Education Opinion

Coaching Educators’ Strong Emotions

By Elena Aguilar — November 13, 2016 5 min read
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If you are an instructional coach, it’s likely that at some point in your work with a teacher you’ll encounter emotions, but I anticipate that this coming week, many educators will experience intensified emotions in response to the presidential elections. Be it during our normal weeks of coaching or in this upcoming one, emotions may be identifiable in someone’s tears or words, or unspoken and just under the surface.

It is predictable that we will come across emotions as we discuss lesson planning and classroom management because we are human and humans have emotions. And it is essential that an instructional coach has an understanding of emotions and a basic tool set to respond to them. When we coach teachers, we must remember that we are coaching—and talking to—a human being, and to recognize and honor their humanity is a coach’s primary mandate.

Educators’ Emotions Are Normal and Pervasive

Educators experience strong emotions because this work is deeply personal, because we are in buildings with vulnerable little people, and because we’re often confronted by unfair and unjust situations in schools. Teachers, coaches, and administrators often feel unappreciated, emotionally fatigued, triggered and challenged, impatient and urgent, and a whole range of additional feelings. And yes, sometimes we experience joy and satisfaction and love as well.

The emotional terrain of the teachers and administrators that I coach is usually rough, rocky, and complex (as is my own). I anticipate that this week, when I show up to coach my clients, their emotional terrain will be even more rough, rocky, and complex (as is my own) due to the election. The upcoming week calls on me to be even more prepared to coach emotions.

Suggestions for Coaching Strong Emotions

Acknowledge the emotions. Help put words to the experiences. “It sounds like you’re feeling a lot of emotions. I hear anger and sadness. Does that sound right? What else are you feeling?” The Most Common Emotions is a useful tool to develop basic emotional literacy and to understand what we are feeling.

Validate the emotions. “There’s nothing wrong with having those feelings. They are a part of your experience right now and that’s fine. Many people share those feelings.” You might or might not briefly share some of your own feelings. This depends on the person and on you and on the moment. I might say something like, “I’m feeling a great deal of sadness right now also.” And I’ll leave it at that.

Invite reflection. “Would you like to tell me more about how you’re feeling? You are welcome to do so if you want.” When people are experiencing strong emotions, I’ve found that if you give them some time to reflect, the intensity passes more quickly than if I try to push them aside and steer us back to our agenda.

Know your role. Don’t get freaked out by someone else’s emotions. It’ll be okay. Cultivate awareness of your own emotional response to their emotions. Your role is not to fix their emotional state or to be a therapist: your role is to hold some space for them to have their emotions and to share with you if they want. You don’t need to probe about where the emotional experiences come from—but you can invite reflection.

There’s a fine line to explore in here. When inviting reflection, you might say, “I hear that that interaction with that student’s parent raised strong feelings in you. Tell me more about what came up in that moment and how you understood what happened.” This is different than saying, “I hear that that interaction with that student’s parent raised strong feelings in you. How do you think your experience with your own parents affected how you responded?”

A coach doesn’t dig into someone’s psyche or childhood. A coach acknowledges emotions, creates some space for them, and offers space for reflection. If a teacher takes that reflection into their childhood experiences, a coach might carefully redirect the conversation. That can sound like this, “I hear that your interaction with your student’s parent caused you to reflect on your own experience with your father and his anger. It sounds like you might have some more learning to do about your childhood and some healing to do. Where do you think you might be able to do that? Who might be able to support you with that?” You might even say, “I really care about you and I’m recognizing that as your coach I don’t have the skill set to discuss what you’re raising. It sounds like someone with knowledge and expertise about psychology would be helpful. I want you to get your needs met. Where do you think that could happen?”

Invite curiosity. When the emotional intensity subsides just a little, you can invite your client to get curious about the emotions they’re experiencing. Sometimes I ask, “If your sadness could speak right now, what would it say? What does it want you to know? What What’s it’s story? What does it want you to do?” Or I simply say, “Tell me more...” over and over. And although that sounds like it might be annoying, it works.

You don’t need to fix someone else’s problems or emotional state. Given a safe space, a compassionate listener, and a few good questions, your client can take themselves where they need to go.

Go into actions only when invited. At some point, as your client moves through emotions, they might want to talk about action. They might say, “What should I do?” Or “I’m thinking about...” Follow this lead and use your coaching strategies to help them think through their options, to broaden their sense of possibility and potential, to reconnect with their own power and agency and to explore the possible unintended consequences of certain actions. But go here only when they are ready--not when you’re tired of hearing about their feelings.

Take care of yourself. The elections surfaced many feelings in the people I coach, as well as in myself. As I prepare to meet with my clients this week, I know that this preparation includes caring for myself. I doubt that I’ll be fully “together” by Monday morning when I meet with my first client, but this weekend, I am giving myself space and time to explore my emotional terrain so that I can be as ready as possible to hold space for others.

Emotions Can be a Source of Energy

Finally, remember that our emotions can be a source of energy—they can fuel us to create equitable schools and a better world. Our anger can move us to action and our sadness can bring us into deeper community with each other. We do not need to learn how to “manage” or “control” our emotions: we need to learn how to embrace and harness and even enjoy our emotions. And as coaches, even as instructional coaches, we need to learn how to recognize, respond to, and appreciate the emotions of others, as well as how to help them embrace and harness their emotions.

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The opinions expressed in The Art of Coaching Teachers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.