As coaches, we occupy an important place in the pantheon of educators. Our work brings its share of joys and challenges, especially when we’re dealing with resistance. While we may often encounter resistance from our clients, resistance can reside within us as well.
In a Fix
When I first started coaching, my biggest challenge was helping our school’s chaplain Teah, a Zen Buddhist priest, design and teach a high school class on Buddhism. Teah was one of the most highly revered priests in the Zen community, but when it came to instructing high schoolers, she was a total beginner. In many ways, so was I.
We set aside an hour a week to work together and I assumed this teacher would easily absorb everything I had to offer. Instead, our meetings were rough. Teah talked about concepts like “loving kindness” and “equanimity,” while I talked about “differentiation” and “student-centered instruction.” Neither of us understood what the other was saying. For the first few weeks we were at an impasse and I grew frustrated, resentful and resistant to the work we were doing. I knew I was a good teacher, but I was struggling to be a good coach.
Untangling the Knots of Resistance
As a child, I was obsessed with untangling knots. Sometimes I would tie pieces of string into impossible knots just so I could enjoy the challenge of making the string whole again. My resistance to working with Teah felt like some of the tightest knots I ever made. When I viewed my resistance from that perspective, something shifted.
About a month into our work, I decided to stop telling Teah what to do and instead asked her to teach Buddhist concepts to me, as if I was the student. She first explained a concept called “dependent co-arising,” which in the simplest terms means that everything depends on everything else; nothing exists in a vacuum. I then saw a new way of working with Teah on lesson design, treating all lesson components as dependent on one another—that students couldn’t move to the next phase until they demonstrated learning on the first phase. And for Teah, it clicked. I had found an opening into our relationship, one that disarmed my resistance and valued Teah’s wisdom and expertise, meeting her where she was rather than where I wanted her to be.
From that point forward, we began our sessions by creating an inquiry space. I shifted from being directive to asking questions, and when Teah taught a Buddhist concept, I approached it from a student’s perspective. Eventually, we were able to talk about backwards design, unit planning and day-to-day activities, and we built a curriculum that included core concepts, varied lessons and a daily mindfulness component. When Teah finally taught the course, I saw the successes and struggles typical of a beginner, but overall I witnessed a transformation: from Buddhist to teacher. Through that entire process, I was transformed as well.
Always a Learner
From my time with Teah and in my work as a coach and a leader, I’ve learned so many lessons that I continue to use today. One of the most powerful outcomes was taking the stance of a learner and approaching all relationships from a place of curiosity. The following are a series of questions I still ask myself before I work with a client:
- What’s the way in to this relationship? Every person is unique, with different identifying markers and strengths. To know the person is to coach the person, and I always spend the first session or two determining how I might build trust by learning more about who my client is and what they value.
- What does this person have to teach me? I once had a yoga teacher who thanked his practitioners at the end of class, calling us his “precious teachers.” I bring that mindset into my work with clients as well—knowing I have as much to learn from this person as I may offer as a coach.
- How might I apply a “Beginner’s Mind” to this work? In Buddhism, there’s a concept called “Beginner’s Mind” or “Don’t Know” mind. If I approach each coaching relationship as if we’re meeting for the first time, I can penetrate layers of tension or resistance, enter the space of a learner and meet clients with compassion.
Teah has since retired from her role as a priest and left my school. We still meet when we can and she still offers me mindfulness tools and a little bit of “dharma” (teaching); I talk to her about my practice as a leader and coach. This two-way transformation has been one of the most profound moments of my career and it created a foundation for my growth as a mindful practitioner of the careful craft of coaching.
Lori Cohen is an experienced school leader, instructional coach, classroom teacher and education consultant who has worked in public and independent schools for two decades; she cares deeply about educating for equity and believes coaching serves as the best form of professional development for teachers and leaders. She is also the author of Why Instructional Coaching Matters in Independent Schools, Breaking Down Barriers and Building Relationships, and Mindfulness As a Tool to Dismantle Systems of Oppression–Within Ourselves. You can find her on Twitter @lcctchr