Who We Are Is Often What We Teach

While perusing my Twitter feed for info and inspiration I came across this post by Debbie Donsky: The Mantras of School Principals and Shaming Helicopter Parents. She talks about being a principal dealing with angry parents and how she consistently reminds herself that their behavior is coming from a place of love. That even as those parents may be threatening and intimidating, they are in that moment very likely also feeling powerless – to protect, help or cope with their child’s behavior or situation. This struck a chord with me on many levels: as a teacher who has been the bearer of bad news to parents, as a parent who has been told that their child is lacking and requires a dramatic intervention, and also as an aspiring school leader.

I was so moved, that I wrote this in response:

Thank you for this wonderfully insightful piece. It highlights the core of what I think makes teaching so very challenging, humbling and also rewarding: who we are is often what we teach. Implicitly and explicitly. Intentionally and unwittingly. Today, tomorrow, yesterday, again and again.

Every time that I recognize a situation as a problem, I go on a hunt. And I have choices in what to hunt for and how I will go about it. I can be on the lookout for someone or something to blame. I can also try looking at the situation itself, not only from my perspective but from the perspective of the others involved. The latter is a decidedly more complex, time and labor intensive kind of hunt. It’s hard and the results are not always readily visible or apparent. What you describe in your piece is an attempt to take a chance on the second kind of hunt. You encourage us to look not only at the other in judgment but to also look in the mirror.

What I continue to find at once troubling and affirming in my teaching is there is so much work I have to do on myself — on being, on becoming and also changing myself. This is the work that is never ending. It is precisely the work which also allows us to grow with and alongside our students. It is the work which allows us to partner meaningfully with parents and colleagues. This is the work for which there are no certificates or degrees and the criteria for success keep shifting case by case.

For this reason I feel utterly uplifted by your post in which you describe what this work can look like and where it can lead us — to a place of understanding and cooperation; exactly in the face of turmoil when it certainly feels a lot safer to lay blame and run up the high road. And of all things, LOVE! Who dares talk about love in our day-to-day educational interactions, especially in connection with parents? Remembering and centering love as a source and motor for a whole range of behaviors is not necessarily the professional practice we are taught to employ. Yet we need this capacity to see, witness, understand and also work with evidence of love in so many aspects of our lives in schools. Thank you so much for the rich reminder of the tools we have at our disposal to learn, understand, empathize and therefore also educate.

I had been off my writing rhythm for a while and was certainly feeling it. Donsky’s thought- and emotion-provoking piece brought me back to life, in a manner of speaking. When a message resonates deeply, I almost have no alternative than to write what is on my mind and heart. I want to think more about where love fits into the curriculum of who I am whenever and and wherever I may be teaching (or not).

The Way of the Coach

pixabay.com CC
pixabay.com CC

Professional coaching is a passion. When I immerse myself in the process of accompanying my client, then I feel much closer to my very best than in many other situations. And some of my deepest learning related to coaching has come about by instructing others in the practice.

Back in 2005 I trained a group of high school girls to become peer coaches in their school community.  I designed the course and wrote all the handouts. This was during the early stages of my formal training.  Re-reading the materials I developed for them at the time, I am struck now by the clarity of my belief in the power of the coaching alliance.  In preparing them to conduct full coaching conversations I wrote the following:

 

You are the most important resource in coaching others: your precious attention, presence, and personal style. When you turn your attention and focus it intently and generously on your conversation partner, you are already doing your partner and the world a great service. Every time you open your ears and heart to not only hear what your partner is saying but also to feel and understand what he or she is experiencing and offering, you become a source of energy rather than a drain. You create space rather than close it off. You welcome and accept the other rather than dismiss him or her. This is the role of the coach and each of us possesses the wonderful potential to serve those around us in this way.

When you step into the role of the coach, bear these things in mind. Your presence and capacity to listen are to be given the highest priority. As long as these two channels are completely open and free, your competency in the coaching role will grow and become increasingly natural. You won’t need to grope for the next right question. The questions will come on their own, because you are there where your client needs you to be. Finding the best questions for the situation, person and intended direction require time and practice but above all, begin with your willingness to truly accompany and be with your conversation partner.

Be patient with yourself. Free yourself from feeling that you need to provide your partner with answers or advice. The attention you shower on your client and the first rate listening you offer are already huge gifts that can make a substantial difference to someone.

Thank you for your willingness to make the world around you a better place.  (Peer Coaching, 2005)

While it has been nearly a decade since I wrote those words, they are a great help to me today. I know well that professional training takes plenty of time, money and a strong commitment to work, above all, on oneself. Professional coaching programs abound and are expanding around the world. Be that as it may, learning to listen fully, deeply, and without judgement need not cost large sums.  Cultivating a form of conversation which empowers, uplifts and sustains others should not require certification. We can all learn these skills and be purposeful in how we apply them in the varied situations we face.  These are the inroads to building trust and modeling empathy. As Tony Sinanis argues in a recent post, we need both trust and empathy to build successful schools, and I would argue that this holds true for human organizations, in general.  The way of the coach provides valuable guidance on this path.

Let us take heart, be brave and risk being as present as we possibly can with our fellow travelers.  Or, how else shall we set about making that proverbial difference?