Sherry St. Clair
The Perils of Passion
How to avoid the pitfalls of enthusiasm and instead turn it into a superpower
What inspires me about my work are the passionate instructional leaders I have the honor to coach. Like so many educators, instructional leaders are devoted to doing what’s best for students—it’s the air they breathe. There’s nothing they’re unwilling to learn or do to help students achieve, and I absolutely love to see that commitment in the field of education.
As part of their roles as coaches, instructional leaders must remain aware of the latest instructional strategies, tools, and technologies. They must also keep on top of any new methods and research that may help them be more effective as coaches and help their teachers learn. Especially today, with so many incredible technologies always coming to market, it’s easy for instructional leaders to get really excited about them and want to use several at once.
A few years ago, I was doing instructional rounds at a school with the administrator in charge of professional learning and coaching. She was a wonderfully passionate instructional leader, and I was elated to serve as her instructional leadership coach. On breaks between our classroom visits, she listed with much enthusiasm all the strategies, technologies, and tools she’d been teaching in PL sessions. Her capacity to stay on top of new resources and understand how to use them was impressive. She was instructionally strong and evidently full of ideas.
When the list of resources an instructional leader is providing teachers in PL and coaching sessions is long, this always raises a red flag for me. So what the administrator shared next as we walked did not surprise me. She expressed frustration that her teachers were not growing. In her effort to help them make at least some gains, she explained, she continued to share with them yet more ideas and tools.
I had compassion for her—her heart was in the right place. She truly wanted to help her teachers grow. She was working persistently to provide them resources she hoped would be helpful. Yet she was making a mistake that is a common risk of passion: her enthusiasm for tools and ideas were distracting her from the bigger picture. And that is—teachers are learners, too. Like students—or any of us, for that matter—teachers can pursue only so many goals at once.
While of good intention, her expectation that her teachers constantly try new ideas was causing them to give only surface attention to all and learn deeply from none. Without being aware of it, she had prioritized the learning topic or tool over the learning itself.
My job was to gently explain to her how she’d overwhelmed and confused her teachers. She had forced her teachers into a situation where they were trying to please her—by trying this technology today and using that strategy tomorrow—when their sole focus should have been on intentional, methodical growth at a pace that was both realistic and allowed for deep learning.
In an effort to remind her that teachers are learners too and need support, structure, and patience, I shared with her the following best practices of coaching adult learners:
1. Motivate teachers through intrinsic rewards.
Author and speaker Daniel Pink devoted a book to how to motivate adult learners, especially when tackling complicated, problem-based, and unpredictable work—as is the nature of our work as educators. Where external rewards, like money, are effective motivators for simple, rote tasks, they will fall short of sustaining a person’s motivation through complex work. For such work, adults are motivated by the deep internal pride, sense of accomplishment, and discovery of new potential that results from persevering through complex, unpredictable work. In Drive, Pink explains that in order to unlock intrinsic motivation, three factors must be in place: 1) autonomy, 2) mastery, and 3) purpose. Each of these intrinsic motivation indicators are enabled through the best practices listed here.
2. Focus on one goal at a time that is also tied to overall school goals.
Too many goals—and thereby too many strategies, tools, and technologies—at once scatters, confuses, and overwhelms teachers. Deep learning is focused learning. Help teachers focus on one goal at a time. With each teacher, craft personal goals together to protect the teacher’s sense of autonomy. However, as the coach, you must ensure that any individual goal you and a teacher identify must be tied to larger school-wide goals. This provides a sense of purpose, in that teachers can see how their personal goals are supporting overall goals that are aimed at improving student outcomes. Furthermore, it prevents wasting teacher time on goals that pull them away from the larger school goals to which they know they are accountable.
3. Give teachers time to master new learning—individually and with their teacher teams.
Allow your teachers to take the time they need in order to master a topic, strategy, or tool. For teachers to learn in meaningful ways, they must be given the time to apply their learning, grapple with it, make mistakes, and discuss setbacks and solutions with their teacher teams. Doing so allows teachers to nurture a growth mindset. And it also frees them to benefit from the “multiplier effect,”—where exponential growth can be achieved through the combination of individual study and learning from the knowledge and insights of others.
4. Free your teachers to decide how they learn best, while remaining available to support them and scaffold as needed.
Give your teachers the autonomy and space to decide how they want to learn. Trust them to know how they learn best and what they need to do in order to optimize their growth. Reassure them that no matter the roadblocks they might encounter, you are there to support them. Just as our students need scaffolding, so too do our teachers. Check in on a regular cadence with each of your teachers to offer individualized guidance and make sure each remains on a growth trajectory, despite any bumps in the road.
5. Celebrate successes—and failures.
For deep learning to take place, failures must be welcome, even encouraged. Frequently communicate your expectation of a growth mindset. Remind teachers that mistakes are a natural part of growth and that they are safe making them in your school. Celebrate every success. And celebrate every setback that a teacher works to overcome. Hold up these teachers as models of perseverance and the enormous pride that awaits all learners when they persist through challenge and discover even deeper reservoirs of potential than they had before.
Your passion and enthusiasm for teacher growth is an asset and something worth protecting. Yet, we must always remember that when passion goes unchecked, it can lead to scattered PL and coaching that serves to demotivate teachers.
When your passion is focused, it can be a superpower. When your passion is channeled into intentional coaching and deliberate support, it is contagious and conveys your faith and positive expectation in teachers and their unlimited potential.
Sherry St. Clair, president of Reflective Learning LLC, is the author of Coaching Redefined: A Guide to Leading Meaningful Instructional Growth. She coaches instructional leaders globally, with the aim of helping administrators, coaches, and teachers create the optimal learning environment for students. Additionally, she serves as a Senior Fellow for the International Center for Leadership in Education.