Education Opinion

What do American Coaches and Kenyan Coaches Have in Common?

By Elena Aguilar — July 13, 2016 7 min read
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Yesterday, in this blog, I described my recent visit to Nairobi and my work with Dignitas coaches. This is the second of three blogs on this experience.

Before we left the Dignitas office for the informal communities, I asked the coaches what they were working on and what they wanted me to pay attention to when I observed them coaching their teachers. They spoke about wanting to move away from being directive in their coaching and towards being more facilitative; they wanted to move more fluidly between coaching stances; and they wanted to instill confidence and hope in their teachers. As I jotted these things down in my notebook, I thought about how similar their intentions and struggles are to many coaches I’ve worked with in the U.S.

The Coach-Teacher Debrief Conversation

After observing the lesson (which you can read about here) we moved into a small office for the debrief. Carol’s conversation with Teacher Margaret was also similar to many debriefs I’ve had with teachers and observed other coaches doing. “We’ll start as we always do,” Carol said, “with you reflecting on the lesson and sharing what you think went well and how you’d improve next time.” The teacher nodded as if this clearly was something that they always did, and then she proceeded to offer her reflections.

Coach Carol debriefs with Teacher Margaret

Carol was remarkably facilitative in her coaching, constantly pushing the teacher to reflect and to direct her own learning. As the teacher identified next steps, Carol clarified those, asked what kind of support she needed to implement her ideas, and nudged to make sure the teacher would take action on what she proposed. The teacher responded positively; there was lots of smiling and nodding. Nice example, I thought, of how the art of coaching is the art of nudging.

Throughout the debrief, Carol was consistently was positive and affirming. It was clear that the teacher trusted her coach and that they had a strong relationship. I filled page after page with a transcript of their conversation, noting non-verbal cues as well, and registering as I did so that there was an abundance of evidence that I was witnessing really strong coaching. I observe lots of coaches in American schools, I use rubrics to assess coaching conversations, and this was good coaching, coaching that was likely to impact student learning.

What We Have in Common

And then towards the end of the conversation, Carol shifted gears. “Did you plan for the lesson?,” Carol asked in a tone of voice that was direct as an arrow but not judgmental. “You did not have your lesson plan.”
No, the teacher admitted she hadn’t planned.
Carol: “How would it have helped you to plan?”
Teacher: “I wouldn’t have been confused by my conclusion (of the lesson).”

This exchange almost made me laugh. Getting teachers to plan lessons has long been one of my obsessions. Up until this moment, I’d felt inundated by the differences in our context and by the poverty in the slums; this had obscured how many similarities there are in our work as coaches.

And then our similarities and commonalities were visible all around.

There’s a government curriculum that Kenyan teachers have to follow; some classes are expected to be on a particular lesson, on a particular day. I’d had that experience when I had to teach a scripted curriculum many years ago; I’ve had to coach in this context (standards, pacing guides, and so on) many times. Navigating government mandates that don’t make sense in our classroom; teacher voice, autonomy, power, decision-making.

There’s a pervasive and intense culture of standardized testing in Kenya. National exams are a really big deal and whether or not kids pass has life-long implications for children. Teachers are judged based on their students’ results, and results are public, meaning that a teacher’s worth is often judged on their students’ test results. This leads to the same mess it does here--teaching to the test and intensive test prep in the months before the test; retention of students; and disproportional numbers of struggling, underserved boys and students with learning disabilities.

The Kenyan coaches tell me this: “Teachers don’t feel appreciated.” I can hear these same words in almost any school in the U.S.

And this, “Teachers feel humiliated when their test results are publicized.”

And this, “So teachers blame students. They complain that kids don’t do homework, they arrive late, they don’t pay attention, they don’t seem to care.”

The list goes on, the list of things I hear in the Nairobi slums that I’ve heard in public, private, and charter schools across the U.S.: The teachers are struggling with differentiation, they don’t know how reach their low performing students, they aren’t paid enough, they work really long hours, they pay for supplies out of their own pockets.

The phrases that the Kenyan teachers use, “I work so hard and no one ever tells me anything I’m doing well,” “I have so many students I can’t manage them,” and “I don’t have time to...” How many times have I heard these here in my backyard?

I know what’s underneath these words, both in the U.S. and in Kenya: It’s sadness, frustration and fatigue; it’s a love for children and a fluctuating hope that things can get better, that their efforts will make a difference. How similar we are.

Acknowledging the Differences

And, I don’t want to obscure our differences, because in the U.S. coaches and teachers deal with a different context. Without acknowledging the Kenyan context, I’m not fully honoring the incredibly difficult work being done by the teachers and coaches I met. The work is hard here too--it’s not a matter of whose context is harder--but there were many times when I thought, Well, that’s not something we deal with in our schools.

Like this:

Teachers in the community schools may not have graduated from high school--education is only compulsory up to 8th grade. There are few requirements for becoming a teacher and not much in the way of teacher preparation. This means that teachers can have some pretty massive knowledge gaps around the fundamentals of literacy, numeracy, and basic content knowledge, to say nothing of their gaps in their understanding of pedagogy and their instructional capacities. And so, as a coach, the question of where to start is a wide and massive question.

Do you start with understanding literacy acquisition in the early grades? With differentiating lessons--because in a first grade classroom there will be kids who are “above grade level” as well as those who are still learning the alphabet? Or with strategies to teach English to English Learners? Because in a 7th grade class that I visited there was a boy who did not speak English. Although English is the language of instruction, Kenya is a multilingual society and most students don’t start kindergarten speaking English.

Or do you work on classroom management? Here’s something else that’s different in Kenya: although it’s illegal, corporal punishment remains the norm for managing student behavior and even for punishing low performing students. “Caning is common,” the coaches tell me. “We’ve worked hard with teachers to use other consequences and some of our schools have really changed.” And then the coaches share their own traumatic experiences being caned as school children.

Here’s another real difference in our contexts: Teachers in the community schools earn $40-$60 per month. With this salary, they can’t afford to live anywhere else but in the slums. And yet the 7th grade math teacher talks about purchasing supplies for the lesson that we observed.

Carol describes a challenge for coaches--how to respond to a teacher who clearly did not plan his lesson. The coach asks why the lesson wasn’t planned. The teacher says, “When I got home yesterday, I had been locked out. I haven’t been paid in two months and couldn’t pay my rent.” This is common, Carol says, teachers aren’t paid on time.

The economic reality that these Kenyan coaches and teachers and their students face is different. I didn’t know what “abject poverty”was until I visited an informal settlement in Nairobi. And yes, I know that there’s horrible urban and rural poverty in the U.S., but there aren’t two million people crammed into a few square miles living on less than a dollar a day, a third of whom are HIV positive. And yes, poverty is complicated and it

doesn’t mean that these people aren’t resourceful, resilient, and skilled in ways that you and I are not--there is much we can learn from them; but this context of extreme poverty is different than what we deal with in the U.S. It makes the coaching different.

Tomorrow I’ll post the third blog in this series: A personal reflection and thoughts on what we can learn from these Kenyan educators.

Above: Coach Samantha debriefs the lesson with Teacher Victor

Teacher Victor’s 7th grade math class

Alpha Glory School

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