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  • Patty McGee

Coaching: a Retreat for the Educator’s Soul

A spa replenishes. It’s a place we can go to let our mind and spirit drift to new insights and work out the soreness of tight muscles. It is a time to indulge in self care that fills us up and creates a sense of peace, fulfillment, and joy. Coaching replenishes too. It is a spa for the educator’s soul. For any of you educators who are doubting this analogy, read on.

Coaching is an opportunity to work out the kinks of instruction, indulge in exactly what you want to learn, and have one person who is there solely for you, who can help you revitalize yourself and your practice. Here are four ways I make the coaching experience spa-like:

1. Ask questions to discover the urgent focus. “What do you want to work on together today? What have you been most curious about lately in your own practice?” Teachers might not know quite what to say, and so I might follow-up like this to keep drawing out what is really at the forefront of their minds. “Remember, this is coaching. If you were being observed, I’d suggest you show off all your ‘mad skills’, but coaching time is for digging into the tough parts together, so let’s choose something really meaty.”

Why it’s vital: It’s really important to probe and listen before offering possible coaching topics, because sometimes a teacher takes a few moments to dare to say what they are most in need of. For example, teachers may say they have a general lack of confidence about assessing comprehension, or even a general lack of confidence—and knowing this at the get-go will give you tremendous insight on how to coach.

2. Let the educator choose the format too. When choosing a service at a spa, you pick what you need most—Shiatsu? Swedish? Aromatherapy massage? Maybe just a facial? When I coach, I want the teacher to make a great selection, so I offer options for how we can address the topic during the visit. A few favorites of the teachers I have worked with:

  • planning together and then co-teaching a lesson

  • trying out the same focus three times. For example, if a teacher is curious about how to decide what to teach during a conference, I may model that in one conference; we may do the next conference together; and then the teacher tries the third conference on his own (and I am his “phone a friend”)

  • having me observe the entire time, jot my noticing and reflections, and then discuss them together afterwards

Why it’s vital: By having a teacher choose the topic and the format, you better ensure the time together is well spent, and matches how she or he best learns. Just like at a spa, each teacher is unique in how she or he is revitalized. Reassuring, calming lavender? Invigorating deep tissue and eucalyptus? Ahhh, get the picture?

3. Create the Conditions for Me-Time. You don’t see bill-paying and child care and TV news going on in those spa waiting rooms. That’s because those everyday distractions would create more worry and concern, preventing us from finding that peaceful space within. So, how can we, the coach and educator, set up the environment similarly? The answer: arrange for a sub or co-teacher who will take on the role of supporting the class to allow the teacher and coach time to indulge in their own learning. It’s so lovely. The equivalent of spritzing the air with lemon-mint-rosemary oil, maybe even better. If a sub is not an option, lean on the old standbys of whatever keeps students independently engaged. Is this reading favorite books? Board games (the learning kind, of course)? Or some video students have been curious about on a topic you have been exploring? It pays off in spades: a half hour of coaching makes for a refreshed, joyful, more committed teacher.

Why it’s vital: Just like after a facial, the therapist hands you a list of all the things that made your skin feel so lovely, so too does a coach. However, these notes are far different from observation or evaluation (no domains or indicators or “that would get you a four on…”) I use notebook paper and a pen to create what look like sketch notes. They have the ideas we spoke about, resources to refer to, and some things we named as big moments of learning. Months and years later, many teachers have brought those notes back into our conversations and have mentioned how helpful they were and are.

4. Invite On-the-Spot Tweaks. A really good massage therapist will ask you to speak up if there is any adjustments she can make, like the pressure, the temperature in a room, an area in your shoulders that need some extra TLC. It is the same in a coaching visit. So often we realize that what we are working on together just isn’t helpful and so we adjust right on the spot. Just recently, in a coaching visit, the teacher originally wanted to talk about strategies for studying perspective in nonfiction but then we quickly realized that it was minilesson design that would be most helpful. We adjusted and it made all of the difference. I do this by checking in often with the teacher as we are working together, “Is this helpful? Is this what you were hoping to work on? Let me recap what we’ve done so far and jot it down.”

Why it’s vital: A few years back, on a busy weekend, I carved out a time for a spa treatment. I pored over the menu of options, being especially careful to choose the one I felt I needed—I mean, after all, I rarely have the time for a massage these days. I picked the one that promised balance of energy and stress reduction. It turned out to be a flop for me: some combination of stones and crystals and different essential oils that did not work on that kink in my neck. It was too late for me to turn back and ask for another treatment. I left feeling pretty much the same as I did when I arrived. This is the last thing I want to happen in a coaching visit, which are also rare opportunities for teachers. So, by adjusting and tweaking throughout the visit, it is truly customized for that teacher and the true purpose of coaching is realized.

There is a mountain of evidence out there about the effectiveness of instructional coaching and the impact it has on student learning, but what I want you to take away here is that the coaching experience itself should be the opposite of a clinical, research-laden time. It is truly about nurturing the soul of the educator. An experience when, in the midst of the challenges that teaching brings, there is a space for educators to reconnect with their teacher-heart, to walk away feeling renewed and refreshed in this complex, and beautiful vocation of ours.

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