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Working with Ego

Songbirds in cages in Hanoi
Keeping songbirds is common in VN; it is clearly a passionate pursuit for this homeowner on the train line in Ha Noi

Written as schools closed at the end of the 2019-20 academic year, this blog post was first published for TeachBoost in August 2020 on The LaunchPad, under the title Adapting to Coaching Changes by Working with Ego. I'll be writing a follow-up shortly to reflect on the thinking here and how the opening of this school year has impacted my coaching role.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has thrust instructional coaches into urgent work, leading to questions about what we should keep, what we should let go of, and whether or not education will ever be the same again. So what can I learn from the experiences of the academic year? And how can I prepare for the work to come?

A temporary glitch

In May, an open survey by the Instructional Coaching Group (ICG) looked into how working environments had changed in early 2020, and revealed that coaches were spending 82% of their time "surface coaching": work and conversations that did not involve a coaching cycle. Whilst it was a sample of convenience, this mirrored my experience.

At first, I felt that this was just a temporary glitch. I hoped that the dust would settle quickly and I could get back to the work I believed to be most impactful: deep coaching cycles that saw me embedded in the classroom as a teaching partner. I felt strongly that the values and practices I had developed were solid, honorable, and worth holding on to. Sacrificing them when so much was being taken away was unthinkable.

Back to normal?

I was one of the few coaches world-wide that was able to return to school before the end of the academic year, but it was not a return to business as usual. Curriculum was adjusted to match new timelines and learning environments and daily changes in district guidelines meant constant planning meetings. Coaching interactions remained "lite" for the majority of the teachers I worked with, even once I was back in the building.

What I strived for—deep coaching cycles—was not what teachers wanted. I was frustrated because I felt like full coaching cycles should be happening for me to be of value as a coach, and I worried about how my role was changing. I was holding on tightly to my values and expectations, but rather than find security in them I found that my pride became a barrier to accepting this new reality.

This is when I realized that I needed to find a way to let go or work with my ego, rather than steadfastly holding on to it.

Giving teachers what they need by working with ego

What I've learned is that I can't expect all conversations to involve a strictly-defined coaching cycle, and that I shouldn't be looking to entirely remove my ego from conversations either. Ego is essential to guide our decisions and behavior, and it helps us decide when to be assertive, when to be accommodating, and whether our goals are worthy and meaningful. Removing it entirely went too far, and holding on to it was tantamount to placing my needs above others.

Once I released my grip on what I thought I should keep hold of, the formality of coaching seemed to fall away. I was totally disarmed by the way conversations with teachers shifted. People divulged fears and anxieties. They expressed curiosity, shared coping strategies, and demonstrated a learning approach to our current situation. Coaching became an amplifier of these healthy ego traits, and a vehicle to help transfer those traits into actions that served students and their learning. A balanced ego became an integral part of coaching.

Working with my ego, rather than against it, meant greater buy-in from teachers and growing confidence that they could use their existing resources to handle these new challenges.

The pandemic this year has made me shift my focus from cycles that rely on the formality of the process and reduce ego to a more ego-balanced coaching process. There is a cycle, it just looks different for different people, depending on their needs and values.

Through all this, some things have remained constant too. Coaching cycles always involve some sort of follow-up, looking at student work, and looking at student and teacher growth. When the coaching work is valuable to the teacher and we, as coaches, see the effect on teacher and student efficacy, then the "path" we chose to travel together on was right.

Final note

As I prepare for the opening of the school year, I want to approach my worries about what deep coaching looks like with curiosity. I am choosing to be open to possibility, and I’m committed to asking my colleagues what has been working for them and why.

In the past I have relied on the feedback of teachers to measure the impact of coaching. In the current climate, I need to trust more in the idea that each teacher has different needs, and that a cycle may look different because of it. Yes, this is a new challenge, but one that I can navigate—and so can you.

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