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  • Writer's pictureSherry St. Clair

Coaching in Crisis: In This Time, Lead With Compassion

Updated: Apr 27, 2020

In recent weeks, as we’ve watched schools shut down in an effort to slow the spread of Coronavirus, I’m witnessing one of the most resilient groups of professionals I know—educators—again face challenges and rise to the occasion. With no warning, millions of educators have had to swiftly adapt their lesson plans, digitize their delivery, and engage students through various online channels. As of 2015-16 and per NCES data, only 21.1 percent of U.S. public schools, including charters, offered at least one course online. That, in a matter of weeks, 100 percent of all teachers are teaching everything online speaks to the flexibility, determination, and dedication of our teachers.

This has come with its obvious stressors on teachers. While teachers are experts in dealing with daily uncertainties, none of us was prepared for large-scale disruption from a pandemic that has turned how we teach upside down.

More than ever, our teachers need support. While I know this is a confusing time for instructional leaders as well, we coaches redefined can lean heavily on our real values. They are there specifically to provide us internal certainty so that we may better manage external uncertainty.

In Coaching Redefined, I laid out nine real values of coaches redefined—“real” meaning we do the work to embody and improve in them, not merely pay lip service to them. The nine real values are those I’ve seen in my decades of coaching experience to be the guiding principles that ground coaches when everything around them is always changing.

In this moment, the tools we use to support and grow our teachers are necessarily different. But the values remain the same. The difference is that, as we coach anxious and exhausted teachers, there is one real value that we should let lead our practice: compassion. In favoring this real value, we ensure that we are sensitive to and understanding of the emotional needs of our teachers. After all, if we take the humanity out of our coaching, we will harm our relationships with teachers and undermine their growth potential.

Compassion can be defined as “empathy in action.” If empathy is our effort to stand in someone else’s shoes and imagine their experience or suffering, then compassion is the decision we make to support this person and ease their suffering.

The neat thing about compassion is that it will serve you, too. Showing others compassion activates the parasympathetic system, the system that calms our nervous system and releases oxytocin to calm our minds. Those who receive compassion experience a similar benefit of a calmed nervous system, in addition to feeling less pressure to achieve and more resilient in the face of stress. Compassion nurtures positive connection between two people, which has been shown to reduce workplace stress.

Furthermore, stress and anxiety impair cognition. If our teachers are to learn from us and grow through coaching, their minds must be receptive to learning. When it comes to coaching, compassion is not only kind; it is a practical necessity.

In this unique moment in time, coaches have the opportunity to develop a practice of coaching infused with compassion. Right now, it is urgent in order to enable productive coaching sessions. Yet, you might find that in leading with compassion, your relationships with your teachers grow more trusting, more authentic, and more effective in unlocking their unlimited growth potential.

A Framework for Compassionate Coaching:

The following six steps will weave compassion into your coaching sessions, as well as the space and time between them:

1) Ask your teacher how she is doing, and actively listen to her response. Start every coaching session by inviting the teacher to share how she is feeling, what she is worried about, or what is causing her stress—on both a personal and a professional level. Compassionate coaching leaves room for personal conversation, especially in a moment when the personal and the professional are bleeding into each other more than usual.

As the teacher talks, actively listen. Give her your undivided attention and focus. When she’s done, summarize back to her what she said to show you understand her stress. If appropriate, share an experience you had that was similar and also caused you stress or anxiety to show you empathize. Remind her that feeling a heavy burden of stress right now is normal and expected, and we are all trying to figure this out as we go. Encourage her to be compassionate with herself and extend herself patience and grace.

2) Parse what she can control from what she cannot. Most of us have a new list of worries right now causing outsized stress. Pausing to separate the things we can change from those we can’t is a productive way to right-size our worries and shift our focus to what we can influence. Leading a teacher in this process is also a way to winnow down the list of issues in front of her in order to decide which one you can work to improve now.

3) Find something positive, no matter how small, in the source of her stress. Ask the teacher what, if anything, that is pertinent to the source of stress is working reasonably OK. Re-focusing her on something positive, however small, will help provide a feasible entry point into improving or resolving the issue at hand.

4) Devise a solution or identify a path out of her stress. Together, brainstorm ideas and devise a plan to address the source of her stress so that you can help ease it and find a solution for it. Keep in mind that your teachers can only handle so much right now; now is likely not the time to tackle big goals. Strive for smaller goals that don’t add pressure to your teachers’ lives but can have the opposite effect of providing light-weight wins.

Where you can, use a positive entry point to the action you both decide to take. In these extraordinary times, this plan might benefit from including a general practice she can adopt to manage her stress and anxiety, such as journaling about her feelings or sitting quietly for five minutes every day and focusing on her breath. There is no need to feel limited by your typical coaching toolkit when tools from other fields might bring your teacher comfort and indirectly benefit her teaching practice.

Note: Many teachers are looking for assistance with virtual teaching. Here are two resources I’ve found valuable: Wide Open School, Google Classroom distance learning resources.

5) Check in with her before your next coaching session. Compassion feels more genuine when we receive it with some consistency. At least once in between your coaching sessions, check in with your teachers. Given that we aren’t able to check in with our teachers in person, leave as many channels—from video chat to text messages—open for check-ins as you can. Ask each how he or she is progressing with plans you’ve established with them. Importantly, invite them to share honestly when something isn’t working so that, in your next session, you can amend the plan to better meet their needs.

6) Lastly, I know that this crisis is causing you stress, as well. You are, rightfully so, extending your teachers patience right now as they adapt their teaching. Show yourself the same patience as you adapt your coaching; it will refresh you and allow you to remain mentally and emotionally available to your teachers. Writer Jack Kornfield said it best: “If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.”

On a final note, I want to express my enormous gratitude for all educators and instructional leaders. You are also on the front lines—of doing everything you can to ensure that our students continue to learn, grow, develop, and maintain some sense of normalcy in their lives. We are so lucky to have you.

How can I help you? Please connect with me to share your own concerns or ask for assistance. We truly are all in this together.

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