coaching is empowering: two teachers on being coached

I co-wrote this piece with my colleague and friend Aishwarya. We discuss our experiences and learnings about coaching from our perspectives as teachers. Find Aishwarya at https://teachingtenets.wordpress.com/.

Sruti: It is unambiguously true that we have grown as teachers since we started teaching five and seven years ago, respectively. I believe the growth has been because of and despite our many experiences with the coaches we met along the way. In my experience, each coach has had a different lens with which they’ve approached coaching me. Many of these lenses were focused on what the coach thought was important, rather than empowering me as a teacher. What have been your experiences been being coached?

Aishwarya: I’ve had twelve coaches over the last seven years. If I had interviewed each of the coaches from my past to find out about their lenses and asked them to fill-in-the-blank: “I coach Aishwarya so that…”, I suspect they would each fill it differently. One might have probably said, “I coach Aishwarya so that student outcomes improve.” 

Sruti: One of my coaches might have said, “I coach Sruti so that student learning is maximised.”

Aishwarya: How are outcomes different from learning? 

Sruti: Outcomes would be results according to IGCSE, Teach for India’s Student Vision Scale, or other prescribed metrics. I’ve had coaches focus on those, but I’ve also had coaches come into my classroom and interview students during a lesson, asking them, “What just happened? What is your take? What have you understood?” which, to me, is prioritising learning.

Aishwarya: Got it. I have also seen coaches use rubrics which measure teacher effectiveness such as the Stronge and Associates’ Teaching and Performance Evaluation System to direct the coaching. 

Sruti: Another operating lens could even be an institutional goal the entire institution is working towards. At our school, for example, there is a “profile of a graduate.” And coaches could work towards achieving that. But, I don’t know. There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with coaching this way. Coaching me to improve my AS results or coaching with student outcomes in mind, for instance. 

Aishwarya: Sure, there is nothing wrong with these lenses. Nevertheless, I think the best lens is “I will coach Aishwarya so that she will be an empowered teacher.” Then, a coach cannot ignore who I am, how long I’ve been in the profession, and what my capabilities and value systems are. Otherwise, the coaching won’t work. In fact, it may disempower me. A disempowered teacher cannot be a good teacher. 

Sruti: You’re right. If empowering teachers is the goal, then the way they coach, the suggestions they prescribe, and their approach to everyday actions (such as routine observations) will change. And certain interventions will automatically be eliminated because they will clearly be disempowering.

Aishwarya: Imagine how muchteachers would benefit if all coaches believed that they coach to empower. 

Sruti: Yes. It seems to be the best of all the lenses we’ve identified so far. The others we discussed weren’t bad per se, but could be improved if empowering teachers was also taken into account.  However, some of the lenses I’ve experienced were inherently disempowering. Certain unconscious dispositions such as competing with other coaches at the cost of teachers and students are inherently harmful. 

Aishwarya: Competition sounds wrong. Another harmful attitude I’ve experienced was when my coach was attached to their former excellent teacher self and tried to sell me their past glory. When almost every answer to any query led to an inapplicable story from their classroom from 10 years ago, I couldn’t figure whether they were trying to help me or show me that I can’t ever be as good as them.

Sruti: Disempowerment seems to be easy to identify. It’s worth discussing what a coach can do to empower their coachees. I think it all hinges on the coach’s disposition around why they listen to teachers inside and outside of the classrooms. I’ve experienced coaches who have listened to my class with the intention to learn, understand, or teach. And these three ways of listening have led to very different kinds of conversations afterwards. For example, if a coach is listening in order to find something to teach me, sometimes they zoom in on an aspect I think is minor or loses sight of what I was trying to achieve. When coaches are trying to understand me as an educator or maybe learn about my pedagogy, I’ve ended up learning more from the resulting conversation. 

Aishwarya: ‘Why one listens’ is an interesting way to categorize the different ways of listening. I might have an addition to your list. I’ve had coaches who’d pick up problematic parts of my lesson to discuss with their colleagues and have a good laugh later. It felt like they listened to humiliate. 

Sruti: That’s a good addition.We see these different types of listening with teachers and students as well, not just with coaches and teachers. Even if I would rather not use the word humiliate, I have asked students questions to prove to them that they don’t understand something, particularly during my first year teaching. What you shared sounds pretty similar to what you unfortunately experienced. I actually think a lot of lessons about strong teacher-student relationships are true for coach-teacher interactions as well.

Aishwarya: This reminds me of a PD session I attended early in my teaching. The facilitator told us we didn’t have a choice but to find something to like in every child we teach. I think the same is true for coach-teacher relationships. The coach has to find something to like in whom they are working with. 

Sruti: That makes sense. However, I’ve also had great learning experiences with colleagues I haven’t necessary liked personally. I think coaches need to trust a teacher’s professionalism or believe there’s something to learn from them.

Aishwarya: Fair enough. Would it be valid to say that a coach can’t walk in with deep dislike, disrespect, or distrust?

Sruti: I think so. Whenever I’ve sensed deep disrespect or distrust, I certainly haven’t learnt much from the coaching experience. In fact, it has been unpleasant. It sounds like you have not been immune to such negative experiences either. But, despite them, you seem to have grown a lot as an educator. How? What helped you flourish? 

Aishwarya: I have also had amazing coaches who played a vital role in making me a better teacher. The best ones had a genuine curiosity to get to know me, not just as a teacher, not just the parts of me which seemed to be related to my being a teacher. This helps immensely since we cannot escape from bringing our whole selves into the classroom. 

Sruti: To me, the most helpful aspect of good coaching was the depth of my coach’s knowledge of me. Even when they didn’t know everything about me, they saw the connection between what they did know and the values I prioritised in life and in the classroom. They didn’t push to convert me to systems and structures that were at odds with the teacher I wanted to be. Moreover, they advocated for my ideas and values after understanding the rationale behind them. 

Aishwarya: Knowledge of the teacher reminds me of other important pieces of knowledge – knowledge of the subject, pedagogy, children, and the teaching-learning process. One of the best coaches I’ve had knew when to stop questioning me and be directive. When I was struggling with a student whose behaviour triggered my memories of abuse, they clearly told me that I was the adult in the classroom and my actions must attest that. They not only knew what was right for the class, the student and me, but also that any amount of questioning would not have enabled the then me to find a solution on my own. 

Sruti: Knowing when to be directive makes a lot of sense. I think being able to do so is rooted in being confident in what you do know, while still being open to learning what you don’t. And this awareness of yourself and your knowledge is important in coaches and coachees.

Aishwarya: Well said. Confident coaches also celebrate their teachers’ successes more wholeheartedly. The celebration comes from a deep sense of security and a sincere desire to see their coachees flourish. 

Sruti: And the same self-assurance makes it easier for the best coaches to apologise gracefully and rework when it’s needed. 

Aishwarya: The most confident of my coaches allowed me to flourish, to come into my own; and sometimes it meant departure from the coach. They didn’t get defensive when I presented readings which challenged their beliefs about school discipline. They didn’t have the need to have all the answers, to know more than me. They engaged with me and my ideas. They treated me as an equal. This allowed me to find my voice and believe in it. 

This faith in my voice in turn allowed me to have firm control over my subsequent coaching experiences, sometimes even more control than the coach. I have, at times, protected myself from bad coaches by not allowing them to influence me. I have never been insubordinate and have even lied that I agreed with the coach’s perspective. But, I was sure not to let them close to my teacher self. This goes on to show how the effect of a good coach on the coachee lasts beyond their coaching stint.

Sruti: Hmm. My attitude to bad coaching has been different. I let all coaches coach me, just because they’re my “coach.” In the past, I have torn myself apart when I’ve gotten a bad coach. I have distinct memories of the two times I broke down and questioned everything I thought I knew. Not only that, both of the truly awful coaches I worked with were also bad people – they used my race and my gender to justify what they perceived as poor performance. When someone does that, you should clearly not let them come near you. However, I still did.  I thought, “I will be so good at my job, even a bad coach will come around.” I’m sure this was horrible for my mental health, yet this was also definitely my stance at the time. I drove myself crazy trying to convince myself I could succeed on both my metrics of success and my coach’s. It took me a long time before I realised I couldn’t do both. The one lesson this experience has taught me is that once there is serious misalignment with the coach, learning isn’t possible. 

Aishwarya: To make learning possible, the coach has to understand what the coachee considers success andhonour it. 

Sruti: Yes. And when the coach doesn’t, it’s hard. I believe both experiences weren’t on me – they were on the coach. It is very difficult to be in a supervisor-supervisee relationship and then not care what the supervisor thinks. It is superhuman. I couldn’t – and can’t – do it. 

Aishwarya: Well, in my case, it was more a strong tendency of self-preservation than being superhuman. But, I do see your point. It is important to note here that I was lucky enough to have a baseline knowledge of teaching before I encountered bad coaches. For instance, knowing that language teaching is distinct enabled me to reject generic suggestions by a coach who was a former Science teacher. 

Sruti: But in my experience, baseline knowledge is not enough. It isn’t helpful for me to know that I know something my coach may not – it scares me rather than empowers me. Because then, I am still beholden to a coach, only now it’s a coach whose flaws I can articulate. I don’t think it is either right or fair to expect a teacher to look at their coach objectively and then decide how much they care about what the coach thinks of them. 

Aishwarya: I agree. However, I strongly believe that we cannot let institutions limit us. This job is beyond us and beyond the institutions we work for. 

Sruti: Sure, but how does one do that in practice?

Aishwarya: I don’t know for sure. Two things have helped me keep institutions from limiting me: 

  1. I have had the privilege to work in schools whose core principles I agree with.  
  2. I view my school as a place of practice, not as an institution I must comply with. I don’t allow the school’s evaluation system to influence every action of mine. 

Sruti: But, don’t you think that schools put in evaluation systems so that teachers take them seriously? Why would a school leader be okay with their teachers considering these systems optional? Are you suggesting that institutional expectations are inherently problematic? 

Aishwarya: No, institutional norms and expectations have an important role to play in schools, and I am not arguing that they are problematic. But, I believe that being a good teacher takes much more than complying with institutional expectations. Think about this:

  1. What if my coach has very basic expectations from teachers? Should I stop pushing myself to become a better teacher because I am good enough as per my school? 
  2. What if my coach has unrealistic expectations from me? Whether I am going through a health crisis at home or the coach wants me to learn something that I am currently incapable of, should I believe that I am not good enough because I can’t meet their expectations? 
  3. What if the school values different skills and strengths? Should my colleague who is excellent at building relationships with parents and communities feel he is less excellent because his school doesn’t value teachers making home visits? 
  4. What if my coach is objectively wrong? Should I implement wrong curriculum or pedagogy knowing that it will harm students? 

I don’t want my students to worry continuously about pleasing me at the cost of their own learning. And to enable that, I certainly cannot be a teacher who worries continuously about satisfying her coach’s expectations at the cost of my own learning. 

Sruti: I agree with you, charting our own path is crucial to our development as teachers. And we certainly don’t want institutions and coaches to limit our potential. Coaches must be willing and able to embark on a learning journey with us, and in doing so, they will undoubtedly honour and maximise our agency as teachers. In short, coaches must empower us. 

Aishwarya: And when they don’t, teachers must do it for themselves. 

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