Education Opinion

‘Coaching Is Harder Than I Thought’

By Elena Aguilar — February 05, 2013 3 min read
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A coach who asked to remain anonymous sent this email to me last week:

This is my first year coaching after 15 years in the classroom and I had no idea that coaching was this hard. I'm really struggling and don't know what to do. I work with 8 teachers, not too many, I have a great boss, and mostly I like this work. But it's SO hard! I'm completely exhausted by the end of every day, I'm always questioning what I'm doing, and I really wonder if I'm helping anyone. Was it this hard for you? Is it this hard for all coaches?

Dear coach,

I’m sorry you’re experiencing a rough transition into this new role. I wonder about what preparation you had for becoming a coach and what you knew about what it means to coach, because yes--coaching is really hard! I don’t know if this was your perception before, but I have often heard comments like, “I want to become a coach because I need a break from the classroom,” or “Coaches have it so easy.” Every time I hear of someone seeking a position as a coach because they are tired of teaching, I cringe.

I love coaching, but it is cognitively, emotionally, and sometimes even physically exhausting. (Sitting for long periods of time drains me--I miss those days of teaching and moving around all the time). If I could make visible what goes on in my mind when I’m coaching it would constitute volumes. I try to listen deeply, listen for what is said and not said. Then I need to quickly analyze what’s been said--what is this teacher or administrator saying and asking for? And then I need to construct a question that is appropriate to what’s been said. Finally, I need to consider whether there’s some action I could propose that would help my coachee learn--should I suggest we pull out student data to look at? Or read about an instructional practice? Or engage in a role play conversation? I need to be acutely, constantly tuned into the coachee’s nonverbal communication so that I can make sure I’m maintaining trust. I also need to make sure that whatever I’m saying or suggesting is within the coachee’s zone of proximal development. It’s my responsibility to facilitate his/her learning--there’s a lot to consider in order for that to happen.

Adult learners are different than kids--similar, but also different. Adults have lived longer and in some ways are more complex learners. Which means that coaches need more skills.

Let me be provocative: did you ever think that teaching was easy? I’m going to guess that after 15 years in the classroom you have a deep appreciation for pedagogy. I never cease to be amazed by how complex teaching is. So why would coaching be so different? Coaching is a complex form of teaching, of professional development, of guiding another person in a learning journey.

There are a few things in your email that make me think you’re on the right path. First, it sounds like you have a manageable work load, some support from your boss, and that you like your work. Those are really important conditions of being a successful coach! It also sounds like you’re thinking deeply about what you’re doing--also a good sign! I wonder how your work is organized, what you’re coaching on or towards, and how you can measure the impact you’re having. We want coaching to result in changes in teacher practice, which result in improved outcomes for students. So how can you focus your coaching on a few high leverage instructional practices, and then design a learning path so that your teachers can improve in those areas, and finally, recognize and document their growth? Their growth and learning is your impact.

My first years coaching were really hard. I had no idea what I was doing, or how to do it. I sought out other coaches to learn from and read everything I could get my hands on. Becoming an effective coach takes time. I’m in year 7 and learning more and more every day.

There are a couple practices I’d suggest to help you refine your skills. First, start planning your coaching sessions. Reflect on where your coachee was the last time you met, where you need to guide him/her to in this next session, and then design questions to do this. If you can, it always helps to record your coaching sessions so that you can listen to them and reflect on them later. After a coaching session, reflect on how it went. How did your coachee respond to your questions and suggestions? What did you notice about how he/she engaged in the conversation? Where do you think you might need to guide him/her next?

Coaching can have a deep impact on a school’s culture, on student learning, and on teacher practice. It’s worth the struggle to learn this craft. I hope you’ll stick with it. Like anything, it gets easier with practice.

How about other coaches out there: Was coaching harder than you thought it would be? How did you improve your coaching? What advice would you give this coach?

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