No One Can Learn from You if You Think that They Suck

by Elena Aguilar, Bright Morning President

Many years ago, when I was a novice coach overwhelmed by seemingly resistant teachers, my coach, Leslie Plettner, said the wisest and most memorable words a coach has ever spoken: “No one can learn from you if you think that they suck.”

I was thunderstruck by the intensity of the insight that coursed through my mind. I did indeed think that the teachers I worked with sucked. I thought they were the worst teachers ever. And of course they wouldn’t be able to learn from me if that was what I thought about them. I wouldn’t learn from someone who thought sucked.

That was the precise moment when my coaching took a sharp turn. I did want others to learn from me. I knew a bit about how to get kids deeply engaged in their learning, how to challenge them to think and create at high levels, and how to form relationships with middle schoolers so that you didn’t need to “manage” them. But I hadn’t been successful at sharing this knowledge, because I thought that the teachers I coached sucked. I thought there was something deeply wrong with them, that they would never change, never grow.

One evening, around this same time, I had dinner with a dear old friend and her parents, whom I’d known for many years. My friend’s father, Isaac—a university professor and a wise man—listened to me complain about the teachers I was coaching. I was sad and angry and frustrated and I shared. As dinner wrapped up, Isaac said he remembered how I had held such high expectations for children when I’d taught them, how I’d believed in them and pushed them. “I challenge you, Elena,” he said firmly, “don’t give up on those teachers. You never gave up on your kids. Don’t give up on the teachers.”

I had given up on the teachers I coached, and I thought that they sucked. To this day, I still feel remorse over how I treated them, how I thought about them. Several were challenging people, and yet—they didn’t suck. And I had no right to give up on them. To coach others is to believe, firmly and resolutely, in their potential for growth.

Coaching gurus, Julio Olalla and Rafael Echeverría say, “Without trust, there can be no coaching.” Trust is an emotional state that emerges between two people, or I suppose a person and object (I trust “the process,” for example). So I’d say, “Without relationship, there can be no coaching.”

If you want to be an effective coach, scrutinize the quality of the relationship you have with your clients. Reflect on the assumptions you hold about them. Get honest with yourself about what you think about your clients. Do you believe in their potential to change and grow, even if their skill set is limited right now? Can you find aspects of who they are and what they do to appreciate? Can you cultivate unconditional regard for them as human beings? We can respect people, and believe in their potential, and appreciate elements of who they are, and care for them—even if some of their teaching or leadership practices are underdeveloped or messed up or even if they are harmful to children. We can.

It’s still early on in the year and you can course-correct if you’ve started down a judgmental road with your clients. You can interrogate your thoughts and beliefs, and you can shift them. Believe in your clients, see their potential, and they will learn from you.


Photo by Micaela Parente on Unsplash