Education Opinion

The Empathic, No-BS Coach

By Elena Aguilar — November 08, 2017 3 min read
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“You were being manipulative,” I said, my voice direct and clear and warm. I was on the phone with principal whom I’d coached for two years. “You were being inauthentic by saying you wanted to use the process observer role as a way to have a better meeting. It sounds like you used it as a way to call out that teacher and make her uncomfortable.”

There was silence on the phone line. I wasn’t sure if I’d gone too far.

After a long sigh, the principal responded. “Thank you. That hurt because you’re so right. No one else calls me on my bulls**t.”

Last week I was looking at a stack of books on my desk and noticed a theme in the titles—they all used a select piece of profanity to get their point across. (The books are: You Are A Badass, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F**k, and The A**hole Survival Guide). I’ve read these books, and I really like them. They are also bestsellers and their authors have made a killing with their call-it-as-you-see-it approach. But these authors are also deeply caring, empathetic, compassionate people and their writing communicates that too. They aren’t just yelling at people and making them feel bad—they speak to our best selves and insist that we rise to that self. These books resonate with me, and not just because I’m fond of using select profanity to communicate my thoughts and feelings.

The Power of Being Direct

When used effectively and appropriately, a coach working in schools can employ these same strategies (without the profanity, of course) to achieve the same ends. It’s about being direct. Saying things clearly. Without complex, pseudo-passive attempts at beating around the bush. The place where many of us fail in using these strategies is that we don’t incorporate empathy. When I directly gave the principal I coach the feedback that I openned this blog with, I knew it was coming from a place of deep empathy for her. I was pretty confident that she knows I care for her tremendously. That’s why I felt I could say what I did.

When intention comes from a place of compassion, then you can use any tool—as long as the intention manifests in your action. It can’t be deeply buried beneath the surface, so much so that whatever you say bares little connection to that intention of compassion. But when your intention is strong, and you use your tools well, you can tell someone that she’s being manipulative. Or you can tell someone to “cut the sh*t,” which I’ve also said (to a principal who had a fouler mouth than I did. I mirrored his language so that he’d feel comfortable being himself. You don’t need to do that if you don’t feel comfortable with such language. Maybe I’m just making excuses for the way I talk).

Many of us have a fear of being direct. We worry that we’ll hurt someone’s feelings. We feel insecure in sharing our observation or assessment. We worry that we don’t have a right to say what it is we’re thinking, feeling or noticing. And maybe as coaches we don’t. Maybe we will hurt someone’s feelings. And maybe our observation is wrong. But far too often, I think our fear holds us back from using a tool (being direct or even confrontational) that could help someone else gain insight into themselves or grow as an educator.

Let me be clear: I’m not giving you permission to be an a**hole. I’m not giving you permission to wield your positional power over someone else and make them feel sh*tty. The approach I’m suggesting has nothing to with shaming someone or humiliating them. If that’s what happens, you’ve blown it. And if that’s what happens, take responsibility and apologize. And look inward to see where your aggression is coming from.

But you can be compassionately direct and say something like, “I’m noticing a disconnect between how you’ve said you want to do things and your actions. You say you want to model accountability and kindness but on several occasions I’ve heard you speak harshly to students and publically humiliate them. Are you willing to explore this?”

How could you explore being direct in your coaching? What might that sound like for you? What are your fears in trying this approach? What could be accomplished in trying this approach?

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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.