Where To Start When Your Team Gets Stuck

Leaders I’ve worked with often express frustration when they feel clear about the equity work they are addressing, clear with others about where the group needs to go – but somehow the group gets stuck. Some members seem resistant, some aren’t engaging – for whatever reason, important work isn’t getting done.

When I’m coaching leaders in these situations, I often start by asking them to step back and get curious about what their people might be thinking, experiencing, and feeling. At the National Equity Project we have found great value in the work of John Heron who reminds us: “The dynamic of the group is grounded in the life of emotion and feeling. A crucial role of the facilitator is to manage the dynamic at the affective level.

Particularly with groups that are just getting started, or have just never seemed to “gel”, we consider how Heron’s “3 Forms of Anxiety” may be playing out:

Acceptance Anxiety (WHO): To what extent do people feel they belong and are valued on this team? How well do they know one another or feel comfortable expressing what they believe, want or need? How are these needs playing out across differences of race, gender, sexuality, role, experience?

Orientation Anxiety (WHY & HOW): How well to people understand why they are here and what they’re up to together? To what extent do they feel they’ve been a part of developing the team’s direction, or feel identified with the work of the team? How clear are they about what to expect about how the team will operate as they work together toward a goal?

Performance Anxiety (WHAT): To what degree do people feel confident that they have what they need to do what’s demanded? What levels of will, skill, knowledge & capacity are needed to tackle the equity challenges this team is taking responsibility for? Are they ready? Do they need more support?

All of these fears are human needs that play out in different ways for people – especially when there are changes in a group’s membership or focus. And all of them require both in-the-moment facilitation skills and thoughtful planning and design of team meeting time – to find ongoing ways to give time and support to address the needs in service of the equity work the team is working toward.

Learn more at our upcoming facilitative leadership trainings: Designing Meetings for Learning & Collaboration and Facilitating Group Dynamics for Effective Teams.

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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.

Learn how to develop these skills and more at our upcoming Instructional Coaching for Equity seminar.

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A Safe Place to Talk About Race

We are excited to share a brilliant new resource on racial healing: A Safe Place to Talk about Race – 10 Thought-Provoking Interviews by Sharon E. Davis. The book is a collection of interviews from Davis’ radio show on VoiceAmerica.

We are particularly proud of the contribution of our own Hugh Vasquez! Hugh’s interview – “When People of Color Turn to Self Hate” – addresses internalized oppression.


The book is available on Amazon.com. You can also tune into Davis’ weekly program at http://www.voiceamerica.com/show/2101/a-safe-place-to-talk-about-race. If you have questions for Hugh about dealing with internalized racism and oppression find him on Twitter at @hughjvasquez.

Posted in Bias, Changing the Discourse, Internalized Oppression, racial equity, Resources & Publications | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Donald Sterling: The Incident and the Institution

Anytime race enters the national conversation it’s important to watch and listen to how it unfolds. In many ways the Donald Sterling controversy has followed the standard discourse – the blame falls on Sterling as an individual racist, his comments as an isolated and unfortunate private incident that found its way to the public eye. But this incident has opened up the conversation for a deeper analysis of race and power dynamics within the institution and structures of sports in America. It has showcased how we still struggle with having conversations about race, in private or in public. And it has started an inquiry into how Sterling’s beliefs and implicit bias have shown up in his actions heretofore.

It’s been amazing to see the reactions of the players and fans – they have taken the higher ground. The team’s cool but committed protest of wearing their jerseys inside-out during warm ups of Game 4 showed they were not taking these comments in stride, but were also not going to give up their own work and efforts, nor the support of their fans, because of Sterling’s comments. In true Oakland style, fans brought signs like these to the game, acknowledging the controversy with humor while showcasing solidarity across difference.

How are we as educators and parents talking to our young people about the controversy? Here’s a few questions you might ask, to help kids unpack the systemic and structural aspects of this incident:

  • What are you hearing? How are people labeling the problem?
  • What are the layers you’re seeing?
  • Where do you see this in your own life or community?
  • What might you be able to do? Where could you be an upstander?

UPDATE: NBA Bars Clippers Owner Donald Sterling For Life

Posted in Bias, Changing the Discourse, Current Events, racial equity, Structural Racism, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

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 http://wendywesterbeke.net

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.

Posted in Changing the Discourse, Conferences & Events, Constructivist Listening, Emotional Intelligence, Leadership, racial equity, Relationships | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

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 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/eric-cooper/for-our-young-men-of-colo_b_4911854.html.

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 Trump 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?

Learn how to develop these skills and more at an upcoming Instructional Coaching for Equity seminar.

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.

Posted in Bias, Effective Teaching, Equity Pedagogy, Instructional Coaching, Relationships, school coaching | Tagged , , | Leave a comment