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Developing Resilient, Equity-Conscious Teachers

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Few would argue that support for new teachers is what it needs to be in its existing forms, but rather than critique current practices, I’d like to offer an approach to coaching and mentoring for new teachers that could be transformational.

Let’s start with the ultimate goals for a new-teacher support program. I’d argue that a program’s goals should be to cultivate teachers who find joy in teaching, who yearn for professional growth, who are leaders among their peers, who are able to respond to the challenges and stresses of the profession, and who stay in the classroom and refine their practice for at least seven years.

To develop educators like that, I believe new-teacher support programs must be linked to schools’ moral imperative to meet the social, emotional, and academic needs of every child, every day. To that end, the overarching objective of a teacher-support program should be to enable teachers to use their energy and skills to interrupt educational inequities within their own classrooms and schools.

Let’s name the challenges faced by new teachers that many current mentoring or coaching programs don’t address. My observations are heavily influenced by my 20-plus years working in urban education, but I’ve seen new teachers in suburban and private schools dealing with these same challenges, perhaps with different degrees of intensity. I categorize these challenges as:

  • Managing the physical, cognitive, and emotional load of teaching.
  • Dealing with the range of stressors.
  • Finding work-life balance.
  • Developing positive relationships with students and parents.
  • Understanding kids and parents who are different from them—who are of a different gender, race/ethnicity, or class background.
  • Teaching students with learning differences.

These challenges are individually distinct, but I believe two capacities underlie the ability to meet all of them: emotional resilience and cultural competence. These are two areas that have been poorly addressed by new teacher-support programs, but they are the keys to the above delineated goals. What’s needed in schools today is a transformation model for coaching that closes the gaping holes in current support programs and helps educators build these central capacities.

Three Domains of Coaching

The transformational coaching approach that I recommend addresses three domains of who we are as educators. First, it explores the behaviors that lead to effective teaching, which include the instructional practices that most traditional instructional-coaching models address as well as an additional set of specialized capacities.

Transformational coaching also explores and surfaces the beliefs that educators operate from—about teaching, learning, children, and themselves. Finally, this coaching model explores ways of being—the ways in which our sense of self and identity impact our experience and efficacy as educators.

These three areas—behaviors, beliefs, and being (call them “the Three Bs”) are the cornerstones of transformational coaching. By using coaching strategies to address the Three Bs, we nurture resilient educators who can build equitable schools.

Coaching Behavior

When a transformational coach supports a new teacher in developing the core behaviors necessary for teaching, we also include in that massive skillset the seeds to becoming resilient and culturally competent. To identify these abilities is a big step in coaching—they have often been thought of as secondary, soft, or less important than lesson planning, for example. But a transformational coach approaches classroom management from an equity stance and coaches a new teacher to get to know students as a way to “manage” a class, to use culturally responsive strategies, and to build relationships with parents as a means to support students.

A transformational coach might also be intentional about encouraging behaviors that cultivate emotional resilience, starting with the fundamental self-care routines like sleep and lunch that so many new teachers skip. We also intentionally guide a new teacher in navigating relationships with colleagues, being attuned to those who will be most supportive to developing a positive mindset about students and the community we serve, and who will provide stories of hope, success, and growth.

Transformational coaches also work on routines and procedures, lesson planning, and assessment tools, guided reading and so on, but we go beyond these basics of pedagogy to address the behaviors that will result in teachers who recognize and interrupt inequities, and who are resilient in the face of the endless stream of challenges in schools.

Coaching Beliefs

This model of coaching has transformational potential because we also dig down to explore the underlying beliefs from which behaviors emerge. That’s the first thing to know about beliefs: They lurk beneath the surface of all of our actions, although we’re not often conscious of what those beliefs are. It’s also important to understand that of our beliefs, some are powerful and serve us and the children in our schools, and some need to be changed if we are committed to serving each and every child.

And finally, we must recognize that beliefs can change. They can feel entrenched and solid (in ourselves and in others), but they can be transformed. They are essentially just strongly held opinions, and we all know that we can change our minds about things. A coach can help a teacher lift those beliefs to the light so that we can make informed choices about the beliefs we want to operate from.

When a transformational coach explores beliefs, and in particular when we explore beliefs about race, class, and gender, we work from a perspective of curiosity and compassion. We also acknowledge our social, political, and economic systems are riddled with the reflections of systemic racism, and that we have all absorbed these messages for many years.

Here are some steps to help new teachers explore beliefs.

1. Recognize beliefs. Hone their ability to recognize the reflection of a belief. We don’t always express our beliefs by using the word “believe” in the sentence; we’re unlikely to hear, “I believe that low-income students of color need more control and order than other children.” But these beliefs might be expressed in statements such as “Well, these kids need discipline.” Our beliefs are often below the surface of our discourse.

2. Prepare for exploration. Very few teachers will go into the deep, scary cavern of beliefs, particularly beliefs that may be distorted, if they don’t trust their coach. So coaches must work hard and be intentional to build trust with teachers before inviting them to explore their beliefs. Know also that you need to do some of this exploration of beliefs for yourself before you invite someone to explore theirs.

3. Invite exploration. You can only invite reflection—you can’t make anyone dig into their beliefs. Here are a few examples of what it sounds like to invite reflection on beliefs in a coaching conversation:

  • “I hear that you are making some assumptions about your English-learners/boys/students with learning disabilities. Is this something you’d be willing to explore?”
  • “I’m curious about how you arrived at that conclusion. Would you be willing to share your thoughts with me?”
  • “It sounds like you’re holding a belief about the kind of discipline approach that works best with your students. Could we explore where that belief came from?”

4. Deconstruct and reconstruct beliefs. You’ll need to learn how to gather and use data (such as surveys, video, and coaching observations) in order to help a teacher see how their beliefs are playing out and what impact they are having on children. With this data, you can create new beliefs. (The concept of the “Ladder of Inference,” which I write about in my first book, The Art of Coaching, can be very useful to understand how to do this as a coach.)

A coach needs keen interpretive and verbal skills in order to effectively coach around beliefs, and therefore, may need his or her own ongoing professional development with a trusted group of colleagues, or perhaps from a more experienced coach.

Coaching Ways of Being

The third domain in which a transformational coach works is in the domain of being. Our way of being emerges from our sense of identity, which is reflected in our emotions and expressed through non-verbal communication. We can explore ways of being by asking questions that elicit symbolic thinking. Here’s my favorite question to ask a teacher to explore a way of being:

  • What kind of animal do you feel like you are in the classroom?
  • And sometimes, as a follow up: What kind of animal do you want to be?

These questions allow us to explore how the teacher is coming across in the classroom and can be a powerful way to coach a way of being.

When we coach ways of being, we can cultivate mindsets, behaviors, and beliefs that are resilient, compassionate, and willing to take risks. We can foster the qualities that are necessary to cultivate champions of educational equity. If, for example, a teacher states that she wants to be a lioness in the classroom, we coach her to a vision of power and confidence. The teacher has identified a goal; we guide her through the backwards planning: How does a lioness deal with a setback? How does a lioness respond to an irritating request from an administrator? The teacher links her vision for herself to her daily actions.

The following questions also indirectly explore ways of being and touch on beliefs:

  • What do you think that exchange you had with that student was like from her perspective? How do you think she experienced you?
  • Are there any other ways to understand that student’s behavior? What do you think led to your interpretation of her behavior?
  • What do you think that student might say to his mother about his day when driving home from school?
  • How do you want that student to see you or remember you?

A Holistic Approach to Support

The realities that teachers experience in the classroom necessitate an expanded and holistic approach to new-teacher support and development and a focus on resilience. The realities that our students experience likewise require an approach that cultivates cultural competency in teachers, that intentionally surfaces and explores beliefs, and that fosters the skills necessary to build equitable schools.

Emotional resilience is essential if teachers are going to explore questions of identity, race, beliefs, and inequities—I doubt we can transform our schools without massively boosting our resilience because it is hard and emotional work. But at the same time, we must transform our schools. There are far too many children who are not served in our schools, especially far too many children of color, far too many black and brown boys, and far too many children with learning differences.

It is incumbent upon new-teacher support programs to integrate the strategies that aspire to meet these outcomes, and the transformational coaching model I have outlined is a powerful approach to doing so. Yes, this approach takes more time, and yes, coaches themselves need intensive training and support to develop it—but what we’ve been doing isn’t producing the results that many of us hope for. It’s time to try something different.

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