Education Opinion

What I Learned From Kenyan Instructional Coaches

By Elena Aguilar — July 14, 2016 4 min read
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In June, I spent a week working with a team of Kenyan coaches from the non-profit organization, Dignitas, who serve schools in the informal settlements in Nairobi. These days, which I wrote about in this post, and in this one, were amongst the most meaningful days of my working life so far. I’m still absorbing the lessons I learned, but want to share some preliminary reflections.

Let me offer some personal context. I was born into a family that told me, for as long as I can remember, that the world is a very hard place for most people, and that I was alive to do something about it. They didn’t shield me from the injustice in the world. There were times when what I learned was overwhelming, but I have always been grateful for this mandate.

I’ve struggled to figure out where to offer my time and energy. I’ve always had a international frame of reference, but in my early 20s, I committed to “think globally and act locally” and I became a teacher in Oakland, California. Since then, I’ve given everything that I can to improving our education system.

The Art of Coaching is the book I wish I’d had when I began coaching and that I hope might help new coaches. When I was writing it, I was keenly aware that I really only knew about schooling in the San Francisco Bay Area. I knew that some of the language I used and the examples I gave were limited because of this context and I wondered whether coaches in Iowa or Dallas would be able to relate and would find my book useful. But I followed the advice long given to writers: Write about what you know and banish your insecurities. Then I sent my book out into the world to do whatever it could in the name of justice.

My book brought me to a classroom in an informal settlement in Kenya. By the end of the first day visiting schools, I was chilled to the bone. True, it was cold in Nairobi and I hadn’t packed warm work clothes, but when I returned to my hotel I was shivering from emotional overwhelm. What I hadn’t realized about the slums was how HUGE they were--I’d seen poverty before, but not poverty that went on and on and on and on for as far as I could see, for as far as I could see there were shacks of rusted corrugated tin and dirt roads with car-sized pot holes and people who had not had enough to eat, people who were born in the slums and raise their children there and would die there. And there were hundreds of thousands, I was told, perhaps millions of people living there in these conditions. People.

And then I watched these Kenyan coaches and teachers go about their work; amidst this poverty and the overwhelm of circumstances, they just did what needed to be done. They taught their lessons and reflected on their strengths and the coaches used facilitative strategies and asked probing questions. Some kids were engaged and many were shy and also curious and very conscious of having visitors in the room. And it felt so familiar and so different.

I wondered what the coaches thought of me, what they thought about how my foreign eyes saw their world. I felt humbled to my core. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt such intense humility.

And also, I saw the relevance of my work. When we’d first met, two years ago, Tiffany, the Dignitas leader, had told me that my book was useful and meaningful in Nairobi. I’d been delighted to hear this, and yet I had some doubts. But there, in a school, during a debrief conversation where a teacher hadn’t planned her lesson and a coach strived to cultivate a teacher’s confidence, I saw that yes, my book was relevant in Nairobi.

To know that I may have played a tiny, indirect, and even insignificant part in alleviating the suffering that I witnessed is more satisfying that I can explain.

And the other piece is this: the connections I made with the Kenyan coaches, the mutual admiration and respect I felt--this is powerful stuff. This is what keeps me going. I was raised to value solidarity--that those who work for freedom and justice must stand in solidarity with our counterparts around the world. I was also raised with the suggestion that we stand up to injustice by witnessing the suffering and struggles of others.

It was a speck of time that I was in Kenya and fraction of a glimpse that I got--and yet, I witnessed. And I saw suffering, and in the Dignitas coaches, a true commitment and a deep desire to learn. What I learned from my Kenyan colleagues was that we need each other because their work and who they are being in the world gives me strength and perspective. They help me see our commonalities and interdependence.

My work is here, in the U.S., which doesn’t mean that I can’t make connections with others, or have an impact elsewhere--just as the work of the Kenyan coaches in the informal settlements in Nairobi has an impact on me. Rejuvenated, energized, and strengthened by my Kenyan colleagues, I’m ready to continue my efforts to build equitable schools.

And perhaps there’s a lesson for you too: you never know what your efforts will result in, or who they’ll affect, or who you might connect with and learn from and find inspiration from. And I imagine that you already know this, so perhaps this is just a reminder.

From left to right, Dignitas coaches: Carol, Samantha, (me) Hellen, and Shete.

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