Support for Support Staff

Last school year when I was not teaching students I had a rare opportunity. In my role as workshop facilitator, my school hired me to do two separate professional development events with office and support staff. The group included members of the business office representing accounting, payroll, human resources, marketing, alumni affairs and admissions; administrative assistants from the three school divisions, counseling department, main office and the director’s office. Teaching faculty can sometimes forget how the people in these roles actually hold the school together and I considered it a tremendous privilege to be able to work directly with this group of colleagues.

What I learned in working with this group was how generously they dedicated their energies to making the school run smoothly and how little outward acknowledgement and appreciation they experienced in their day-to-day interactions. Also, regular opportunities for them to come together as a group to see, acknowledge and appreciate each others’ strengths were rare.

As educators we widely espouse the importance of relationships: cultivating them, making space for them, encouraging diversity in their make-up. And yet I fear it is not uncommon for us as teaching staff in our infinite hustling to neglect and even dismiss relationships with our non-teaching colleagues who work in the same building and are also striving to make things alright for kids and adults. There’s the hierarchy thing: faculty tend to carry greater status than administrative personnel – they likely hold more degrees and receive considerably higher salaries. Support staff are in charge of picking up loose ends, collecting dropped balls, and pulling things back together in ways that allow us to forget that there was ever a glitch or problem. And that forgetfulness is precisely where the difficulties begin.

This post is a shout out to all the assistants, secretaries, nurses, cafeteria, grounds and custodial staff and operations folks who insure that we are insured, get paid, have family and student info, coordinate our subs, liaise with transportation services, process our supply orders, that our classrooms are cleaned, that our students are fed, feel safe and welcomed.

After saying, “Thank you,” to your non-teaching colleagues, try asking “How’s your day going?” Recognize the wealth of humanity right there taking care of all manner of details, large and small in and around our schools. Take a moment to consider with students (!) how these potentially less visible members of the school staff contribute to the school community. Pre-K and KG tend to get this right. The rest of us could take a cue from their example.

If we really believe in relationships the way we say we do, evidence of our connection to non-teaching colleagues must be tangible and genuine in our school offices, hallways, playgrounds, and parking lots. There are many ways to be a connected educator. What I am suggesting here is one of our most vital, yet overlooked means.


What’s in a Coach?

This summer I found the book I believe I’ve been waiting for all my career: The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation by Elena Aguilar.
(San Francisco: Jossey-Bass 2013). Let me try to explain why.image

The title of my masters thesis in Sport Psychology back in 1997 raised the question: What’s in a Coach?
I was writing specifically about the dynamics of the relationship between teacher-coaches and their student-athletes and in a nutshell, I was trying to unravel the tremendous power, impact and reach of those very unique connections I experienced both as an athlete and as a coach. My fascination of and commitment to coaching only expanded and deepened in the years following.

As a PE specialist, a general coaching stance has become integral to my style and method of teaching. I encourage my students to seek their own solutions to various obstacles, I raise questions which help them reflect on how to make the most of their own resources and as much as possible, I listen, observe and listen some more. Further studies in communication, leadership and facilitation continue to confirm for me both the need and efficacy of coaching in a host of educational contexts. And this is where The Art of Coaching soars above all the other resources I have encountered related to coaching in the educational sphere: Elena Aguilar says “transformation” and means it: transformation of teachers, administrators, schools, ultimately of whole systems.

Below is a brief review I submitted to an online publication:

It’s possible to read The Art of Coaching as a how-to manual for instructional and leadership coaches in schools. Aguilar succeeds famously at taking the mystery out of the coaching process and guiding new and experienced coaches to learn, practice and apply the critical elements of the craft. Yet this book offers more. Aguilar’s fundamental commitment to the larger goal of equity in education for all students defines the context of her work at all levels. This broadening perspective lends heft to the individual actions and processes she describes. The coaching itself is not just about helping the individual teacher or administrator to improve, Aguilar sees it as vehicle for transforming schools on the systemic level. Further, as she offers coaches multiple means to connect and succeed with clients, she also champions the use of profound strategies for leaders to view and approach their challenges.
Specifically she introduces 6 lenses for examining a situation from highly unique perspectives. The lenses are those of inquiry, change management, systems thinking, adult learning, systemic (or structural) oppression, and emotional intelligence. She employs rich and nuanced storytelling to demonstrate how these lenses and their respective questions can be used to take problem-solving deeper to address possible root causes. Although the book’s focus is on building coaching capacity, I would argue that in fact, Aguilar has given educators an excellent leadership book written from the coaching perspective.

I am in the process of recommending the book to anyone in education and/or coaching who will listen. Through The Art of Coaching, Elena Aguilar has inspired, instructed and above all empowered me to share the unraveled mystery of what’s in a coach and what tremendous potential resides in coaching for transforming education.