues, rather than a sense of opposition. My roommate told me: You see this bright, hopeful future for your kids. Your colleagues may not be there, they may never be there. You have to walk back and take them there with you — the same way as you recognize you have to do for your students.
In a lot of ways, I suppose, everything culminated in this weekend, this dinner, the immediate and clear realization of my own ability. My frustrations had been building for a while, and were beginning to be worked through as I realized I needed to focus on what I can do rather than what I can’t. That came in tandem with the slow realization that if I wanted to make any kind of real difference, I couldn’t do it from an oppositional place. That would just mean that if I ever left, there would be fewer people left to keep doing the work toward that vision. I couldn’t do it alone — and I had to do it with the trust, love, and teamwork of the people I’d felt I was battling all year.
That in concert with my teacher evaluation, which indicated the same things: Molly, you need to learn how to work with people.
At dinner, my roommate said: “You’ve had an excellent career as a solo artist. You just don’t know how to be in a band yet. And that’s okay. You’re learning.”
The thing about coaching, I learned in this workshop, is that it’s in large part about guiding someone toward learning in a way that allows them to reflect on themselves and change their practice based on their new understandings. It’s a lot like therapy (of which I am a huge proponent). Your job isn’t to tell someone else what to do; it’s to work with them as a teammate and an ally to learn where they are able to improve and grow. Now, I’m not a coach, but my job is to partner with teachers — to be their teammate and ally. In trying to fight in the way that I knew for the change I believed in, I was also doing a poor job of being a teammate and ally.
A component of the training was also the idea that coaches self-reflect. It starts with the coach’s learning about their own growth. In one exercise, we were asked to write down and analyze a scenario of a teacher that coaches may have to work with. Since I was not a coach but the kind of teacher that coaches were coming to this training to talk about, and I’d been thinking a lot about self-reflection and my own ability to change, I wrote my own situation down and considered how a coach might approach me. This was, I think, the big moment where the switch flipped for me.
I need to stop focusing on my colleagues and their interactions with me, I thought, and focus on myself and how I am interacting with them. I do not need to learn these coaching skills so that I can communicate with them right now — I need to learn these things in order to reflect on myself. I have to start with me.
All this time, I’ve been thinking about myself and wishing I had more support, wondering how I can make changes when things seem stagnant, angry that I didn’t feel like I had enough room to move. I never really considered taking a moment to sit still — to observe the world around me — to build relationships and come to love and believe in the people I worked with the way I so naturally was inclined to do with my students.
Students are not always ready to learn or try new things — they carry a lot of baggage — learning and changing is hard and scary — and adults are not much different. I know I have ideas I want to share, but to disregard others’ expertise and ideas because of my passion for my own carries with it a dangerous movement toward disregarding others in general, and treating them unkindly and unfairly.
There is absolutely an urgency to providing the best education possible for our students as soon as possible. But education has to be a long game too. Because if we don’t bring people with us on the journey, then nothing sustainable exists when we leave. So maybe I can’t do it all right now — that’s okay. Better to do it in partnership with the people around me in a way that becomes sustainable than to leave behind a wake if ever I go, a rut of dark water and air that will fill up upon my leaving and end in silence and stillness, as if I were never there.