From a coach somewhere east of the Mississippi (that’s all she said):
I’m in an argument with my central office supervisors over the direction that our coaching program is going. They would like to link coaching with teacher evaluation and often talk about coaching as something to do to ineffective teachers. This isn’t what I think it is but I’m a new coach and am not doing a very good job convincing them. Can you help? Do you think coaches can participate in teacher evaluation? How would you define coaching?
The deeper I get in learning about coaching and practicing this art, the harder I find it is to offer a definition. Coaching lies at some very powerful intersections–adult learning, emotional intelligence and resilience, beliefs and systems, and systemic oppression. This is what I love about coaching–it’s murky and imprecise and can lead into many directions.
But I know that coaching is not a way to punish people. It’s not something to apply to ineffective teachers. It’s something people have to choose to participate in and it’s a way to grow.
I also recognize that no one really knows what to do with ineffective teachers and all of us who work in schools might need to engage in that conversation because it’s so volatile and scary and it keeps coming up.
It’s How we Hold the Mirror
Lately I keep coming back to the idea that a coach is someone who holds up a mirror for another to look into. We can’t force people to see what they don’t want to see. Adults won’t grow or change their practices if they feel judged or are worried they’ll loose their jobs. A coach’s art is the way she holds the mirror, the expressions she wears on her face when she holds the mirror, and the questions she asks her client when they look in the mirror together. It’s the art of noticing something in the reflection and finding a skillful way of inviting the client to look at that thing.
“We don’t see things the way they are, we see things the way we are,” wrote the authors of the Talmud. Most of us look in a mirror and see the same thing all the time. An effective coach nudges the client to see things they way they are–or at least, to recognize that she’s seeing things the way she is. What else might we see in this reflection?, we ask a client. Let’s look together.
When the Reflection Points to an Exit
I’ve lost count of how many teachers and leaders I’ve “coached out” of the roles they were in. When we looked in the mirror together, we saw that the teacher or principal might not be in the right place, at the right time. Others had considered my client “ineffective.” I played no role in evaluation and worked to withhold my judgment. Through our conversations, as I held up the mirror, my client saw that continuing in his/her role wasn’t serving him/her. My clients who had been deemed “ineffective” were suffering–they really were. They were miserable, frustrated, angry and not feeling very efficacious. When we looked in the mirror, we saw the impact on their school communities. I helped them create a dignified exit plan.
Coaching doesn’t exist without trust. There is no such thing as coaching without a trusting relationship. Whatever it is, it isn’t coaching. Would you ever look into a mirror of truth with someone you didn’t trust?
What Role Can we Play?
I don’t know if there’s a way for coaches to play a role in teacher evaluation that both honors what coaching is and honors evaluation. I don’t know if the two things are compatible. Maybe. A number of supervisors whom I really trusted evaluated me. But the national context for teachers is so vicious and suspicious and unforgiving–it’s hard to imagine how coaching and teacher evaluation can be tied together. But I won’t rule it out.
Coaches can’t be used as a lever to eject bad teachers, but we can play a role in helping people and systems heal and transform. Maybe we can find ways to care about those ineffective teachers and we can engage in authentic, trusting, compassionate relationships with them where we can hold up a mirror and look in together, and maybe we can help them find a different place to be in the world where children are not negatively impacted. If we can move beyond judgment and blame (whose fault is it that they’re “bad” teachers?) and shame and humiliation (publicizing test scores won’t motivate anyone to do anything positive) maybe coaches can participate in evaluating teaching.
We’ll need to be very forceful in managing expectations, however. If we are “sent in” to help a teacher improve it could take years. I’m not saying that this is okay for the students who are involved–but this is all a coach can do.
More Mechanisms Needed
The system is flawed. There are many, many flaws. And holes. We need additional ways of dealing with ineffective teachers (I’ll admit: I go through bouts of feeling very frustrated at the numbers of “ineffective teachers” I see). But if coaches are going to play a role, then we must define that role, manage expectations, and engage in transformational coaching where beliefs, behaviors and being are explored and shifted, and where a coach works from a place of compassion and kindness. That’s the only kind of coaching I’d agree to see in conjunction with evaluation.
I’m sorry I’m not clearer about this issues. What I think needs to happen is for more of us to engage in conversations about coaching and evaluation, conversations where we really listen to each other and stay open to all possibilities, conversations where we’re willing to topple into a looking-glass and explore alternate worlds together.