Coaching during COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a sudden shift to distanced teaching and learning that upheaved education as we knew it. Newly-virtual teachers had to learn new technologies, processes, and instructional strategies on the fly. While at the same time, newly-virtual coaches had to figure out how to best support these educators in this new reality.

Just like the need for teachers to connect with students, how can coaches connect with teachers in meaningful ways when they are not physically together? How can they facilitate effective and ongoing professional learning? And how can technology assist in the process?

I recently had a video conversation with Elena Aguilar, a transformational coaching expert and the author of multiple books including The Art of Coaching, about these important and timely topics. During our discussion, she shared valuable insights and practical advice for education leaders.

In this time of uncertainty and as we look toward the next school year, do districts need coaches?

Yes, yes, yes! Coaches are needed more than ever because teaching is harder than ever right now. Teachers have been under more stress and pressure as they’ve had to make changes to the way they think about instruction and curriculum. A coach is a thought partner for a teacher – it’s somebody who can help teachers think about alternatives and other approaches, and who can support them emotionally during this time and beyond.

With distanced teaching and learning, how has the role of the coach changed?

I’ve had coaching calls and been facilitating learning where people’s kids or pets or other loved ones come in, and this is just part of life. I’ve also had meetings with dozens of principals who were all at home and some of them were wearing pajamas. It made me think about how teachers, who are meeting with their principals in a virtual space, are going to see more complexity to who their principals are. This shifts the power dynamics a bit and humanizes people. So while there are challenges with coaching in a more virtual setting, there’s a lot of potentials, too.

There’s potential in coaches and teachers being able to more easily meet together, whereas before there might have been more logistical challenges. For example, before a coach might have had a meeting scheduled with a teacher during the teacher’s prep period and then the teacher is called off to go substitute for someone else and the coach can’t meet with them. That’s less likely to happen now.

There’s also a potential for coaches to expand their traditional repertoire of coaching strategies, so they’re not just talking about instructional lesson design or assessments. They can now really expand into the more transformational grounds of coaching or inter-transformational coaching.

It’s hard to talk to anyone these days and not have an authentic moment of ‘how are you?’ and this is where coaches can hold some space as it relates to emotional support for teachers. This isn’t about a coach being a therapist or a counselor, and it doesn’t mean the entire coaching conversation has to be about emotions, but there are now more opportunities for coaches to listen to teachers and perhaps help them process some of the fear, disappointment, sadness, or uncertainty that many are feeling.

How can coaches and teachers collaborate and celebrate together, even when they’re not physically together?

Let’s say at the end of a typical school year there’s a big staff meeting and people are going to share their celebrations or their appreciation. But there are 30 or 40 staff members and everybody wants to share something. After 20 or 30 minutes, most people – particularly introverts – are exhausted, but everybody keeps talking.

I’m really interested in tendencies toward introversion or extroversion, and how they impact our energy levels. So, take that end-of-the-year celebration, and rather than everyone being in one room and celebrating bright spots from the year, what if everybody recorded their own three- to the five-minute video instead? On Monday, ten people would have the opportunity to put their videos out for everyone to watch, comment on, and appreciate at a rate and pace that works best for them. And then, on Tuesday, ten more videos would be released, and so on.

This process helps educators actually listen to each other better, as well as have more energy to listen. And, there’s more of an opportunity for engagement. There are so many different virtual platforms and structures available to talk to each other, to share, and to facilitate this type of process. And while there can be fatigue with being videoed so much, there’s a great possibility. I think there is perhaps more potential – or different potential – for equitable access and for communication compared to everyone being in a room together. Of course, it’s going to take some time to perfect this as educators continuously try things out, see what works and what doesn’t, and make modifications as needed.