Instructional Coaching for Equity: Starting the School Year Right

At the National Equity Project, we believe that equity-focused instructional coaching begins with developing a caring and meaningful learning partnership between the coach and teacher. Bringing a genuine curiosity about who this teacher is – as an educator and as a human being – helps us actively get to know what she values and needs most to do her best work on behalf of every student. Building this trusting relationship starts with intentional and focused listening.

Here are some of the things we listen for:

  • What inspires and excites the teacher, what initially drew her to become a teacher – where she gets her energy
  • How the teacher is thinking about student achievement – what he values as indicators of success, what he is most committed to achieving with students
  • What the teacher knows about how students are experiencing her classroom, particularly students who have not historically felt successful in school
  • The language the teacher uses: how he describes the way different students “show up” in class, how he describes his “best” students, what categories he holds in his mind about different types of students – all of this can help us understand what this teacher values, as well as potential “blind spots” that might get in the way of serving every student well
  • How the teacher explains the challenges she has faced with students she has had trouble reaching – how does she interpret this challenge and what is causing it? How curious is she about what else might be going on?

Ideally, we have opportunities for this listening and relationship building before we see the teacher working with students, to start the coaching relationship from a place of interest in and empathy for the teacher (rather than the inevitable questions and pedagogy-focused assessments that arise when observing classroom practice). As we begin to understand more about the values, beliefs and priorities of the teacher, we can start to move into some explicit conversations to co-construct the coaching partnership and what it means to coach with an equity lens. For us, this often involves:

  • Learning about the teacher’s previous experiences of being coached (formally, or informally when learning something new) to understand what helps him feel more open to feedback and new learning, and what can help him trust we are on his side
  • Making connections between what she cares about most and what we want to help her achieve
  • Collaboratively identifying artifacts or data that will focus our coaching conversations, such as
    • Exploring what kinds of student work analysis might deepen our learning
    • Clarifying what meaningful student engagement looks like (for each of us) and how we will gather data on engagement
    • Sharing observations of students in class and conversations we have with students about their experience and their thinking
    • Determining if and how we might focus on a few students for deeper learning, based on who the teacher is curious about and which specific students we need to learn more about to help them accelerate their own learning

Throughout these initial conversations, as instructional coaches for equity we hold on to the urgency we feel to ensure that every child receives a high quality education, while we honor that it is the teacher who ultimately chooses if and when to learn and grow. We trust that with the right kind of support, teachers have the capacity to solve their own problems and can take on bold new actions in service of supporting the success of every student in their care.

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The Courageous Pause: Reflections on Leading for Equity

Last month we gathered teams of educators from around the country to participate in the 12th annual Leading for Equity Institute (LFE), and we are preparing to host another sold-out Institute next week. LFE is a three-day residential retreat held in Sonoma, California at the Westerbeke Ranch Retreat Center.  Once again, we were privileged to work with a remarkable group of people committed to making a difference in the lives of children, particularly for those children furthest from opportunity.

Painting by Wendy Westerbeke

Painting by Wendy Westerbeke

I am always pleased that we can host this particular learning opportunity for people fighting to create equitable schools where children have the chance to grow their unique gifts and talents. Our intention and hope for LFE participants is always the same: provide a space for educators to slow down, reflect, learn and struggle together – and perhaps do some healing from the distress one carries when taking leadership for educational equity. The poem that follows beautifully captures the spirit of the invitation we extend to people attending LFE:


what I want for you?
a pause
the thing you are too busy for
is – forgive me – what I think
you just might need

I only sense this
because there have been
so many times
I’ve kept going myself
despite deep weariness
despite a broken heart
despite the tiny voice inside
crying, ‘this is not my life’

What I want for you?
the courageous pause
that changes

– Ann Betz & Jacek Skrzpczynski
Coaching the Spirit: poems of transformation

Over the years, we have made a number of adjustments to the curriculum and the learning arc of LFE. However, the key elements for creating a powerful experiential learning space remain the same. The elements include the following:

1) LFE extends the invitation for people to be part of a “learning community” willing to struggle, learn and grow together.

2) LFE helps people understand the need to “shift the discourse” from dominant ways of seeing, framing, and engaging the work of education that maintain existing practices and serve to produce social inequality – to ways of seeing and engaging that challenge the status quo by naming the uncomfortable realities and unequal conditions while pushing for deeper inquiry.

3) LFE provides common language to explore the phenomena of systemic oppression at the individual, institutional and structural levels. There is still a great deal of confusion and ambiguity about the different forms of oppression and how they manifest in our daily lives. We help educators make connections to their work (personally and professionally) at all levels of the educational system.

4) LFE explicitly makes the connection that equity work is both cognitively challenging and emotional demanding. People must build their emotional and social intelligence to help heal from the effects of oppression so they may think intelligently about the strategic actions that can make a difference in the lives of children and their families living in urban and poor communities of color.

5) LFE provides support to teams grappling with their own equity challenges back in own local context. This is space where new insights and next steps will often emerge.

Our next LFE Institute is March 20-23, 2014. This Institute is already full and speaks to the on-going need for folks to take a momentary time-out for the renewal and healing necessary to lead for equity. We are honored to host such a space.

We also occasionally offer customized Leading for Equity Institutes for organizations and communities to support teams to deepen their commitment, relationships, and efficacy while developing strategies toward equity goals.

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My Brother’s Keeper: Do we have the will to make a way?

I was honored to provide a guest post on the Huffington Post blog of Eric Cooper, Founder, President of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, in response to President Obama’s recent My Brother’s Keeper initiative. You can read an excerpt below, and find the full blog post at

For our young men of color, do we have the will to make a way?

I applaud President Obama’s new initiative, “My Brother’s Keeper,” but an important conversation is missing from the announcement and from the initiative itself. While it is necessary to encourage boys to work harder, that alone will not solve the problem. The reason so many boys and young men of color continue to fail remains unexplored. Read the full post.

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Instructional Coaching | Beyond Best Practices

“Coaching is becoming popular, in part, because many educational leaders recognize the old form of professional development, built around traditional in-service sessions for teachers, simply doesn’t affect student achievement” (Knight 2006).

Instructional coaching alone doesn’t necessarily support teachers to be more successful with their most struggling students. Just as great teaching requires more than content knowledge, instructional coaching for equity requires more than pedagogical expertise. To support a teacher to learn and grow, we need to really know and understand them.

What is this teacher excited about? What do they care about? What motivates them? How are they thinking about their work? What are their beliefs and assumptions about their role as teacher?

As their coach, we have to take the time to build a trusting relationship where we know the real answers to these questions. Many teachers are assigned an instructional coach and view it as a punitive measure. By taking the time to observe, assess, and validate their experience and expertise, we show that we are authentically invested in their success.

Engaging a teacher in this reflection does more than set the stage for a positive coaching relationship – it demonstrates a new kind of relationship that is possible between teacher and student – which can translate into powerful new relationships in the teacher’s classroom. Building trusting relationships with the teachers we coach also helps us to productively challenge our teachers to examine their own biases and mental models.


Uncover Mental Models

To effectively shift a teacher’s practice, the instructional coach must assess the teacher’s mental models – the underlying beliefs and values she holds about her students. Without addressing these beliefs and values, the teacher will always default to teaching practices that align with that belief.

“Mental models are deeply held internal images of how the world works, images that limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting. Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effects they have on our behavior.” – Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline

Shifting a teacher’s practice usually won’t happen without productively challenging their thinking, assumptions, and interpretations of their current classroom reality.

Why do you think this particular student/these students are not responding? How are you feeling about it, and how is that shaping your decisions? What other possibilities are you open to considering? What more might you learn?

Good Decisions Beat Best Practices

Many teachers do need support in implementing instructional “best practices.” But best practices are just one part of their toolkit, and pushing popular teaching strategies doesn’t result in achieving equity in the classroom. Instead of focusing on best practices, begin with supporting teachers to learn about and from their students. How can we help teachers implement formative assessment practices (from assessing how the student is experiencing the teacher or class to assessing the student’s thinking about a particular task) to make better instructional decisions?

The most critical practice for raising student achievement is instructional decision-making – accurately determining the next skill that the student must master in order to progress and how to teach it in a way that helps the student learn it. It is this insight that helps create more equitable outcomes for struggling students.

What is working? With all of your students or just some? Why? How do you know?

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Facilitator As Host: Host Your Next Meeting

The holiday season has passed and by now we’re all fully back in work mode.  But there’s no reason you can’t keep that warm, welcoming feeling alive throughout the year, even at your school or workplace. Your meetings may not always feel like a party, but facilitators can learn a lot from great hosts.

“Leaders-as-hosts know that people willingly support those things they’ve played a part in creating—that you can’t expect people to ‘buy-in’ to plans and projects developed elsewhere. Leaders-as-hosts invest in meaningful conversations among people from many parts of the system as the most productive way to engender new insights and possibilities for action. They trust that people are willing to contribute, and that most people yearn to find meaning and possibility in their lives and work.”
– Margaret Wheatley, Leadership in the Age of Complexity: From Hero to Host

Hosts help people connect.

As the host of a party, it’s your job to introduce your guests to one another. Facilitators should intentionally build opportunities for people from different backgrounds to connect with one another, especially when participants don’t already know each other.  You know that hilarious inside joke you and your friends can’t stop riffing on?  As host, it’s your job to explain the backstory to new acquaintances who aren’t in on the joke.  As a facilitator, you should make the extra effort to make new members feel welcome and comfortable. Encourage questions, spell out acronyms and explain jargon.

Hosts can read a room.

A host should be constantly reading the room to anticipate people’s needs.  Is the music too loud? Are people cold? Does the guacamole need a refill? As a facilitator, you should also keep tabs on your teammates’ needs.  When it seems like people need a break they do.

Hosts also read the dynamics of the room; supporting positive dynamics, and attending to potential tensions. At a party, you might strategically guide your Uncle Rudy away from his ex-wife and her new partner.  In a meeting, attending to negative dynamics is not about avoiding conflict or shutting people down.  Instead, you might offer a structure or process to help the team navigate through a negative dynamic.  Being aware of social threats and triggers can help you be prepared to quickly react in the moment in a way that allows all members to feel valued and supported.

Hosts get ready before their guests show up.

Facilitator as Host

As best as you are able, try to set up your meeting in a comfortable, aesthetically pleasing environment.  Think about what time of day it is (i.e. before or after lunch), where people may be coming from, and how long they’ve been sitting and listening.  Try and provide some time for people to take care of their own needs so they can be fully present and engaged.

Energizing music, drinks and snacks can do wonders for your group dynamic.

Hosts let the party happen.

At the end of the day, all any host or facilitator can really do is set the conditions for a good experience, but ultimately it’s the people that end up making the party or meeting positive or not.  Facilitators should be thoughtful about how to set the right conditions for people to have a positive experience, be fully engaged – so they’ll look forward to the next opportunity they’ll have to spend time together.


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Make the Most of Your Meeting Agenda

Make space for stories.

Provide space for people to share what brought them to this work, their personal history and background, and what’s happening in their lives outside of work.  People bring their whole self to meetings – whether we like it or not. Providing space for stories can help people feel seen, validated, and connected to each other.  This is particularly important for people who have felt invisible or are not part of the dominant culture.

People need to feel a sense of belonging and connection, to each other and to their work, no matter who they are or how they’re positioned in your team or organization.  Create a space where people’s story is validated and incorporated, not dismissed or ignored. Providing structured time for sharing can help your team get to the practical work faster.

One way to incorporate stories is to build space at the beginning of your agenda for a meaningful check-in. Ask people how they are, what they care about in their work, what’s inspiring them lately.  We have an activity that we do to open many of our Institutes called Diversity Rounds (adapted from the National School Reform Faculty). It’s a quick and easy protocol to both break the ice and get people talking and reflecting on what brought them to their work together. We also do this as a staff from time to time – I always learn something new about my colleagues, even people I’ve worked with for years.  Some sample questions:

 1.)  Where are you from? How do you think that has influenced who you are?

2.)  What type of student were you in high school? How do you think that shapes you as an educator and leader?

3.)  What college-going generation are you in your family? What opportunity did that afford you?

As with any check-in, it’s up to the individual as to how deep they want to go, but it is a powerful way to get people connected, fully present, and conscious of the diversity of experience and beliefs in the group.

Make space for emotion.

Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much. Helen Keller CC

Discussing issues of equity will be accompanied by strong emotions. Plan for it. It’s important to access people’s passions and excitement, but also acknowledge and create a safe space for people to surface their emotions and feelings. We experience this regularly as we work with and for students and families that have been continually underserved by their schools and districts. People need the opportunity to release that distress to be able to do their best thinking and work with others.

Developing agreements at the outset about how you will work together when strong emotions come up is a valuable way to keep your group on track when strong emotions inevitably surface.  Encourage people to stay open and explore their emotions, instead of suppressing or bottling them up.  Structures like constructivist listening protocols can help people process powerful emotions in a productive and supportive manner. These structures give everyone the experience of being authentically listened to, and the opportunity to truly listen to someone else.

Use your imagination.

Try to open up new ways of thinking and operating, before you narrow your focus into what needs to be done. The challenges we’re facing today have never been solved, so we need to be open to new perspectives and ways of working together.

Use images, analogies, and metaphors that access your team’s hopes—what you hope to be true about your work together, and what you hope to accomplish. Ask open-ended questions that encourage alternate perspectives to the status quo. Try to activate positive emotions like authenticity, joy, power, and passion. But remember – the subconscious is at work and is shaped by individual experience.  Metaphors are not universally positive or negative. Check out the Frameworks Institute for some great resources on using metaphors for education and social justice.

Imagination is more important than knowledge. - Albert Einstein

Make it an experience.

When you’re planning your meeting, think about how you want people to experience the meeting. Consider the physical space – does it have a cramped, institutional feel, or is it open and light? Even if you’re assigned a less-than-ideal meeting space, are there ways you could set up the room that encourage openness, reflection, and collaboration?

What time of day is it? Have people eaten? Have you built in ample break time in your agenda?  It’s important for people to feel like their needs are being tended to so they can fully participate. Providing movement and breaks for people to check their email, use the bathroom, or just take a mental vacation helps them be more present in the time you’re working together.

But end on a practical note.

Make sure you end your meeting with some practical application, something that gives people a sense of accomplishment. Leaving with a sense of momentum helps people feel more productive about the work they’re doing together. Try and close the meeting with some clarity about where you are in relation to your objectives, what helped the team get there, and what’s next.  Encourage reflection and appreciation for team member’s contributions to the collective work.

And seek feedback.

Ask people how they think the meeting went, what they’d like to see more of at the next meeting.  This helps people take collective ownership of the work they are doing together, and hopefully makes them look forward to coming together again.

Designing effective and equitable meetings is both an art and a science. The National Equity Project offers a range of professional learning opportunities for helping you make the most of your meetings and agendas. Find out about upcoming learning events here.

This post was co-authored by National Equity Project Senior Coach Colm Davis. Colm is leading the development and facilitation of our learning seminar series.

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Three Keys to Effective and Equitable Meetings

1.) Effective meetings emphasize purpose and identity.

The purpose of any meeting should be more than getting through a list of items together.  If it were that simple, an email could probably do the trick. (If you’re calling a meeting for a task where an email could suffice – just send the email! You’re giving meetings a bad rap.)

Too often the question of why these people need to come together for this purpose is not clearly worked out in advance. For meetings to be effective, participants must be clear about the purpose of their time and work together, feel connected to the value of that purpose, and understand their role in working toward it.

As a meeting facilitator or convener, it’s essential to:

    • Give people opportunities to share what they care about
    • Help people make connections between their values and interests to what they’re doing there together
    • Connect people to one another so they gain a sense of belonging, community, and being on a team together
    • Invite everyone’s contribution, with an understanding that those contributions may look different.

Instead of just asking people to come to a meeting, invite people to be a part of a meaningful and collaborative experience that they will want to be part of again.

2.) Effective meetings encourage meaningful collaboration.

Most meetings involve people being told things, getting tasks assigned or clarified, followed by going off and completing work on their own. Each subsequent meeting becomes a report-back on individual accomplishments (or lack there-of). People tend to dread these meetings as they reinforce the feeling of being a cog in the machine.

Real collaboration and critical reflection are essential for adult learning. Facilitators need to design meeting agendas with ample opportunities for shared reflection, asking questions like:

    • How are things going?
    • Why do we think this is and what do we want to do about it?
    • How can we support each other to accomplish our work as a team?

Meetings should also allow for constructive disagreement and differing perspectives. Collaborative meetings create a welcoming space where people come together to share knowledge and their experiences, to engage in dialogue and get constructive feedback, make new meaning together and expand their thinking. The goal is that people leave feeling like they’ve contributed meaningfully to collective work and come away with some learning or new ideas they can use.


3.) Effective meetings shift power dynamics.

Most adults taking part in a meeting are keenly aware of who has control of the meeting, who has a voice at the meeting, and who makes decisions. Too often the dynamics people experience reinforce a sense of powerlessness or pointlessness – “it doesn’t matter what I say, they’re going to do whatever they want anyway.”

Facilitating powerful and equitable meetings requires paying careful attention to dynamics with an awareness of historical patterns of power and participation based on race, gender, class, age and role.

Disagreements can shut down a group with unbalanced power dynamics, because those with the power are perceived to automatically “win” while those without power feel devalued – again. Groups who are supported to experience balanced power dynamics are able to work through conflicts by helping each other see differing perspectives in ways that lead to doing better work together and achieving great results.

Learn how to put these keys in action to design better meetings and agendas at  an upcoming professional learning event.

This post was co-authored by National Equity Project Senior Coach Colm Davis. Colm is leading the development and facilitation of our learning seminar series.

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From the Mouths of Coaches

Last week we hosted leaders and educators from across the country at our annual Coaching for Equity Institute in Oakland, CA.  Here are some of the powerful reflections participants had to share after our three days together:

“I enjoyed connecting with educators across the country to talk and explore the most important work of schools – EQUITY. I left with new ways to ensure that equity will be infused into coaching conversations across my district.” – Troy Boddy, Director of Equity, Montgomery County Public Schools, MD

“The Coaching for Equity Institute expanded my thinking and repertoire of coaching skills to support and engage other leaders in our district’s equity work. I am excited to go back and begin integrating the content with our existing framework, structures, and processes.”–  Arronza LaBatt, Executive Assistant, Office of School Support and Improvement, Montgomery County Public Schools, MD

“I appreciate how the National Equity Project surfaces critical issues of inequity in education and community.  The Coaching for Equity Institute empowers particupants with skills and strategies to gracefully disrupt patterns of inequity in schools and systems.” – Travis Campbell, Director K-12 Student and School Success, Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI)

“The coaching role play activities were a phenomenal experience. I truly appreciate the feedback I received and even more so because it came from an unbiased party. I now have a more focused platform on which to base my own professional development to ultimately and effectively do the work that cannot go undone one second longer… Teaching so that ALL students learn.” – Patrice Turner, Director of Math Intervention, Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI)

“If you want to think, be pushed, be inspired, and do so in the company of other folks with our kids in the forefront of their minds – then the National Equity Project is for you!” – Ivy Martinez, Director, Impact & Diversity, Teach for America

There’s still time to register for our August Coaching for Equity Institute, but it’s filling up fast. Visit for more information and to register today.

Coaching for Equity

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How to Coach a “Resistant” Teacher – reblog from EdWeek

Shane Safir was a guest blogger for EdWeek’s The Art of Coaching Teachers blog by Elena Aguilar.  Elena writes,

“There’s one request for advice that I receive more than any other from coaches: How can I coach a resistant teacher?”

Shane questions the term “resistant” and turns it back to a series of questions for the coach, encouraging coaches to first question where this label came from by investigating the context, getting to know the story of the teacher, and looking in the mirror to examine one’s own emotional reactions to coaching, change, peers, etc.

Tips for Coaching a Resistant Teacher
Reblog from

In my years as a principal, coach, and professional developer, I’ve lived this question dozens of times and have learned to adjust my perception of the problem and the strategies I use to respond.

The Pitfalls of Perception
The answer to this perennial coaching question–how can I coach a resistant teacher?–actually sits inside the question itself in the word “resistant.” When we label a client “resistant,” we create a psychological and even moral distance that can undermine our goals. Resistant means “refusing to accept new ideas or changes.” This label carries a layer of judgment that may prevent us from trying to understand our coachee’s reality, dilemmas, competing commitments, or even aspirations.

How can we really determine that a coachee has refused to work toward change? What if 90% of her has refused, but a hopeful, dormant 10% is open to your support? What if she is actually fearful, mistrusting, under-confident, distracted by competing priorities, or so burned by previous ‘interventions’ that she can’t yet engage in the opportunity you’re offering?

How To Approach a “Resistant Teacher”

Here are a few tips for approaching your coachee that might soften her resistance and foster relational trust.

1. Look in the mirror. As human beings, we have a natural tendency to look “out the window” for external sources of our current challenges. Resist that tendency, and take a moment to notice your own reactions to this coachee. Do you have a physiological response as you prepare to coach him or her? Does your body become tense or rigid? What emotions come up when you think about this person – fear, anger, distress, frustration? All of these reactions can distort the way you perceive and approach your coachee. Simply noticing your own physical and emotional signals and taking a deep breath may be enough to interrupt the auto-pilot response and shift to a more “distress-free” stance…

2. Take an inquiry stance. Inquiry is an ongoing process of asking questions and examining evidence in order to improve our practice. Taking an inquiry stance means letting go of judgment for curiosity. Replacing answers with questions. Eschewing superficial or dismissive explanations (“This teacher must not care about kids”) and digging for deeper ones. As you shift into an inquiry stance, you can ask yourself:

    • What might be underneath the resistance I’m feeling?
    • What have been this teacher’s previous experiences with coaching or other improvement initiatives, and how might they be influencing her response to me?
    • How connected does she feel to the school community and its leaders?
    • How safe does she feel to discuss weaknesses in her practice?

3. Invite your coachee’s story. Everyone comes with a story, but rarely are people asked to share it. A key strategy for transforming “resistance” into openness is to invite your coachee to share his or her story as an educator and as a person. This might not feel like traditional coaching at first blush, but remember that it’s in the service of building trust and relationship, which allow you to get enrolled to do the hard work of capacity-building.

Schedule time-perhaps even off-site with fewer distractions- to simply connect with your coachee and hear her story. You might ask:

    • How and why did you become an educator?
    • What are your fears about engaging in this coaching work together?
    • If you opened yourself to coaching, what do you think might be possible? What could we achieve together?
    • What’s been your best experience of support or mentoring?
    • How can I best support you?

Here are a few additional tips I’ve picked up along the way:

Don’t Take it Personally
As coaches, we sometimes personalize behaviors that we perceive as resistant. When teachers didn’t immediately welcome my support, I wondered what I had done to merit this response. Here I was, organizing myself professionally, showing up with respect and humility, investing my time in this person’s growth. And they didn’t want me around? The truth is, nine times out of ten it’s not about you at all!

Assuming it’s personal initiates a mental spiral of self-doubt and blame that, similar to the psychology of labels like ‘resistant,’ keeps you from unearthing the deeper factors at play. Your role as the coach is to understand who this person is, what makes her tick, and to build a strong enough relationship that you can become a catalyst for change.

When you find yourself personalizing, it’s important to take a step back, notice your response, and detach enough to see yourself participating in this psychodrama rather than holding the bigger picture for yourself and the coachee. Only then can you re-engage with compassion and genuine curiosity about what is causing the behavior and how to help the client get past it.

Don’t Overemphasize Technical Issues

One final tip is not to enter with a technical approach when the client data (body language, words, feedback from colleagues) calls for a relational one. It’s so tempting to grab a tried-and-true lesson plan or pressure-tested “best practice” and offer it as a way to enroll your coachee in a new direction or change agenda. Sometimes, in particular with new teachers who may be struggling to stay above water, a technical offering is spot-on, gaining you credibility and a platform for future coaching. However, I would offer that our prototypical “resistant teacher” requires a more relational approach that moves us safely past the emotional landmines and into the fertile zone of coaching and learning together.

Above all else, approach your coachee with humility. Having coached people both much less and much more experienced than me, and educators of diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, I’ve landed on humility as a core value and facet of my approach. When I arrive at coaching with equal parts humility and confidence in what I have to offer, I inevitably can see past “resistance” to the person in front of me – with her own unique story, values, and capacities to build from.

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5 Coaching Skills Every Manager Should Use

1. Listen without judgment. Being able to listen without judgment is key to any relationship – coaching or otherwise. Two forms of listening we encourage coaches and managers to employ are constructivist listening and active / reflective listening. Constructivist listening is effective for engaging in conversations that are both intellectually demanding and emotionally challenging.  Active/reflective listening helps ensure mutual understanding.  Both forms of listening are extremely beneficial for the talker as they provide emotional release and reassurance that you’re willing to listen to their point of view.

2. Get permission to coach. Whether you are a coach or a manager, you can set the stage for a successful partnership with your colleagues by outlining at the outset mutual goals, expected outcomes, and potential obstacles.  These shared agreements help to build relationship, and are helpful to revisit as obstacles inevitably arise. As a manager you may assume that you already have permission to tell your colleagues what to do or how to change (a “Wag the Finger” mentality)– but doing the work of identifying shared agreements and outcomes will help you all to be more effective.

Stephen Colbert - Wag The Finger

Stephen Colbert/Wag The Finger

3. Ask probing questions. There’s a difference between clarifying questions and probing questions.  Clarifying questions are simple questions of fact – like “did you do this?” or “do you understand?” But probing questions are intended to help your colleagues to think more deeply.  There’s no “right” answer to a probing question, and they can’t be answered with a “yes” or “no”.  Good probing questions help create a paradigm shift, empower your colleagues to solve their own problems without deferring to you or another “expert”, and move their thinking from reaction to reflection.

4. Be mindful when giving feedback. Feedback is useful when it is audible, credible, and actionable (see CES National’s Principles of Giving Feedback).  Give it with care, let the recipient invite it, be specific, avoid evaluative judgments, and always speak for yourself.

“The mere phrase ‘Can I give you some advice?’ puts people on the defensive because they perceive the person offering advice as claiming superiority. It is the cortisol equivalent of hearing footsteps in the dark.

– David Rock, “Managing With the Brain in Mind”

 5. Develop your own emotional intelligence.  Daniel Goleman coined the term “emotional intelligence” in 1995.  Since then, he’s identified five key components of emotional intelligence in the workplace: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill (Goleman 2004).  Coaches and managers must be able to manage their own emotional responses and make strategic choices about when and how to share their own feelings and thoughts according to the goals they are trying to accomplish.

Learn these skills and more at the National Equity Project’s Coaching for Equity Institute.  

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