Coaching in the time of COVID-19
It is Sunday afternoon, and we have spent the weekend doing a little less than the weekend before. And last weekend, we did a little less than we did the weekend before that. And so it goes on, because my kids - students at my school - have not seen their classrooms since 22nd January. In that time, the country we call home has gradually and quietly closed, and with each passing week the deadline of life returning to normal has extended out over and over again. In that time, teachers have moved from working from school without students, continuing with units of work as best they could online, to redesigning units so that they were more manageable for families, to reshaping the online school day so that they conference with each child, assess progress each week, and continue to be a lifeline of normalcy and care during very unstable times. And through all this I have felt very lost as a coach.
As I moved alongside teachers with these changes I have continued to be responsive and respectful as they negotiated the turbulence. With the agility needed to manage these changes, the purpose of coaching began to shift - and so too did my approach: but this adaptation was way slower than I'd like to admit.
In those first few weeks, I see that, just like the teachers, I was trying to maintain some sort of normality. We planned for the return of students, putting fresh spins on the launches of our coaching cycles - this was an optimistic time. We were only joined by a handful of countries in our closure and had a two-week window before school would resume - by all accounts, it felt like a justly cautious time but one that would be over quickly - soon we would get on with our plans for the year.
Then the start-time moved further away, and we adjusted again...and again. And eventually, we began putting our intended cycles on the back-burner because the learning goal-posts had changed to mirror the changing expectations we had of home learning. Trying to keep up was hard for many of us and teams tightened ranks. At this time a wonderful post from Diane Sweeney gave me heart: there was no reason why I couldn't do what I normally did with teachers in the physical absence of students: we could still co-teach, we could still plan, we could still reflect and act using student data. Yet timing became a challenge - unlike the normal school day where I could move between teams and individuals, suddenly all teachers were planning at the same time, videoing instruction at the same time. If I went to one planning session, I missed another, and if I wasn't there for the planning, I'd missed the boat completely; the time it took to fill me in on the details was time teachers couldn't afford. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the coaching teachers sought was increasingly personal and cognitive in nature, problem solving and planning as the educational and social climate morphed around us. As a result, I became more and more set in my office.
5 weeks in: we prepared again for the return of students. I joined teams and curriculum coordinators, adjusting timelines and revising units. What learning did we need to prioritise? There were wonderful conversations about how to leverage units of inquiry so that they supported our students' return to school after 5 weeks of home learning; teachers were sensitive to the broad range of experiences students were having during this time, and the possible emotional, social, and academic impacts that might need response. It was action-stations again - the possibility of having students back together injected fresh life into planning and innovation bubbled.
Rather than a return of students, our next change saw faculty move to their homes, taking their team planning and coordination online along with their instruction. And it was here, in our new, sudden isolation, that I found myself truly lost.
A post I wrote a while back for TeachBoost on the loneliness of coaching was popping up on my twitter feed, like an omen. Is this what I was feeling...lonely? I sheepishly returned to the post, feeling sure that I had based all the strategies on alleviating the feeling with physical proximity. I was right - in part. Turn up/show up (a.k.a be more visible) wasn't going to help right now, and clarifying my role wasn't really something that was high priority - it hadn't been long since I had done this with teachers as a collective and, to be honest, the concept felt egotistical in the current climate. My final suggestion - connecting with coaching colleagues - had some merit.* What I wanted though, was to connect with my school colleagues.
I should be clear: I was also paralysed by empathy and a fear of overstepping the mark. As teaching moved from classrooms to living rooms, we began to face more personal challenges. Some teachers made last-minute dashes to their home countries to be with loved ones, shouldering the challenge of teaching and connecting from different time-zones and automatic quarantine. Conversely, some teachers trying to return to Vietnam were stopped at the airport and placed in quarantine centers, as the government enacted moves to protect those already in-country. Some teachers juggled the learning needs of both students and their own children each day. Some teachers had their homes and buildings locked-down suddenly, and continued to teach while managing their toddler in the background or being completely alone - unsure when they might be able to leave their apartments. Many of these people watched the flight path to the international airport from their windows: the reality of the commitment we had made to plant ourselves here in HCMC for the foreseeable future embodied in the absence of planes gracing the skies.
There was no right way to connect. There was no perfect how-to for coaches in this climate. There was only one way I could see to progress - sincerity. I missed my colleagues, who - as often is the case in international schools - are far more than just people I work with. I didn't know what they needed, and I knew it wasn't as simple as asking.
So I started a new day with a virtual walk around, punctuating my 'stops' with voice notes. I knew these wouldn't require scrolling through, ensuring minimum effort and focus, and that people would hear me and the sounds of my house in the background. My kids might be breaking up their day laughing or arguing, the coffee machine might be roaring away. It didn't matter. I wanted people to know I was here, managing the day at home and thinking about them. I wanted to do more than say "Let me know if there's anything you need," because we are hard-wired to shrug it off politely. I wanted to ask "What do you need today?" "How are you feeling?" and "What have you been thinking about?" It's exactly how it starts in school after a break - and maybe these things are what matter now more than ever.
The response to these voice notes was a long cool drink after a long hot day - and often a voice note, too. Some people went straight to business - they'd meant to get in contact and they had something they were ready to work on. Others were more personal. It filled my cup to hear their voices and each one was nothing if not honest. Every single response was perfect.
So what am I learning? There is no one way to negotiate this unstable, confusing time. It is not a time to solutionise - there may be silver-linings here somewhere but for many teachers this time has brought into sharp focus why we do this work - the joy of working with children and young adults - and how much we value the social nature of learning. Exciting as it is to gain free access to an array of museums, expert tutorials and celebrity read-alouds, teachers are skilled at curating learning experiences to fit the needs of their students - and continue to do so from behind their laptops.
It is, however, a time to draw on our most compassionate selves. We are worried for our families in other countries. We are grateful for the protection we are given by our host country. We find solace in our students and the schedules we keep. And, for me at least, coaching affords me the chance to reassure others that we are all part of a community, even though we are separated. I will check-in. I will ask. I will respond: sincerely and with compassion.
*I should point out that like an angel Sandra Taylor Marshall from my Student-Centered Coaching Certification at UW-Madison emailed at this very time to offer group virtual coaching for coaches...I just have to get the timezones working for me! Thank you, Sandra; you will probably never know that just hearing from you made a world of difference.