Education Opinion

Five Practices That Could Transform Your Coaching

By Elena Aguilar — August 02, 2014 6 min read
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I spent last week learning about transformational coaching with educators from all over our country, plus one participant from Kenya! Some fifty teacher-leaders, coaches, and administrators came to Oakland and participated in my “Art of Coaching” institutes and dug deep into the what, how and why of transformational coaching. I love facilitating these workshops and always come away with a deeper understanding of coaching because of the questions that are asked, the connections that are made, the ways in which I’m pushed to think and articulate and share. So first--thank you to all who participated!

Spending so much time this week talking and thinking about coaching pushed me to synthesize and summarize. The information that I offer is massive and often overwhelming; I know that part of my responsibility as a teacher is to point learners in the direction of some of the highest leverage activities and ideas, to help them sift through the heap and walk away able to incorporate some new practices immediately. I want to offer you five practices that I found myself talking about over and over this week, and that have emerged from the lengthy list of transformational coaching practices as ones that could be instrumental, transformational and essential in your work. Try incorporating even just one of these suggestions into your coaching routines and see what happens.

Active Listening

The first highest leverage practice I want to suggest is to use active listening extensively in your coaching conversations. I’m just about ready to make a supreme declaration that active listening could possibly be the number one key to transformational coaching. Just about ready. What I’ve seen and experienced is that active listening is an antidote to the natural tendencies that our minds have to wander when we’re in conversation. It takes tremendous practice to manage our distractible minds, and while I strongly encourage all of us to make efforts towards quieting our minds, I also know that it’s a long journey to a Buddha-like mind. I do practice, every day. And in addition, I use active listening because it reminds me that while someone else is talking, and while my own mind is wandering around, after that person stops talking I will need to respond with some kind of statement that indicates that I non-judgmentally heard what they were saying. Something along the lines of, “I hear that you are really frustrated,” or “It sounds like you want some support in thinking that through.”

When I’m working with new coaches, the absence of active listening is sometimes what stands out the most. It’s the first practice I explicitly teach and one that I think has the potential to shift everything else that happens in the conversation. I’ve written about this already, so read this post and watch this video to explore this idea more. And then try it!

Planning a Conversation

This is the second most highly impactful practice I want to encourage you to do this year. Again, I’m finding myself ready to make supreme declarations about the transformational potential in planning. I’ve also written about this idea in my book and in this blog post and in this one.

Every time I ask coaches to spend 20-30 minutes planning a conversation, they come out of it with almost visible light bulbs above their heads, with epiphanous smiles on their faces. Yes, it is that powerful of an experience. It makes you feel confident and prepared, it deepens your empathy for your client, it warms up your mental pathways so that the words have already coursed through them and are primed to come out in the moment. Planning may feel like something you don’t have time for--but just try it. A few times. Just pick one teacher and one conversation to plan for and see what happens.

Short Observations

A frequent question I get is, “How often should I observe teachers I’m coaching?” In general, I think roughly once a week is good--provided that you always have time to debrief in person. I’m not a fan of feedback in an email or on paper--the debrief conversation can have the biggest impact on a teacher’s practice.

But here’s the thing about observations: I think that they can be as short as 7-10 minutes, and that a short observation can provide equally useful data to what we see in a 50 minute observation. Many observers and teachers have gotten into a mindset that observations should be an entire period. Most of the time, I disagree with this. In order for a coach to gather useful data, the coach needs to be observing for a very narrow and specific instructional practice such as checking for understanding, asking higher order thinking questions, having positive interactions with children, and so on. Most of these practices can and should be observable in within a ten minute chunk of time. Sometimes when we observe an entire period, we’re flooded with data and this overload makes it hard to analyze and share with the teacher.

There are few hard rules in coaching and I don’t want this to sound like one. Coaches need to observe for different lengths of time, different classes, different practices, and gather different kinds of data for teaches to make big shifts in their classrooms. There’s a whole lot more to say and think about observation, but one suggestion I want to make is to see what can happen if you observe for short chunks of time. Especially for coaches who support dozens of teachers, this could be useful!

One Teacher, One Goal

In the era of coaches working with 80 teachers (yes, I’ve seen this in many places) and on 18 different goals for each teacher, I want to suggest that we focus on one teacher and one goal. That doesn’t mean that you neglect the other 79 teachers/17 goals, it means you FOCUS on one. You plan for conversations with that one teacher, you dig deep into what it’ll take to meet that one goal.

When we focus we’re much more likely to be successful, to learn in the process, to inspire others to attempt change, and to see results. This suggestion comes from my knowledge and understanding of how to manage change. Our schools are often operating in ways that are in stark contrast to best practices in making change, starting with this issue of being spread to wide and thin. See what happens this year if you identify one teacher whom you want to go deep with, who you’ll observe every week, and for whom you’ll plan and really prepare. It might be transformational.

Attend to Your Own Professional Learning

My final suggestion for a practice that can transform your coaching is that you prioritize your own learning this year. I always say that we can’t do transformational coaching without attending to our own needs for transformation--and these include our learning needs. There is so much to know and do as a coach: it takes between five to seven years to become a masterful coach and those years need to be full of intentional practice and feedback.

What’s one aspect of coaching that you want to work on this year? Listening? Using analytical frameworks to reflect on what you heard? Trying different coaching stances? Quelling your own judgments about other? Cultivating a quiet and calm mind? Gathering data that shifts instructional practice?

Identify one thing and then create your own learning plan. What are some activities that might help you refine this practice? If you’re going to focus on using different kinds of coaching sentence stems, you can audio record conversations and analyze them afterwards. If you’re doing to cultivate a quiet mind, you could try practicing mindfulness meditation. If you want to focus on strategic coaching conversations, you can start planning your conversations and reflecting on them afterwards.

Our learning is best done with others. Who else might you be able to learn with? Are there any other coaches in your area? Even if you can only find one other person to meet with once a month, you’ll learn a lot more than if you’re alone. (For those in the San Francisco Bay Area, here’s a new opportunity for you to connect with other coaches. I’ll be facilitating it!)

I hope these five practices have spurred some connections for you and inspired you to try something different this year, or to just narrow and focus some aspect of your work.

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