Professional Development Opinion

How a Vacation Improves Your Coaching

By Elena Aguilar — July 04, 2019 3 min read
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Are you looking to improve your coaching skills this summer? Do you have an imposing stack of professional texts teetering next to your bed? Do you have ambitions to purge and organize your office? Here’s my advice for how you might best improve your coaching (or teaching or leadership) skills this summer: Stop working completely. Turn your professional brain off. Leave it all for a few weeks.

I’m not the first to say this—I hope you’ve listened to others clamoring for rest and downtime and boredom. This recent article blew my mind with this sentence: “Protecting and practicing fallow time is an act of resistance. ...”

I’m writing this blog from Spain, which is the last leg of a four-week slow jaunt with my family in Europe. When I told a taxi driver that we were traveling for this long, she was shocked. Most Americans, she’d learned, only get two weeks of vacation per year. She congratulated us for taking this much time off and wanted to understand why Americans don’t value vacation. “Every Spaniard takes August off,” she said. “Even those who don’t have money go camping or they just stay home and rest. We have to.”

Here, in Spain, many businesses close for several hours in the afternoon—for a long lunch and a nap. You’ve probably heard about this before—I had, but it’s a different thing to feel it and see it and also to experience it. It makes you think about what really matters.

I have a 15-year-old son, and at home meals are often a rushed ordeal, fragmented by my own compulsions to take care of some business or another, by my son’s urgency to return to homework or Snapchat. Here, over our slow meals, without access to Wi-Fi, we’ve had beautiful and troubling conversations about masculinity, identity, community, and climate change. These conversations need time—and with time they allow us to connect more deeply, to find insight and understanding, to really listen to each other.

When you stop working, when you turn completely away from your professional life, your mind can wander and follow the whispers that beckon it, that intrigue it, that we usually have to turn from so we can stay focused on work. Those whispers often lead us to parts of ourselves that yearn for attention. That will ultimately help us become more compassionate, curious people. And compassion and curiosity are key to being an effective coach.

I was surprised to find how much sadness percolated up in me during this vacation. Some years ago, a close friendship ended. I thought I’d processed it. I thought I was over it. But slow downtime opened that well of grief. I can’t see the bottom of this grief right now, but it’s OK. It’s good to see those things that usually lie outside of awareness but that influence our daily actions.

You take whoever you are into your coaching sessions. You will listen to the teachers and leaders you coach through your own life, your own thoughts and feelings and beliefs and emotions. When you aren’t clear about what is yours and what is theirs, you will take things personally, your experience of the other person will be distorted, you won’t be as effective in serving them.

You need downtime and vacation and time to rest and wander and reflect and contemplate—and also to have fun—so that you can know yourself better, so that you can be a better coach. But also: You need time off because this world is beautiful and our inner lives are fascinating and we deserve time to enjoy them.

On this jaunt (in Rome, Malta, and Barcelona) I’ve also met (figuratively) some phenomenal artists: Antoni Gaudí and Joan Miró and many others whose names will never be known, who constructed ancient temples and art and mosaics and tapestries. I’ve entertained my insatiable curiosity about history. I’ve journaled and photographed and doodled and napped in the sun and floated in the Mediterranean. I haven’t been 100 percent off work, (this is a goal) but even at 90 percent off, it’s been invaluable. I know that I’ll be a much better coach, teacher, writer, leader, mother, and partner because I’ve had this time off.

My family and I in the Familia Sagrada in Barcelona.

One last thing: Disconnecting from our phones and social media is a must. Try it even for a day or a weekend. If you can’t get away, create a mini-vacation at home. Replace the professional texts with fiction or poetry or a compelling memoir. Plan a slow lunch with someone you love. Wander in your neighborhood and sit by a tree. If I had resources, I’d fund studies to evaluate the impact of vacation on coaches, because I’d love to prove that a good vacation makes us far more effective at our practice and to serve kids. Try it and let me know what happens.

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.