I recently got an email from a teacher I coached 10 years ago. The first sentence was, “I can’t thank you enough for convincing me to quit.” I cringed when I read those words, wondering, had I really “convinced” her to quit? I remember at the time thinking I was “coaching her out,” but I thought I was doing it subtly. Her email continued: “Let me clarify: I didn’t feel like you were telling me to quit. I felt like you were looking deep inside me, at the very best parts of me, the parts that had been buried by our toxic school, and that you were saying, ‘Take that part and plant it elsewhere.’”
This teacher, I’ll call her Alexa, hadn’t quit teaching—she’d only moved to a different area and taken a job in a different kind of school. And in that school, in healthy organizational conditions, she’d bloomed.
But here’s how I remember Alexa: Her temper was always right on the surface, and she yelled at kids every day. She sent a lot of black boys to the office. She often said, “These kids can’t ...” and as you can imagine, her expectations were low. In coaching sessions, she frequently cried from frustration, blaming “admin” for her struggles in classroom management.
I remember feeling conflicted and triggered when I coached her. I remember wondering if she should be around kids. The site administrators never got into her classroom, and I knew they wouldn’t give her a poor evaluation—they were overwhelmed, and Alexa wasn’t the most problematic teacher on staff. She could have stayed for a decade.
I also remember thinking, “This woman is suffering.” I saw her sadness, her sense of powerlessness, her growing cynicism and hopelessness. I cared about her—because I care about people—and I wanted her to feel happy and effective. When I asked her about what brought her into teaching, she told stories of wanting to share her passion for literature and writing—although all of her stories were coated in an opaque veneer. It was like listening to her tell stories through a dusty window. I wondered, what kind of teacher could she be elsewhere, if she had a bigger and deeper skill set and she worked in healthier organizational conditions? Who would she be if she explored her biases and expanded her cultural competence? Who would she be if she understood her own anger and grief, if she had more strategies to engage with her emotions?
I remember having a conversation with her that sounded like this one.
It’s really tricky to make a decision to coach someone out, and there’s a lot to consider before doing so. Ultimately, a coach doesn’t really decide that someone should leave—that’s outside of a coach’s role—but a coach can guide a teacher to reflect on what they’re doing, where they’re working, and whether there are other options where they might feel happier and be more of service to kids.
Here are some guidelines when having conversations that might coach someone out:
Anchor in Purpose: Why are you in education? How do you want students to remember you? Who are you being now as a teacher? Who do you want to be? Guide a teacher to reflect on how they are fulfilling their purpose, on their legacy, and on the way they’re showing up—to students, colleagues, supervisors, and so on.
Surface and Acknowledge Gaps: Everyone has gaps—and everyone will always have gaps, because learning is a lifelong requirement. That’s why we need to constantly engage in professional learning, and perhaps why we need a coach. Guide a teacher to reflect on their gaps and to consider how they might close those gaps. In their reflection on how they might close them, you can listen for whether they feel like the ability to close them is inside or outside of their sphere of influence.
Coach to Possibility: Encourage a teacher to consider what else might be possible for them to do—either in education or outside of it—to contribute meaningfully to kids (or whatever it is that they expressed in their purpose). You can also suggest other paths to consider—being a dean, a resource teacher, a teacher in a different district or type of school. You can say, “There are other ways and other places where you can serve kids.” Or, “Have you ever considered ...” And make suggestions: You could be a curriculum developer, do data analysis for a school district, be a school counselor, teach a different grade level or content, and so on. There are many ways to serve kids.
Honor the Humanity of the Teacher and Remember the Kids: This is hard. You may feel that the teacher shouldn’t be near kids and you might want to forcefully coach them out. But the humanity of that teacher also has to be honored, because they are a human being. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have a conversation in which you’re guiding them to recognize the impact they’re having on kids—which might be negative or oppressive—but it means you do this coming from a place of love and unconditional regard. I know, that sounds hard—and it is—and you can do it. And when you have this conversation honoring the humanity of all, and coming from a place of caring, you are transforming schools.
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.