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How to Coach a Cranky Teacher

By Elena Aguilar — January 23, 2019 4 min read
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I know: No matter how positive you are when you walk into her classroom, she bristles and snaps, rejects your overtures, and squashes your subtle suggestions. If you’re coaching a teacher you’ve decided is just cranky, I have five strategies for you to try.

One: Coach from a place of humility and empathy. Humble yourself. Put yourself in his or her shoes. Try to imagine what their day has been like. And remember--we’ve ALL been cranky at some point.

Two: Unpack cranky. Cranky isn’t a feeling. Here is a list of feelings. What do you think they might be truly feeling? Sad? Unappreciated? Afraid? Frustrated? Angry? If you labeled her as cranky, consider other descriptors of this behavior. Is she uncomfortable around you? Does he feel anxious about revealing his teaching practice with you? And unpack “cranky” with him. Ask how he’s feeling. This can sound like, “I’m aware that you’re experiencing some strong emotions right now. I’d really like to understand what’s going on with you so that I can best support you. What are you feeling?” I know, you’re reading this and thinking, that sounds scripted and awkward and that’s not me and I don’t talk like that and if I said that, my cranky teacher would probably hurl a stapler at my head ... I know. But you can change these words a bit so that they feel like you and they might be received, and also it’s all about tone of voice and pitch, pace and volume. And your cranky teacher might be really grateful if you actually ask him or her how they’re feeling.

Three: Don’t take another person’s behavior personally. Ninety-seven percent of the time, it’s not about you. So, best to not take it personally. This doesn’t let you off the hook from paying close attention to your coaching. Three percent of the time it could be about you--it could be your way of being and the way you’re coaching. This is a hard thing to share, but it’s true. And I’ve been there--I can now see with painful accuracy how the way I showed up with some teachers early in my coaching career was so judgmental and self-righteous that they shut down out of healthy self-defense. However, I’ve also coached people who at times have been cranky--and when I ask them about what’s going on, I see that it has nothing to do with me. Often, just because I ask about what’s going on, their crankiness melts in front of me and reveals something else--something we can do something about.

Four: Coach with compassion and curiosity. Get really, really curious about this teacher. Empty your mind of what they should be doing and how they should teach. Be a fanatical observer of what’s going well, of his or her strengths and assets, of their passions and interests. Draw those out. Share what you observe with the teacher. Search and search and ask good questions to elicit the teacher’s interests--even if they are buried beneath exhaustion and burnout and despair--uncover the bright spots. Be gentle. Remember that saying (that’s attributed to different people): Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

Five: Be persistent, but not annoyingly persistent. As a novice coach, I tried that with one cranky teacher. I kept showing up in her classroom. I kept asking her to meet. I kept sitting through tense and unproductive conversations. But here’s the truth: I wasn’t showing up as someone who really truly wanted to support her--I was engaged in a power struggle with her. I wanted to prove to her that even though she was pushing me away, I would keep coming back and that eventually one day I would win. I was working from a stance of control, authority, and oppression. And it didn’t work. We spent a year in a battle which left me exhausted and demoralized, and I was completely ineffective at changing her practice or having a positive impact on kids.

So what does it mean to be productively persistent? Consistently communicate your belief that your cranky teacher is truly a beautiful person and a committed teacher (maybe deep down inside) and that you truly believe that they can change and grow. Because everyone can. Be persistent in your curiosity about this teacher. Be unwaveringly kind and gentle. This is a very hard world in which to be a human being, and being a teacher is really, really hard. There’s a lot to be cranky (sad, angry, disappointed, hurt, fearful) about. Stand with someone persistently. Help them see other ways of being and help them see how they can take other actions in the classroom).

In sum, remember this: The skills needed to coach a cranky teacher are a subset of skills to coach emotions and ways of being. These skills and approaches are not technical, and they’re often not taught or practiced in many coaching programs--but knowing how to coach emotions and ways of being is critical.

What do you need?

This blog is the first in a new series called, “How to Coach a ____ Teacher.” Next week, I’ll share “How to a Coach a Perfectionist Teacher.” Tell me what word you’d like to fill in that blank - Anxious? Arrogant? Share your needs in the comments or with me on social media.

(Photo courtesy of Pixabay; no attribution required)

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.

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