Here’s an email I received a few weeks ago from a coach who wishes to be anonymous:
I'm a high school literacy coach in a large urban district. I work across a dozen sites that are considered our worst schools. The situation is dismal: inexperienced leadership, no trust amongst teachers and administrators, brand new curriculum, predominantly first year teachers, large scale systems that aren't working, no funding, and then there's poverty, gangs, and so on. I've been working in this district for many years and am increasingly feeling hopeless, frustrated, and enraged by what I see. I'm also a black man and am perceived as "an Angry Black Man." Last year I went to a workshop where the presenters (who were mostly white women) spoke about "releasing emotions." I get it, but I also don't know if I can, or even should let go of these feelings. I was told I couldn't be a good coach if I held onto my emotions. Has this happened to you? Do you think this is true? Advice? An A.B.M.
I have no idea if you’re a good coach, but if you don’t want to let your feelings go, don’t let them go. Invite them in, give them a comfortable place to sit and ask them to tell you their story.
Let’s start with this: you feel like there’s something wrong with feeling angry about what you see in schools? I’m reminded of the bumper sticker, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” What I see in the Oakland public schools where I work often makes me shake with anger. I can’t imagine how someone wouldn’t have an emotional response to such injustice.
I’ve spent long afternoons with my anger and below it I’ve found heaps of sadness. Anger sometimes feels more comfortable--because I can hurl blame in one direction or another, at a particular person, group of people, or at “the system.” But I’m quickly dissatisfied with this exercise. I try to blame a person: “If the principal/teacher/superintendent hadn’t done this, then that wouldn’t have happened, and that wouldn’t have happened...” But this rationale falls apart because as I trace back my limited understanding of why someone did something or another, I get entangled in a “this happened because of that.” As I see the interconnectedness of the big mess and its historical antecedents, I can’t find someone to blame. An emotional layer is scuffed off and I’m left with sadness to explore.
It’s been essential to give my sadness space so that it doesn’t bleed into the realm of despair--and sadness has a rich story to tell. When I don’t distinguish my emotions, they become a monstrous force. I don’t know if I’ve really “released” my emotions as they’ve surfaced over the years I’ve worked in schools; I think I’ve actually created space for them, listened to what they were about, and metabolized them as a source of energy.
There are lots of people who might perceive you as an “angry black man.” That’s about who they are and their reference frames and how they make sense of the world. And that’s an uphill and exhausting battle that you don’t have to enlist in--you aren’t responsible for shifting their perceptions of African American men.
So how do you want to define yourself? How do you want to be experienced by the teachers you work with? What’s your vision for yourself as a coach? Start by defining who you want to be for yourself, not in response to what others say about you and people who look like you. And if possible, find others to talk to who are also engaged in this exploration of identity and emotions. You’re going to need some comrades on this confusing journey.
I spent a formative period of my early adulthood living in Havana, Cuba, where nothing made any sense at all. I was fascinated by the Afro-Cuban religious practices; they helped me understand the incomprehensible. A pantheon of deities were available to worship, including Changó who rules over thunder and lightening, fire, dance and drumming, and male sexuality. He is associated with the color red, wields a double-headed axe, and has a temper. Amongst the things I experienced in Cuba that made no sense at all was this--I saw men and women become possessed by Changó, as in people dancing and chanting and falling into a trance. What ensued after Changó “came into” someone was unpredictable and I often felt a little afraid, but the Cubans weren’t. Changó's fierce, wild energy--including anger--was welcomed, praised, embraced. There was a whole different relationship there on that island (amongst some, of course) with male energy, particularly black male energy. And now, from this vantage point, that makes a lot of sense.
I’m reflecting on the cultural construction of gender and identity because it reminds me that it is just that--a construction. We can participate in its deconstruction and reformation. We can start within ourselves by defining our emotional states.
Here’s what I wonder: What might be possible if we hold that there are other ways to make sense of the feelings that surge through us as we do this work of transforming schools? That there are many truths in those feelings that possess us? Can we find symbolic representations of these emotional terrains that allow us to feel powerful and that are welcomed by others? That empower us without disempowering others, without casting blame on others? Could we convert the energy beneath the anger and grief into fuel that sustains us in our work? Within this realm of wondering, we have tremendous power and influence.
So Angry Black Man, don’t release your emotions. Explore them. Embrace them. Transform them. If you want. They are yours to do with as you please. They might just help make you a good coach. And if possible, find a community that won’t be afraid of them.
Coaches: what challenges are you encountering in your work? What’s on your mind? What would you like some support around? Email your stories and questions to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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.