I’m preparing for my end-of-year conversations with the beautiful leaders I’ve coached this year. I’ve written about structures for this process in my book, The Art of Coaching, but I want to confess something: I don’t always follow my own advice or instructions. I’ve been deviating from it. And I want to tell you about why, as well as how.
Who Names and Owns the Growth?
The crux of the tension around an end-of-year reflection is this: You need your client, the learner, to see their own growth. You need them to recognize it, identify the steps that led them to that growth, own the impact it had, and see it as something that they brought on.
This is perhaps the first and foremost and greatest and most important goal of coaching: to help the other person grow their own power. If you played too heavy of a role in “helping,” then it looks like it’s something that you did to them. They need to see that the growth they made came from within themselves. You were there as a guide, a facilitator, a cheerleader, a listener, a spark; you nudged them along and let them take the lead and decide where they wanted to go. You were on the periphery. Not in the center. You did not fix them.
It always makes me anxious when a client says, “I couldn’t have done this without you.” I get it—I’ve felt that way about my coaches before. But they need to see that the success they reached was because of their own internal power and strength that they activated and drew from. Otherwise, the whole big goal of coaching wasn’t met—that someone awaken to their internal, intrinsic power and strength. We need lots of people who are firmly working from their own power if we’re ever going to transform our schools. We need teachers who feel their power, which can translate to kids feeling their power—and ultimately, that’s what we’re all here to cultivate, right?
In order to facilitate the process of owning their own growth, you have to be very careful about pointing out your assessment (your judgments) about how and where they grew. When you do that, it undermines their ability to see it for themselves. You (who are probably a bit more experienced) are often seen as the expert. And yes, you may know more about instruction, curriculum or content, but you are not the expert on your client. They are the expert on themselves. And that’s why, when you point out growth, it distracts from their focus on valuing and validating themselves. When you say, “I saw so much growth in you this year in the area of designing engaging lessons,” it makes your client think, Hum, I had been feeling like my biggest area of growth was in building relationships with students and cultivating my awareness of my cultural competence. But I guess if she says my growth was in engagement, then she must be right because she’s my coach....
Your assessment might be valid, but given the context of hierarchy and power that exists in our schools, as well as your limited knowledge of the other person, (inherent in not being in that person’s mind) your assessment is only part of the picture.
So there’s a sequencing point: When you start with end of the year reflections, first let your client share their thoughts for a very long time. You can find prompts to ask at the end of the year in The Art of Coaching.
Here’s how I’m deviating from my own advice: I have been including my own opinions, judgments, and observations on someone else’s growth. But I’m doing it AFTER they share their assessment on their growth. And I’m doing it very carefully.
I’m doing this for a couple reasons. First, we all have our blind spots. As a coach, I often feel like I get to know my client really well. I see strengths and beauty and gifts and even magic that they don’t yet see in themselves. I see these things so bright and glaring and I’m often in awe of who they are and who they are becoming. And it feels wrong to hold back from sharing what I see.
Second, I highlight the things that I see that are aspects of who they have said they want to be. So if a principal has talked about his aspiration to be more patient and thoughtful when interacting with distraught teachers, that’s where I shine some light—on the ways in which I’ve seen him grow in that area. I want to affirm and validate the growth they’re making in the areas in which they’ve committed to grow.
And third, appreciating someone else’s growth just feels human. That’s how I think about it sometimes: Yeah, I’m a coach, but I’m also a human being and I’m connecting to another human being. And so saying, “I am so moved by your growth this year, and this is what I noticed...” just feels human.
Ground Your Feedback in Data
I ground my appreciation, observation and judgments in data—observations and things that they said. Here’s a Sample End of Year Coaching Report.pdf that I wrote for a principal I coached. You will see that I include direct quotes, dates, and examples of where I saw her make growth towards goals. In this report, I also had the following sections:
- Leadership Challenges in 2014-15
- Additional Indicators of Leadership Growth
- Things I’ve Kept in My Coach Mind (such as, “you said, ‘Help me with that'—working a 50 hour week, no more than 10 hours a day; you named your core values as family, growth, humor, and I also heard you often working from values of compassion, authenticity, humility. You said, ‘The part I’m most fragile as a leader is in decision-making. I really want buy in, 100%, so I spend a lot of time trying to create it. Too much makes me cloudy.’”)
- Potential Growth Areas for 2015-16
For this same leader, in the second year that we worked together, I ended the year by writing a letter to her. It included the same elements of the first year’s report, but it was a different format, different genre. It just felt like how I wanted to communicate. And after it had been received, I asked the principal for her feedback on the format—was there one that she preferred? No, she said. “I’ve received so little feedback on my leadership,” she said. “This made me see myself in different ways, it really helped me see my growth, and it made me feel known and cared for.”
And so my goals were met.
You have to be careful when doing this because you don’t want the other person to become reliant on you pointing out their growth or magic, and you don’t want them to feel like they need to please you. Their worthiness can’t be tied to your evaluation and assessment. So be cautious when dishing out observations, because if they start wanting it from you, their potential to grow is stifled.
Another challenge is this: What do you do about the critical feedback you might need or want to give? They can’t see those blind spots either, and you might. How do you communicate those observations? That’s a big question, and one that I’m going to save for next time—so stay tuned!
Reflecting on Clients is An Opportunity to Reflect on Yourself
Whenever I reflect on my client’s growth, I can’t help but turn the mirror to see myself. It just happens. And so simultaneous to reflecting on my clients at this time of year, I’m also pausing to examine my own practice: what am I feeling good about in terms of my own coaching practice? Where have I made growth? How can I refine my coaching next year? Again, this is a topic worthy of a whole blog post, and so that’ll come in a couple of weeks!
By the way, I have a new commitment/goal to blog every week, so if you have a topic that you want me to write about—let me know in the comments sections!
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.