Lessons Learned from Coaching, Part 1: Building Capacity

Over the past year I helped develop the process for Teachers and Mentors to become Dell Certified and was happy to work in two school districts that had educators successfully complete the process. This work is coordinated by Advanced Learning Partnerships for Dell Education. The process helped me to reflect upon and energize my own coaching skills, and reminded me of a few ideas I need to keep focused on. This post is a first in a series about lessons I learned–or had to re-learn–during my coaching work this past year. I’ll keep returning to them in my own work and hope you find them helpful, too.

In the Dell Certification process for Mentors I use an eclectic approach. I include ideas from the work of Jim Knight, Elena Aguilar, cognitive coaching, from my mentor and friend Dr. Sharon Harsh, along with other tidbits I’ve picked up along the way. The focus is to help new coaches develop skills to help others reach their own goals. Despite the certification from a company known for technology, we practice listening and questioning and step back a little from jumping on the technology bandwagon to have deeper conversations about what educators need and want.

Coaches build the capacity of others to reach their goals.

John Ross (channeling Sharon Harsh)

My friend and mentor, Sharon Harsh, taught me more about capacity building through her own actions than I could find in any book. Working with her was a real highpoint in my career, because she helped me to understand the ultimate way coaches help build capacity—whether the capacity of individuals or organizations—and that’s through helping others reach their goals. We did this work formally through a contract with the U.S. Department of Education in the Appalachia Regional Comprehensive Center. I’ve taken that philosophy with me in my own coaching and try to help new coaches understand how that can impact their work.

Just a note of caution: This is my philosophy of what coaches do. In every school and district I work with, we have conversations about what is expected of coaches. We also talk about what coaches should not do. Those are interesting lists. I haven’t found one yet in which this philosophy doesn’t fit, but you should know where I’m coming from. That’s a good ELA strategy, know the author’s bias. This is mine.

Why do people become coaches? We’re in education, so it’s not really about the money. It’s also not because of the power. What power?!? Any coach would heartily laugh at that one. Teachers (and others) become coaches probably for many of the same reasons they become teachers—to help others. And like when we were new teachers, new coaches are excited about the potential. We’re eager to get into other peoples’ classrooms and get to work. To “fix” things.

I see that often with new coaches, including myself. And since I work with technology, I used to often lead with the technology solution. Learn this gadget, or try this resource. But very quickly we learn that not everyone comes to the coaching partnership with the same eagerness and interest in using technology. They may be open to some ideas, but new coaches have to realize the people they work with have their own interests and motivations. You can’t build their capacity without knowing what these are. So coaching relationships often start with setting goals and then working to help people achieve those goals.

Capacity can be measured by goals achieved

One of the first things coaches can do is to help others write reasonable goals. There are very few educators who have not heard of the SMART goal-setting process (Wikipedia has more about SMART goals), but I’ve run across fewer still that can actually use it to set reasonable goals for their own growth. When goals are about something you’re already doing, those are accomplishments, not goals. When they’re so large you can’t reasonably accomplish them, those are aspirations (not to mention frustration). One of the first steps a coach can take is to spend time—repeatedly—to set and monitor reasonable goals with the educators with whom they work.

Tech cart before the horseA well-written goal is like a roadmap. It tells me where you want to go, and as a coach, I then have a guide of how we might get there—together. That’s tough for a new coach, especially if you’ve been hired to help a school or district integrate a bunch of new and expensive technology. You want to lead with the tech cart. You want to share all the great things you did in your classroom! But it’s not your classroom any longer. You’re a guest, and if you keep your colleague’s goals in mind, you’ll become an integral part of that classroom.

Goal Example 1: In order to foster creative and innovative thinking in my schools, I will explore digital storytelling to present information found with online research tools. I will monitor my progress toward this goal by using the TIP Chart to self-reflect, guide my planning, self-evaluate my progress to ensure that I am moving toward the next step on the chart. Goal Example 2: In order for students to compare and contrast Plains and Woodland Indians, students will create a Google presentation on the lives, living conditions, food, clothing, and tools of the Native Americans.
Which of these would you want to coach to?

 

No coach is intentionally going to go in and try to take control, but being problem solvers, we tend to want to “fix” things, sometimes working on things that others don’t even think need fixing. So, there’s more I’ve learned from working with coaches, and I’ll share them. Next time.