Education Opinion

“How can I Keep Teachers Happy and Energized?”

By Elena Aguilar — September 16, 2012 6 min read
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Dear Coaches,

For years I’ve been craving conversations with coaches and thinking about how there must be other lonely coaches somewhere. So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when after my first post on this blog I received over 100 emails in 24 hours. They’ve continued to pour in from coaches all over this country and the world. There was lots of excitement for the idea of this blog and many thoughtful questions including: What do we do about the “resistant” teachers? How do we coach towards Common Core? How do we coach when there’s no curriculum? How do we develop roles and responsibilities for coaches? And what makes a strong coaching program?

Last week I received an email that pulled on my heart strings and gets to the essence of transformational coaching, the coaching model I practice. Here’s what Meghan wrote:

I'm entering my 2nd year as an instructional coach at a Turnaround school (year three) on the White Mountain Apache Reservation in Arizona. It is isolated, rural, and there are many issues with gangs, violence, health and suicide. The job, teachers, the students, and my principal are amazing. Whew, is this tough work though. We have put many systems in place and it feels as though everything is beginning to tie together. Unfortunately, we received an "F" letter grade (one of 7 AZ schools -- 6 of which are on the reservation, 5 of which are middle schools), even though we grew in the AZ system and had a high "D". Even though the law was enacted this past Spring, the state decided to use past years' data to determine that we were an "F" school -- schools automatically get an "F" after 3 years of underperforming or getting a "D". We attempted repeal, even with the state rep. who monitors giving input, and we were not successful. More over, the entire district is in it's 3rd year for ELL corrective action... and... we are one out of four schools in turnaround. Even though, everything is "coming together", we are exhausted, hopeful and face many challenges beyond our school walls. There is another coach at the school this year, specifically for math. I work with ELA a lot, with math and other content areas. We are well into implementing DDI, RTI, PLCs, Formative Assessment, and most all teachers are putting 100% effort in. Do you have any suggestions on how I can keep teachers happy and energized? We all want so badly to receive a "C" from the state this year and show the world that our students are GREAT!! Thanks for any feedback! And appreciate your blog and communications on coaching.

Dear Meghan,

Here in Oakland, I also support schools that are in a (state-mandated) process of transformation. While there’s been a swell of excitement and energy, we work amidst an underlying anxiety that we aren’t doing enough fast enough. It’s an emotional roller coaster, this journey of school “reform,” “turnaround,” or “transformation,” punctuated by the harsh realities of our inner city: poverty, gangs, homelessness, unemployment and so on.

Like you, I work with a school that has put so many structures in place, that has a fantastic teaching and administrative staff, and that has GREAT students! And yet, the numbers from last year’s test scores still basically give us an “F.” There was growth but that’s overshadowed by the F. I know we’re not alone in feeling demoralized; I know that given the national education context, many teachers, principals and coaches share these frustrations. Given this current reality, what role can a coach play? What can we do, you ask, to help keep teachers energized?

One of the reasons I’m passionate about coaching is because I think we can do what no one else within a school is positioned to do--we can meet these needs, fill some holes, and provide the support to continue the struggle. Here’s what we can do:

1. Coaches can hold the big picture understanding that transformation will take a long time.
Some authorities say school transformation takes 3-5 years. I expect that we should see significant changes within that time frame, including a rise in test scores, graduation rates, and so on. But true transformation happens on the levels of individual behaviors, beliefs and ways of being. That could take more than three years. Real transformation will also require that we change many systems in education--we need to uproot those that don’t work and build others--and this will take more than five years, especially when we are talking about systems that have been inherently oppressive for a long time. Furthermore, in order for sustainable, systemic transformation to take place in schools, there will also need to be major changes on economic and political levels--we can’t get around the fact that our schools need more money and that we service under resourced communities. The big picture is complex and complicated; we keep it in mind so that we can remember that it’s going to take more than five years to create the kinds of educational and life experiences that we envision for our students.

As coaches we can communicate this message to a variety of stakeholders, over and over: we need time, we need to honor the process, we need to slow down and listen to each other and make some decisions together. When I coach from a big picture perspective, holding an understanding of what it’ll take to transform our schools, I encourage teachers to have a cup of tea and tell me a story about a recent success with a student.

2. Coaches can surface, highlight, and celebrate every single success.
We see the big picture and we look for every tiny indicator that we’re going in the right direction. We need to help teachers and leaders recognize the micromovements every single day that are leading to transformation. This helps us do two things: we see that we’re going in the right direction and we develop a narrative to counter the message of the “F"s.

Recognizing the micromovements implies that there’s a shared vision and goal, that the goal is realistic and measurable, and that people are bought into it. Whether you work with a school, a department, or an individual teacher, your work will be most successful if it’s anchored in a vision, a goal and a plan to reach that goal. Then your coaching helps teachers make decisions towards the goals, and helps them see the steps along the way. And I really mean every tiny step.

Find the bright spots, the micromovements, the indicators of progress towards goals. Then coach teachers into recognizing every single indicator and into sharing them in various ways. By sharing, they begin to create a narrative within their community of the transformation they’re engaged in. The scarlet “F” gets less attention when the other stories become louder and more colorful.

3. We can coach for emotional resilience.
How we see the world, interpret past events, and identify our agency within change all impact our resilience (our ability to bounce back from setbacks). Coaches can lead others in reflective conversations to explore these beliefs and expand their resilience. See this article I wrote for Ed Week Teacher for more thoughts on resilience. Also see this recent blog I wrote for Edutopia where I suggest a quick exercise that could make a big difference in building resilience for a teacher, leader or coach.

Developing our own Practices

In order for us as coaches to support others in developing resilience, seeing every tiny step towards growth or success, and maintaining a big picture awareness, we need to make sure we’re engaging in these practices ourselves. What do you do, Meghan--and other readers--to boost your resilience? What helps you maintain your energy, hope, or even faith that we can transform our schools and that educational experiences and outcomes for kids can improve? And what little actions did you take today, yesterday, or last week that positively impacted the practices of teachers, and perhaps the experience of their students? What are the micromovements in your own coaching practice that if continued, refined, and repeated could lead to something transformational?

One thing that’s helped me boost my resilience is to read and learn from leaders who have participated in monumental struggles. I find consolation in the Dalai Lama’s advice: “Do not despair,” he counseled a group of impatient activists some years ago. “Your work will bear fruit in 700 years or so.” This reminder keeps me going day after day, year after year. “Seven hundred years,” I tell myself.

I also recognize that I have no choice but to engage in this process of transformation. The sages who wrote the Talmud declared, “It is not up to you to finish the work, but neither are you free not to take it up.” This is what gets me up in the morning.

Readers: Please chime in.

And please continue to email me with your questions, challenges, and successes in coaching: info@elenaaguilar.com

Finally, in order to receive email alerts when I post a new blog, you just need to subscribe--scroll up to almost the top of this page, look for the “FOLLOW THIS BLOG” on the right. And click on the “RSS via email” link. Thanks!

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.