ELENA AGUILAR is a teacher, coach and consultant with over twenty years of experience working in schools. Elena is also the author of The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation. She has been a frequent writer for Edutopia since 2008 and writes a blog on EdWeek Teacher for coaches.
Artists are notoriously messy. Their physical work spaces can be disorganized (at least this is true for the artist to whom I am married), and their processes can be haphazard, full of false starts, revisions, and crumpled pieces that never make it to completion. The drafts and sketches left in studios suggest that the messy creative process itself may be essential to produce to great work.
If coaching teams is an art, and the skills necessary to lead great teams take years of messy practice to develop, we are in a tough place. While artists often refine their practice in private, much of our growth and development as facilitators is public, evident when we lead team meetings or present professional development. Furthermore, there isn't a formula that can be used to build an effective team. All teams inevitably look and feel different-they are made up of people, after all, and it is these people who make teams potentially transformational and also challenging to lead.
Our big dreams for transforming schools depend on highly functioning groups of educators working together. This is a daunting challenge-and one I'll admit that I avoided for years. I hoped that our individual efforts would amount to transformation; I preferred working alone, and I hadn't experienced teams that could accomplish great things. When I was first in a role where I was asked to facilitate a team of adult learners, I didn't have the skill set I needed. I'm now ready to proclaim not only that yes, we have to build teams, but also that yes, we can.
It's been over a decade since I began coaching. My early efforts at facilitating teams included false starts and little grace or beauty. Over the years, I've worked on my craft with great commitment-I acquired knowledge and theory, I practiced skills over and over, and I figured out who I want to be as a leader.
The Art of Coaching Teams is deeply informed by my lived experiences and chronicles key moments of my journey toward powerful leadership. As much as it makes me cringe to reveal my rough drafts as a team leader, I hope that you will see that the art of coaching teams can be developed. Most important, I hope the tools, tips, protocols, and theory contained in these pages will help you find your own conviction and confidence that you can develop the skills to lead transformational teams.
A Tale of Two Teams
I would like tell you a story, a tale of two teams. The first team is a humanities team that I facilitated some years ago when I was a novice instructional coach working in a middle school that I'll call Wilson Middle School. (All names of people in this school are fictitious; see the note on anonymity following this introduction.) From my perspective, this team was disastrous. There was little trust, we didn't get much done, and I struggled as a leader. The second team was a team of coaches that I led after I'd had several years of experience as a facilitator. This team thrived, and I thrived as a leader. Based on many indicators, this team was a success.
Think of this tale of two teams as a serial: with each chapter of this book, I offer another episode from the stories to illustrate the art of coaching teams. So let me start the story-by starting at the end, with the successful team, so that I can offer you a vision for perhaps what might be. I'd like to transport you back to a typical Friday afternoon and offer a glimpse of what you might have seen in our small office.
Transformational Coaching Team, 2014
In one corner of the room, four coaches sit on the floor engaging in a role-play. Two take copious notes-as observers they're responsible for capturing what the coach and client say and do. Han is playing the coach in this scenario, trying to help Manny-who is playing a teacher-reflect on why his math lesson didn't go well. Han listens, nods, validates Manny's challenges in the classroom. She asks probing questions, asks him to clarify his ideas, and paraphrases what he says. Her face is open, smiling, compassionate. But Manny is being difficult, authentically portraying the teacher he was depicting.
Han breaks protocol. "You guys, I'm stuck!" she says as she dramatically throws her hands in the air. "I don't know what else to say!"
Angela laughs. "I'm so glad I didn't have to be the coach first in this one-I don't know what I'd say either."
I'd been sitting close by, listening to the role-play, but as I hear the observers start to offer their feedback I move away. I know they can offer each other excellent feedback, and I want to check in with the other group of coaches.
"Wait, Elena," Han says. "I want to hear your thoughts, too! I know you were listening to all that, so what do you think?"
"I'll come back. I want to let you guys debrief first."
As I roll my chair to the other side of the room where the other four coaches are debriefing their first role-play round, I hear Dave make a comment that sends his group into a fit of laughter. He puts his arm around Michele, comforting her. She'd just played the coach, and I pick up that Dave, who had been the client, hadn't gone easy on her.
Anna looks at me. "Michele was trying some new approaches today-you should have seen it."
"What did you do?" I ask Michele, who looks flustered.
"I don't know." She smiled and shook her head. "I was trying to use the confrontational stance-that's one of my professional goals this year. I guess I don't know how to do that."
"She was brilliant," Dave says. "She even asked us to record it so she can watch it later. Maybe she'll let you see it."
"Wow, that's great, Michele," I say. She groans. "I don't want to see that, and I don't want you to see it, either." I smile. "That's your decision, of course," I say.
Anna, who was an observer, shifts the group back onto the protocol. "I can start the debrief," she says. "I noticed some moments that were really powerful, Michele, and some where you might have been able to get more traction if you'd just rephrased your question."
I slide my chair a couple feet away from the group so that I can listen but let them have space to debrief. They know enough, they trust each other, and they don't need me there. Michele takes notes on Anna's sharp insights. Noelle grabs a document from her desk, a tool she created for herself that she offers to Michele. Dave commends Michele's bold moves.
At the end of the meeting, we regroup at our oval table that fits the eight of us perfectly. As we debrief the role-play, coaches reflect on their professional growth and identify additional areas of learning. They make suggestions for readings and activities and commit to plan a coaching session in the upcoming week. In pairs they reflect on the intention they'd set for the day, and Michele shares that she knows she demonstrated her intention to take risks. They fill out the feedback form for me, some of them writing much more than others. And then I open a few minutes for appreciations and begin by offering my own. Everyone is appreciated. Everyone offers at least one appreciation. The words are important, but more important is the feeling that envelopes the room, one of indescribable respect and admiration-the feeling of a group of people who care deeply for each other, who enjoy each other's company, and who learn with and from each other.
For two years I was the manager of this team of coaches, and I felt that my primary role was to develop their skill, knowledge, and capacity to coach. When I created the model for our coaching program, I included an entire day of professional development every week. Monday through Thursday, the coaches were at sites-working with individual teachers and administrators, leading professional development sessions, facilitating department and grade-level meetings, participating in instructional leadership teams, gathering and analyzing data, and much more. On Fridays, without exception, we came together to reflect, learn, plan, and reenergize.
By the time I first met with this team in August 2012, I had a lot of ideas about how to create a highly functioning team. I knew that I'd be in a unique position with these eight coaches: although I was their boss, I viewed myself primarily as their coach, as the person responsible for helping them become the coaches and leaders that they wanted to be and that, ultimately, our students needed them to be.
We saw impressive results in the schools we supported, including growth in student learning, growth in teacher professional practice, increases in teacher retention, and improvements in collaboration among teams-all indicators of the work of an effective team of coaches. Perhaps most significant was what we learned about teams-about the utmost importance of teams and what it's like to be on a high-functioning team. Although many of us knew that teams were essential in transformation efforts, we hadn't experienced one that was collaborative and deeply caring and that got stuff done. The health of our team allowed us to go deep into individual and shared learning and into the scariest nooks and crannies-the ones where conversations about race and class, fear and despair, ego and emotions all reside. We challenged each other, pushed...