It’s never a great moment when a coachee comes back after trying something you suggested to find out it didn’t work. Or is it? In a recent conversation with a school leader who was facing a performance challenge, he expressed the following concern:
“So, I did it – I tried out that questioning strategy you offered me. It’s not working. I’m running into trouble.”
“It seems like it’s frustrating for you. What’s not working?”
“Well, I’m not in an evaluative position and yet she seems to be more interested in showing high performance, rather than reflecting on the experiment she tried…actually, it’s not even clear she tried the experiment.”
My initial reaction was concern that I had steered him in the wrong direction. In a sense, I did. It was his frustration that helped me to see that we were both looking through our problem-solving lens, with an eye toward knowing, rather than learning (and we even managed to do this with a questioning stance!). There’s nothing wrong with problem-solving, in fact, it’s what many of us are hired to do. However, problem solving tends to work best in a predictable environment, where you know A always results in B. Because we see the same patterns over and over, we begin to convince ourselves that we are operating in a predictable environment; instead, I’d like to offer that the challenges we face in our school buildings are much less predictable than we think. While there are “tried and true” solutions to performance problems, often, we can never “know” exactly what’s going to work with each unique teacher, principal, student or parent. So, we both shifted to a little less knowing and a lot more learning.
After recognizing that his way of “knowing” was one of focusing on the specific fix and sharing personal solutions from his days in the classroom, Todd shifted from the “hows” to the “whats.” More specifically, Todd realized he was caught up in the process and mechanics of what the teacher might change in the classroom, rather than the mindset and motivation driving the change. In their next meeting, Todd walked in with curiosity around how Usha was feeling while she was experimenting with a new classroom management strategy. Unable to shake his worry that Usha would be reluctant to experiment in the classroom, given her lackluster follow-through last time, Todd walked in with carrying his back-pocket solutions. The difference this time was that he held them lightly, hoping not to need them.
With a commitment to question around motivation, Todd walked into the next mentoring meeting with a focus on learning, empathizing, and holding back. Todd started with a clean state, holding his assumptions lightly, and began with a series of “What are you noticing…” kinds of questions. He asked questions like:
- What are you noticing about yourself when your students are most engaged? How about when they are least engaged?
- What are you noticing makes it easier or more difficult to test a new strategy in the classroom?
With these questions, Todd explored around the edges, testing his assumptions about Usha’s hurdles. By holding his assumptions lightly, Todd learned that Usha wasn’t reluctant to experiment at all, nor was she fearful to have Todd observe her in action. In fact, Usha welcomed Todd into the classroom to observe a new experiment on student group work. He learned that Usha’s real hurdle was that she felt her experiment was too big and she wasn’t sure how to narrow it down. With this new approach, Usha’s confidence grew, as she experimented with her own ideas, drawing on her personal creativity and the classroom experience shifted for the better. The most pivotal shift, however, came for Todd. He began to realize just how much his assumptions about a teacher’s hurdles influenced each mentoring conversation. It was important to shift his own mindset toward one of learning and away from one of knowing the solution. You can try this too, whether you have a coach or not. Find a buddy, one who is likely to challenge you, rather than commiserate with you. Invite them to ask you two simple questions:
- What do you believe to be true about [insert the challenge]?
- How might you be wrong about that? Or, what if you’re wrong about that?
Hopefully, with this shift from knowing to learning, you’ll have a similar experience to Todd – creating space for your conversation to go in a different direction than you originally thought (and probably were probably dreading).