Hello, I hope this finds you well. This is the weekend in the US when, for most states, the clocks go back an hour. It is, therefore, my favorite weekend of the year. Plus, I get to indulge my favorite delusion, that I will take advantage of the change in the time to start getting up earlier. It’s not going to happen, but it’s a nice idea.
I have had a very busy, very stressful, but quite wonderful couple of weeks. Lots to think about and talk about. This Coaching Letter is about two big ideas: attribution theory (yes, again, just like CL #153 and #152) and perceived self-efficacy (yes, again; I wrote about in CL #149).
Here is why I want to write about attribution theory again. After I read The Person and the Situation, by Ross and Nisbett, I kept thinking about all the ways in which, in education, we put too much emphasis on the personal characteristics of the educators in any given situation, and too little on the situation itself, to explain what’s going on. I thought of lots of examples, including teacher evaluation, coaching, implementation of new programs and policies, and so on.
Then I had one of those stupefying moments when I realized that I have written several pieces on this very topic that I had, believe it or not, managed to forget about. Yes, I know that sounds ridiculous, but given how crazy life has been lately, maybe it’s understandable? So, please, take a look at these articles which appeared in ASCD Express:
Educator Stress is a Leadership Challenge. Here’s What Leaders Can Do About It. OK, you’re going to love the irony of this: this piece was published the day of the lockdown, March 12, 2020. I actually wrote it on the last day of 2019, and I may be wrong about this, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t know what a coronavirus was then. The article makes the point that while educators can certainly practice self-care (although I don’t use that term either; I’m pretty sure that only became popular post-lockdown), there are many actions that leaders can take to reduce the pressures on educators, including but not limited to expressing care, reducing the number of initiatives in play, building trust and collaboration, and improving communication. In other words, we place our focus on the role of the person in regulating the stress that they are under, rather than focusing on changing the conditions in which they are being asked to operate.
A lot of people I talk to think this year is harder than last. When I ask questions about why that is, a response I got recently seemed to sum it up: last year was all ‘space and grace’, and this year it’s like everything is supposed to be back to normal, but it’s not. What they are saying is that, last year, there was recognition that the circumstances were extraordinary, and modifications were made accordingly. But now, what, people have run out of patience? There’s some compelling need to go back to the way things were before, because that was really great? So, good time to re-up this article. Let’s be more strategic about what we are expecting educators to pay attention to right now, because they don’t have a lot of cognitive capacity in reserve. But let’s also take a hard look at what we think normal is, and be ready to re-invent that.
How School Leaders Create the Conditions for Effective Coaching. I wrote this one with Sarah Woulfin, who is a national leader in researching effective professional learning for coaches. And look, it even has the words creating conditions in the title. The argument here is that individual coaches are expected to do work as individual practitioners (such as explaining how to think about coaching, negotiating their role, and deciding what instructional practices to promote) that would be more efficiently accomplished at an organizational level, and that coaching would be better set up for success if leaders situated coaching within certain conditions, including but not limited to: establishing a strong model of high-quality instruction, establishing a strong model of coaching, building capacity for coaching (which includes providing professional development to the clients and building and district leaders as well as to the coaches themselves); and creating systems and structures to support coaching.
Most of the coaching work I do is with my excellent colleague Kerry Lord, and we have become increasingly bold in suggesting to districts that hire us to help them with their coaching model that a significant portion of that coaching model should have nothing to do with the actual coaching, but be about the work of leaders to create conditions conducive to effective coaching—if you want to know more about that, please contact me. Is this the time to mention that I am still shocked by the number of coaches who are hired and assigned with no training or preparation in coaching? You can call me about that, too.
OK, so to pivot to perceived self-efficacy… I wrote in CL #149 about how I had submitted an article to Ed Leadership on the topic, but that I didn’t expect my manuscript to be published because I’ve written for Ed Leadership before only to have my contribution rejected in favor of an article by a better known writer. And I was right about the part about not being published again this time—but not because a bunch of famous folk submitted pieces. This time I have to just admit that other people wrote better articles. So, you might want to take a look at:
Four Myths on Coaching and Efficacy, by Lauren Vargas and Rashaida Melvin. Those myths, which I totally agree with, in fact I really wish I’d written this article, are:
Myth #1: Teacher DEI (Diversity Equity Inclusion) training makes schools more equitable. (It may be a good an necessary first step, but it is barely the start of the journey.)
Myth #2: Teachers must change their minds before changing their actions. (The example in the article is particularly neat and efficient).
Myth #3: Teachers grow the most when they arrive at the answers themselves. (Totally agree with this as well—we talk about this in our coaching workshops—and again, the example in the article is a good one. Let’s just retire the phrase buy-in.)
Myth #4: Teacher growth is a long and slow process. (Actually, if you apply the principles in #2 and #3, teachers can make changes in their practices in a short amount of time.)
Efficacy in the Face of Adversity, by Katie Egan Cunningham and Alexandra Pfleging. This article is a little thinner than Vargas and Melvin’s, but it does make the useful point that educators who seem to be faring better during the pandemic and its attendant stresses came into this period with a greater sense of well-being to begin with. As my favorite line in my favorite spy movie puts it: “When did Noah build the ark, Gladys? Before the rain. Before the rain.” So much of what is important, including what sustains us, is not about reacting to what is happening right now, but is about what we have been doing all along. When I was visiting Black Rock School in Bridgeport last week, I noticed a poster on the wall that showed the difference, measured in time spent and words read, between spending 20 minutes a day reading, or not. I wish I had taken a picture of it. The point of course is that 20 minutes of reading a day adds up to tens of thousands of words over the course of a school year, and hundreds of thousands of words over the course of a school career. Same with exercise—an occasional punishing trip to the gym conveys a lot less benefit than daily walks with the dog. During a crisis is not the time to start taking care of your people, just as when your water heater bursts is not the time to download your insurance company’s app.
I don’t mean to sound preachy, so I’ll just say that I recommend the article and all the other useful research it cites. And a good related resource is the latest episode of Katy Milkman’s podcast, on the power of negative thinking, which is worth listening to not just because of the story of the sinkhole, but it is an amazing story. And all episodes of the podcast, which is about good decision-making and rational choices, are worth listening to.
I hope you have a great week. Please let me know if there is anything I can do for you. Best, Isobel
Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
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The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders:Principles and Practices, Routledge