There are times when I walk away from a coaching conversation feeling like a failure. I can feel like I was zero help to a teacher who was seeking answers or support. When that happens, I question my ability as an instructional coach, and wonder if there are other people who would be better at this job than I am (There are. This is one of the many blessings of my job: I get to work with many, many skilled educators!).
This feeling like a failure settled in recently when a teacher reached out to me to describe a rough experience with her students. In her attempt to “tighten things up” around students entering the classroom (per my earlier advice), the students rebelled at the new expectations from their teacher that they were not accustomed to. They talked back, they refused to do work, and they rolled their eyes at her requests. As the teacher described the scene to me, she eventually broke down and cried.
I offered assurance that what had happened was perfectly normal: her students resisted her attempts to “tighten up” entry procedures because it was a bit of a shock to their system. This was not how business had been done up until this point in the school year. I assured her that students crave structure, even though they would never admit it, and likely don’t even know that they crave structure. I assured her that she had done the right thing, and that the “battle” with her students is likely to rage for some time.
I’m happy with this advice, so where does my feeling like a failure come in? I offered advice, rather than asking questions, throughout most of the conversation. At one point when she said, “I think I’ll be more relaxed with my expectations tomorrow so that this doesn’t happen again,” I jumped in and said, “Nope, I wouldn’t do that. You need to stick to your guns and maintain the new higher expectations that you’ve set. It’s going to be tough for the next couple of days or even weeks, but the struggle will be worth it.” What do I wish I would have said? “What will happen if you relax those expectations tomorrow? What will happen if you maintain them? What will be the long-term effects of both approaches?”
The teacher walked away from our conversation with a smile on her face, telling me how much better she felt and thanked me over and over again. I walked away from our conversation feeling like a failure. It is not the job of the instructional coach to make teachers feel better (nor is it our job to kick them while they’re down); it is our job (among many other things) to assist teachers in engaging in self-reflection, adopting effective teaching practices, and building sustainability in their improvements.
This experience was a reminder about the journey I have in front of me this year to attain clarity. In my January 2 post I wrote, “As an instructional coach , I will seek clarity by listening. Less talking, more listening. When I do talk (or write!), I intend to be more clear, succinct, and affirming.” I might now write, “When I do talk (or write!) I intend to ask more questions, be more clear, succinct, and affirming.”
For me, the key to this whole experience is to walk away from it with my new revelations and apply them to new situations. As I walk into my next coaching conversation – I have several scheduled tomorrow – I will remember that every teaching/coaching situation is different, but the end goal is the same: finding clarity around the most effective teaching practices so that our students achieve the highest levels of learning, with inevitable failings along the way.
A.J. Juliani has written MUCH about failing versus failure. In fact, since 2016, he has written a “Failing Report,” where he writes about his failings from the past year. As a former classroom teacher, he and his students went so far as to maintain an Epic Fail Board, which “changed the classroom culture from one that shied away from trial and error to one that supported and even celebrated risk-taking.” His 5 minute video, “Growth Mindset: Learning Like a Skater,” leaves the viewer with much to think about regarding “failing versus failure:”
George Couros recently weighed in on the topic of failing when he posed this simple question in a blogpost, “Permanent failure or temporary learning?” In the post, George talks about his fitness journey (an AMAZING story), and the lessons he learned along the way with each “failed attempt” to lose and maintain a healthy weight. In that post, George brilliantly drops the following quote: “Failure only becomes permanent if we choose not to learn from what did and didn’t work.” You can get a peak at George’s fitness journey, as well as well as some inspiration to “Be the Solution,” in his last 2021 Mindset Monday episode:
A final note on failing: we can’t do it alone. Brené Brown, among many others, reminds us often of the importance of connection. My sisters and I are doing some version of a book club with Brené’s 2010 book, The Gifts of Imperfection. In it, Brené writes about the traits of resilience, “the ability to overcome adversity.” In her own research and the research of others, she identified five factors of resilient people. As I read the following list, I was struck by the fact that three of the five factors have to do with connection:
- “They are resourceful and have good problem-solving skills.
- They are more likely to seek help.
- They hold the belief that they can do something that will help them to manage their feelings and to cope.
- They have social support to help them.
- They are connected with others, such as family or friends.“
This touches on my own reflections around collaboration: we are better when we share the load that is life. I am so grateful that I have amazing family, friends, and colleagues to fail with, learn from, and love.