An Interview With Jamie Almanzan

Jamie Almanzan has presented at TLC previously, and we’re excited that he’s agreed to present again this year.  His work helps us better understand the complexity of coaching, and the complexity of any interaction. I had the opportunity to interview Jamie recently, and we discussed his interest and approach to coaching. In the weeks leading up to our annual conference I’ll be posting interviews with the experts who will be presenting. I hope they inspire, educate and provoke new thinking. You can keep up with the interviews by subscribing to this blog.

How did you come to be interested in coaching? 

A combo of people encouraged me to get involved in coaching, and lately, several people have suggested that I write a book, but writing has never been a driver for me. I don’t find writing interesting; I find it a chore. But I’m actually beginning to look forward to it.

The focus of the book will be the coaching mindset and using coaching skills in different capacities, so it’s not just coaches I will be talking to, but district and school leaders, teachers, etc. A lot of my work involves supporting school districts, including educational leaders, principals, and teacher leaders, to move the system and make it better suited for the most underserved students.

Lately, I have been using Michael Fullan’s article about the right and the wrong drivers for change. For example, a wrong driver would be focusing on tech as opposed to instruction. I love this perspective because of the way it helps depict how working hard on a bunch of stuff does not necessarily translate into the change we want to see.

Let’s say, for example, that a couple of people are working hard to make sure that iPads are widely available but no teachers are using them. My coaching focuses on how to support teachers. What do teachers want to learn? Using the above example, in what ways does technology support what teachers want to get better at?  So the goal becomes aligning the system to be about what kids need know and how we are supporting students: What we need to do differently than what we are currently doing – something  that is more supportive of the students and letting teachers and administrators ask for what they need; that is, creating a district-wide learning culture.

What are some of the core ideas in your approach to coaching? 

My core ideas involve systems change. To me, the four most important leadership strategies are the same as coaching strategies.  Actually, the first three are listening. Learn to listen to better understand how your brain is limited – how we all have biases about the world. Our brains are hardwired to believe that the way we see the world is the right way, so we have to condition our brains to listen to other people’s perspectives to support them to grow based on what they want to get better at.

So, those three listening strategies are the foundation for my approach to coaching. The fourth strategy is to ask better questions – catalytic questions that help people come to their own learning.

My coaching also involves getting districts and people to talk about where inequities in their system lie. I am constantly trying to help people see that our intent and our actions often do not match.

Listening is core to finding out what you want to do. That part is not that hard.  Most people can name what they are trying to achieve. But alignment of their actions is often where the “aha” moment comes – they hadn’t realized how a certain action would never allow for a certain kid to get better at X or Y, or whatever.

Coaching is “the how” of getting better at asking questions and listening to help reach the goal of equity; the broader goal of equity is “the why.” My work is to create a public school system that truly supports and educates the public. The public is not the one or two groups that consistently benefit from public schooling; the public means everybody. So,  we need not just to meet the needs of kids in general, but the kids whose needs we historically have not met, such as the African American, Latino, South East Asian, American Indian kids; kids in poverty; kids learning English; and kids in special education.

The fact that I can rattle these groups of kids off so easily underscores the predictability of who is doing well in school and who is not. So that brings us to the desired  outcome. Coaching to me is the way that I would roll out leadership sessions – developing professional learning communities (PLCs) or professional learning teams (PLTs). Department meetings, grade-level meetings, curriculum alignment. If you believe that every kid can learn, then you have to believe the corollary – that every adult can learn.

What distinguishes your approach from other people’s work on coaching?

Honestly, I don’t know. There are three people whose work I rely on the most. I rely on you (Jim Knight) when people ask about a good process for creating a feedback loop for teachers. I rely on Zaretta Hammond for understanding instruction and how the brain takes up new information. Finally, I rely on John Heron. The coaching framework of his book, Helping the Client (Sage, 1990), forms the skeleton of my coaching work. Specifically, he proposes six interventions – areas of questioning or things to say in coaching. Such as how you ask questions to help people see that their tone and body language with an African American boy in class, for example, changes. This pushes people to recognize that their tone and body language change depending on the person or kid they are working with.

So, those three people have influenced my work. Overall, most of my work is connecting people to resources.

What have been some of your key learnings over the past few years?

First, the neuroscience of learning – how we know what’s happening in the brain when people are taking up new information – has been extremely helpful to my work. I have been able to open up a dialogue about different forms of oppression, racism, sexism, etc., by talking about the concept of bias in our brains. It creates a human-ness that makes it easier for folks to address these issues.

I love a book by David Rock on neuroscience and coaching: Coaching With the Brain in Mind (Wiley, 2009). I have connected it to conversations about cultural schema, culturally responsive instruction, and culturally responsive leadership. This is basically how I bring up any systems difficulty with regard to serving marginalized families. Our public systems are not designed to do that. So I’m the conscious interruption for a system.

Other than that, there’s nothing new about coaching that I’ve really loved. But I’ve had key learnings around understanding and oppression. In fact, I just got one yesterday. I was listening to two African Americans in North Carolina who are working with their local police department to take a different response to working with and being in communities of power. As a result of an ongoing coaching conversations with the chief of police, they have created a relationship that has helped the chief respond more constructively in times of crisis.

For example, after a recent a shooting in which a young black man was killed by a white officer, the chief of police called the coach before he did the press conference. Then when he conducted the press conference, he didn’t refer to the man who was shot as the suspect. Instead, he referred to him by name, called him a father, etc. In short, the tone this white police chief used when talking about a young black man created a different dialogue. The police department is directly connected to multiple communities, organizations, churches, community centers, etc. That has created a different feel in the department for talking about these kinds of situations, as opposed to in the past where they conducted anti-racism training and every police officer felt it was mandated; that they were being told that they were terrible people, etc.

What I love about this learning is that it demonstrates the power of coaching in relationship as a means of shifting how we respond to intense situations.

What’s a good metaphor for what coaches do? 

Off the top of my head, I don’t know if I have one. I’m helping people see themselves from an outside perspective in a way that allows them to hear what I am suggesting. The questions I ask help them think of things a little bit differently, and I emphasize that most people really want to do well. They want to do good, and they start from that kind of place of respect. I think you measure based on that also.

This brings up back to public schooling. I don’t think public schooling should be measured based on kids who do extremely well. Instead, it should be measured based on the kids who struggle and whether we are able to move them to the success that they want. Otherwise, it’s not public. I try to find what people really care about. When people get to share about those things, you see a whole totally different person.

I don’t have a true metaphor yet. But the first thing that came to my mind, even if it really isn’t about coaching but more like sharing, was my friend and colleague, Greg, who every year makes a playlist for his friends of all the music he’s been listening to in the last year. He writes a little bit about why he’s listening to it and where he is listening to it. There is something about that level of sharing that enables me to get a better understanding of who he is and what he likes. Besides, in the process, I see myself in the mix; I get validation from it and also get pushed. I’ve grown because of the playlist.

Going back to my core ideas, l think most everybody is down for equity.  What people aren’t down for is naming the inequities in the system that they personally have perpetuated. That makes them feel they’re failures, and that brings us back to the importance of creating a learning culture that shows people can improve.

Every human being has biases, and those biases play out in behaviors that either benefit or marginalize people, so if I can do a better job of seeing where my biases hurt people, I can shift them, and the way to do that is to be open to the idea that we are flawed. We have to lead with humility.

Joellen Killion, Chip Heath, Randy Sprick, Pedro Noguera, Elena Aguilar, Peter DeWitt, Stephen Barkley, Kirstin Anderson, Nancy Love, Ray and Julie Smith, Lisa Lande, Jamie Almanzan, Kathy Perret, Ann Hoffman, Michelle Harris, and Sharon Thomas are just some of the presenters at this year’s Teaching, Learning, Coaching Conference.  You can learn more about the conference here: