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How to Coach the Perfectionist Teacher: The Coach’s Emotions (Part 3)

By Elena Aguilar — March 05, 2019 4 min read
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Katie (a pseudonym) was a teacher I coached when she was in her second and third years of teaching. She was a perfectionist who was never, ever satisfied with anything she did, or anything her kids did. I found it hard to build a relationship with her—I always felt like there was a wall between us. It took me some time to realize that I contributed to that wall with my own emotional response.

Katie was one of the most challenging teachers for me to coach because of the emotions that arose in me. I often felt frustrated with her, because I felt like her perfectionism was getting in the way of her being a good teacher, and I felt impatient with her. I offered my coaching and then wanted her to quickly change and stop being so hard on herself and adopt a growth mindset and get over her perfectionism now!

Do you see how I contributed to the wall and the problem? Can you see why Katie’s trust in me was fragile? Can you see how my impact might have been limited?

Lurking Below Impatience

Here’s what I’ve learned about impatience: Anger often lurks below it. My anger manifests as impatience when things aren’t on the timeline I think they should be. When I can’t control everything the way I want to.

But sometimes there’s something else hiding below my impatience: fear. With Katie, I was afraid that my coaching wouldn’t help her, that it wouldn’t help her kids, and therefore, that I wasn’t a good coach. I was firmly attached to how I thought she should change and what she should do and when, and when I didn’t see the kind of evidence I wanted to see, I felt frustrated. Impatient.

I wasn’t a very good coach at that point, not by my standards, because what I value most in a coach is that the coaching emerges from a place of deep compassion and curiosity. And when I coached Katie from a place of impatience and anger, I was not a good coach. I had to acknowledge my own fears, anger, sadness, and insecurities first—and engage with those and understand them—before I could be the kind of coach I wanted to be, and that Katie needed me to be.

How to Cultivate Patience

Patience is a skill and grows when we accept ourselves and the way things are. To do this, we need to slow down and think and we need to access courage, equanimity, and trust (or what some might call faith). Patience is not passivity or resignation—it’s about being open to what is and truly present. I’ve been working on my patience for a long time and I work on it every day. I have a lot of fear, anger, and insecurity, but I’m far more conscious of it now than I once was. And, I’ve also become more aware of when those emotions surface in me and I have ways to engage in a healthy way with those emotions. Slowing down helps me tremendously to recognize what I’m feeling.

Now, when fear or anger surface during a coaching session, I acknowledge them and ask them to sit on the side while I’m working and I promise them we’ll have a chat later. And then, once I’m in a place where I can reflect, I say, “Hello my little fearful coach-self. What happened in that session that triggered your insecurities?” And then I dig and uncover sometimes a new insight or sometimes the same old stuff.

The Empathy Breakthrough

When I coached Katie, I had a breakthrough in our work together during one session when my heart opened to her and I felt her pain and I thought about what it must be like to be in her shoes every day. This was scary, and I rallied my courage but I suspected it was what I needed to do. And then, my feet symbolically in her shoes, I felt such sadness, overwhelming sadness. And I said, “Katie, I can hear how much you’re suffering, and my heart aches. I wish I could take it all away because I know how badly you want to teach and how much you want to meet the needs of your kids. I’m sorry to hear that you’re having such a hard time.”

This was a moment when I truly felt deep empathy. And rather than feel afraid of that empathy in myself (empathy for others can be overwhelming), I accepted it and felt it. And Katie sensed my kindness and compassion—I was genuinely with her in that moment. And she said, “Thank you.” And she sighed so deeply (I remember that sigh vividly) and said, “I just don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to stop my mind from telling me that I suck.” I nodded and said, “Tell me more about what it’s like to be you.” And she talked. And I listened. The wall crumbled.

Empathy goes a very, very long way. But sometimes to get to a place where we can experience empathy in ourselves, we have to recognize our own emotional responses to someone else.


And so what comes up for you when you coach a perfectionist teacher? Do you see yourself in them? Do you have perfectionist tendencies?

You can’t do transformational coaching without engaging simultaneously in your own transformation. Know yourself. Understand your emotions. Stay clear about your purpose as a coach. Activate your courage. Engage your curiosity. And reach out for connection with that perfectionist teacher.

Image used from Wikipedia.

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