Elena Aguilar is an important voice in the field of coaching, and we are thrilled that she will be speaking at our Teaching, Learning, Coaching Conference this year. Elena’s work has helped me and many, many coaches get a deeper understanding of what coaching is and what coaching can be. Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with Elena about her ideas about transformative coaching and emotional resilience. In the weeks leading up to our annual conference, I’ll be posting interviews with the experts like Elena 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.
Jim: How did you come to write about coaching?
Elena: I was catapulted into a coaching position, somewhat of my own willingness and a little bit because our school needed someone to work with our new teachers. I agreed to try it and got really interested in it. This was in 2003 or 2004. I thought, if I’m going to be a coach, I’d better read a few books and learn how to be a coach because I received no training. We had this somewhat abstract idea about what is a coach, and when I went to look for books on coaching, I found very little as it related to education. So, I turned to the world of business coaching and life coaching and found a lot more there. In addition, I observed coaches that I knew – learning on the job, making lots of mistakes, and learning from my mistakes. I had been taught to use an inquiry approach to teaching and had done some action research. That approach felt natural and comfortable to me, so I incorporated that into my practice.
Jim: Tell us about your publications.
Elena: After coaching for about eight years, I felt I had become a strong coach, but I still couldn’t say what it was that I did. Other coaches who observed me asked how I knew at a given moment in the conversation to ask a certain question.
That was a great question, and it shifted everything. How did you know? Frankly, I couldn’t break down what I was doing as a coach. I couldn’t help coaches acquire the skill sets that I had. So, I learn by writing. I love to be alone to think and write, so I decided to write a book about coaching, so I could figure out what it was that I did so that other coaches would have more resources. That’s the story of The Art of Coaching, which came out in 2013, about nine years after I started coaching. I spent about a year writing.
Jim: Tell us about the other publications on coaching that you’ve written.
Elena: The second book I wrote was The Art of Coaching Teams. Initially, that topic was going to be a chapter in The Art of Coaching. I knew that most coaches also work with teams and that there was a great need to figure out how to manage a team. But as I worked on The Art of Coaching, I began to realize that it would require more than a chapter. I look at coaching a team like a scaling up of skills; an amplification. It’s using all coaching strategies exponentially because you’re using the same strategies as you used to coach an individual but you’re also managing group dynamics and managing the flow of work and trying to get agreement and consensus in all of that.
In addition, my third book is coming out soon – about emotional resilience, called Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators. It feels like an accumulation of all the work that I have done for 25 years in education. It’s like all roads and all learning has led to me needing to address emotions and emotional resilience.
Jim: What do you mean by emotional resilience?
Elena: Emotional resilience is the ability not only to get through adversity and challenges, but to thrive in spite of them and perhaps to thrive as a result of the learning and the growth that we gain in challenging moments and experiences.
The topic caught my attention professionally from time I started teaching and saw such a high turnover and burnout among teachers that my students would approach me in the first weeks of school and say, “Are you going to quit after one year?”. Very few teachers lasted or stayed longer than five years. Many schools, whether public or private, urban or suburban, have challenges with retention, in particular with regard to attaining secondary math and science teachers. Both personally and professionally, resilience has always been something that I have consciously or unconsciously been interested in, because it’s hard to get through life without experiencing some adversity.
Jim: I have actually been thinking about how we process suffering. I’m distinguishing between different kinds of suffering, worldly suffering and spiritual suffering. We could say that, for lack of a better term,worldly suffering is suffering we experience because of our own selfishness, pride. And then there is a kind of suffering where we feel empathy with people going through hard times – a spiritual suffering.
Elena: It’s just not possible to get through life without suffering. Yet, we rarely talk about it. We certainly don’t think we should talk about it in a professional setting, and yet in all of the coaching work that I did initially as a coach and later working with coaches, the most challenging was how to deal with people’s emotions. What do you do with the teacher who doesn’t stop crying, the teacher who seems really angry or hostile, or the teacher who is unreflective and subtly communicating that she is angry at you being in her classroom? Yet, in our dominant mindset about what it means to be professional, we don’t talk about emotions; we don’t even acknowledge that they exist.
Jim: I think this is going to be your most important book.
Elena: I definitely want to do a session on emotional resilience at TLC.
Jim: What are some of the core ideas in your approach to coaching?
Elena: I got to the emotional resilience ideas through my core approach to coaching, transformational coaching. The key concept is that we coach around behaviors, lesson planning, classroom management, use of assessment data, and building relationship with students. We also coach around beliefs because every behavior emerges from a belief. So unless we explore and surface those underlying beliefs, we may not get sustained change and it may not be transformational. The third area that we coach about is our way of being, which is most often communicated through our emotions and nonverbal communication.
So, when we are using transformational coaching, we are paying attention to the three domains of behavior, belief, and being. We are coaching around them; we are seeing the connections between them. We’re honing into a way of being, surfacing conversations about emotions while then going back to talking about how you get kids engaged in the now. So, it’s a very holistic model.
I am focused on resilience for two reasons. First, we deserve joy, happiness, and tranquility, and we deserve meaningful connections with other human beings. Second, with the energy from joy, connection, contentment, and resilience, we can more effectively fulfill our purpose in life, which is to help other people cultivate their resilience and, in the case of educators, help our students get what they need in order to thrive in life. This includes literacy, numeracy and so on. So, our resilience allows us to fulfill our purpose to serve others.
Jim: What distinguishes your work from other people’s work on coaching?
Elena: It’s more holistic. It addresses emotions. It addresses beliefs; in particular, the explicit beliefs about race and class, gender, and the intersection of them. My coaching approach is very value-driven. That value is around building equitable schools and interrupting the systems that reproduce the status quo and don’t result in every child thriving, learning, graduating, or feeling accepted and embraced in a school.
Jim: What have been some of your key learnings over the past few years?
Elena: Definitely the topic of emotions. We have to talk about emotions if we want to see change in teacher practice. For coaches, there are a lot of technical strategies to learn and to use, but we also need to know how to talk about heartbreak, despair, love, courage, and fear. There is so much fear all the time. When we don’t recognize it, we are using strategies and technical tools that won’t result in what we want to see, and that leaves us feeling frustrated. So, the tools set for a coach, for a leader, is expansive. It needs to include strategies around how to talk about despair and how to have conversations that that combine our lenses and our concerns about equity and racial equity.
Jim: What would you say is a good metaphor for what coaches do?
Elena: The metaphor that resonates most for me is that a coach is like a farmer. We can prepare the soil. We can plant the seeds that will grow in our climate. We have to have patience. We have to tend to the growing plants and give them what they need to thrive. There are things that are outside of our control like weather patterns or climate change, or a deer that wanders through the field and eats a sprouting plant. So, the metaphor here is the humility and the patience of the farmer and also an awareness that the farmer has a system – an understanding that you can think you have everything set up really well, and you can plant that seed, but it doesn’t grow, and that it may have nothing to do with your skill set.
Jim: What else do people need to know about your approach to coaching?
Elena: I think another key idea is that if you’re engaged in and committed to doing transformational work with others, you also have to do that work for yourself. In other words, we can’t do coaching without reflecting on our own practice, our own behaviors, beliefs, and ways of being, plus working to explore and, perhaps, grow those areas.
Jim: Is there something you wish I had asked you about but didn’t?
Elena: I think one of the problems with coaching right now is that there are so many definitions of what it is and why we do it, but there is not a lot of data on what works and why it works. I find this a little disconcerting, so I hope that there might be opportunities for more conversation about what coaching really is, how we measure the impact, what the indicators of success are, how we train coaches, and the definition of the role and responsibilities of a coach to stress that coaches are not the people who are also putting up bulletin boards and doing yard duty, printing out data reports, and covering for teachers when their sub doesn’t show. That is, we need to show that the role is useful so that people don’t end up saying, “We tried coaching for two years and it didn’t work.” That is, my general hope is that we can move in a direction of having much more intentionality, definition, and refinement of roles for coaches.
Jim: Since our conference theme is courage, please tell me a bit about how you see courage related to coaching.
Elena: I have a whole section in Onward about courage. As I get older, I’m becoming more and more aware of how much fear that there is in the world. It shows up in every coaching conversation, so I find that I am often working with teachers, leaders, or coaches on how to activate your courage to deal with fear. Where does your courage come from? How do you surface it? What are the seeds of courage within you? Courage is an emotion, essentially it’s a disposition, and we are not going to get anywhere if we don’t activate and strengthen it.
Jim: Don’t you think it comes back to beliefs? For example, if I make my mind up that what I am going to do is shaped by the belief that we have to do what’s best for kids, I’ll have more courage because I can go back to that belief and say, I don’t think this is best for kids and, therefore, I don’t agree with it. These beliefs to me are fundamental to courage. Well, at least that’s how I am thinking about it right now.
Elena: They’re intertwined, but sometimes we may have a belief that we are courageous but our core disposition is fearful or we have experienced so much victimization that we show up as fearful. For example, let’s say I’m in a coaching conversation with you, and you observe me in the classroom standing in front of the room. I’m meek, and I’m talking in a fairly audible voice, and my eye contact, my way of being, is fearful. So how do we talk about that? Or even if you are a 23-year-old teacher, and you are thinking, “I have to defer to my principal and my colleagues who are so much older than me.” Every time you walk into your colleague’s class, she’s got one black kindergarten boy standing in the corner staring at the floor for two hours; you’re thinking that you know that it’s wrong, and you are not going to believe in that. They’re connected, but I think they are also important to separate, to distinguish.
Joellen Killion, Chip Heath, Randy Sprick, Pedro Noguera, Elena Aguilar, Christian van Nieuwerburgh, 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: TLC Conference