Navigating Vulnerability Part 3: The Coach and Consultant Balance

Pt 3 Navigating VulnerabilityThis semester, I’ve been writing a series of posts about the role of vulnerability in coaching. The idea is, if we’re not aware of the underlying vulnerabilities in our conversations and our practice, we’re not going to be able to grow. So far, I’ve written about two different vulnerabilities that I’ve recognized in teachers and how to coach into those. I had a third planned for today’s post.

But over the past few weeks, I had a nagging feeling that it wasn’t hitting the mark, and that nagging feeling grew into a giant “aha” moment by the end of last week. It was the kind of “aha” moment that was so big, it stopped me in my tracks the way some of the most powerful new learning does.

I think it was a perfect storm of some of my own professional learning that I’ve been doing lately. On my commute between districts, I’ve been listening to the audiobook version of Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead. In it, I’ve found what I think is probably the perfect balance between responding, “yes! Amen!” and “oh shit, I need to work on that,” so it’s pushing my thinking and my practice into new learning territory. I also just attended the first two days of Cognitive Coaching training with Carolyn McKanders, who, if you haven’t already had the chance to learn from her, is someone you should definitely try to schedule into your professional learning plan. Both the book and the training affirmed my thinking that coaching has a lot to do with deeply leaning into vulnerability, but the “aha” moment that they made me realize wasn’t only about teacher vulnerability, it was about mine.

So today, I’m going to take this series on coaching and vulnerability and flip it to look at a vulnerability that I’m recognizing in my own role. Carolyn McKanders called it “growing publicly,” and my “aha” was that although I recognize (and extol!) the value of doing this in our teaching work, I don’t do nearly enough of it in my current role.

When I wrote about recognizing vulnerability in teachers’ conversations and practice, I wrote about listening deeply to what they were saying. The same is true in recognizing my own vulnerabilities. In Dare to Lead, Brené Brown describes this mindfulness as “paying attention.” She explains that paying attention – even to our own feelings – is a skill that can help us to get better at empathy. This was the kind of permission that I needed to hear. So, I’m working on paying attention to what my mind and heart are saying when I act and react. It’s the same kind of listening I do when I’m working with teachers, but now I’m trying to listen more to myself, too, so that I’ll recognize my own vulnerabilities and learning edges in my own role.

First I hear myself say or think: I can help with this!
But I keep listening: Let’s plan to do…
And listening some more: How does that sound?
So what might be an underlying vulnerability? Holding too much of the thinking responsibility

So, first of all, I should explain that when it comes to my role, my official title is a “literacy consultant.” There’s a distinct difference between the role of consultant, who is supposed to come to the table with some level of expertise in a content area and a coach, who is supposed to more neutrally facilitate thinking. Although the title on my name badge says “consultant,” most days, I’m doing a complicated dance between the roles of coach and consultant depending on who I’m working with and why.

Regardless of the hat I’m wearing, though, I’m learning that I share my own opinions and advice too quickly, too readily. When I’m working on classroom instruction with teachers, we talk about gradual release of responsibility and how we need to trust our students by giving them more opportunity to take on the hard thinking work earlier and then back up and scaffold as needed. I got that in the classroom. It was what drove my instruction every day. In coaching and consulting roles, it shouldn’t be any different, but for some reason, I realized that I wasn’t always making that connection. We need to give that opportunity for the heavy-lifting thinking first, and then scaffold as needed. In the Cognitive Coaching session I attended, there were several of us who do this dance between coaching and consulting, and many of us were wrestling with this balance. Carolyn McKanders explained it by saying that our default should be coaching, then we should shift into consulting when needed – and not the other way around.

For a long time, I’ve worked to take on more of a coaching role. I ask questions to prompt thinking, I plan for structured time for supported planning, but too often, I jump to the consulting role too readily. When I hear that someone I’m working with is interested in professional learning on a particular topic, I excitedly respond, “great! That’s something I can do!” I’m sure a part of this stems from my own enthusiasm and eagerness to be helpful. I love what I do, and I genuinely nerd out at the idea of getting to run professional learning sessions. But my ultimate goal is to release that thinking responsibility to the schools I’m working with, so I’m recognizing that instead of jumping to “I can do that,” I need to shift to how we and they can take on the work.

Saying that I’ll make this shift sounds really simple, but it’s not. Just like in the classroom, navigating how much support each individual or each group needs is profoundly difficult, but also deeply important in ensuring they’ll be able to take on the learning themselves. To help me do this difficult work, I’m starting by keeping these 3 things in mind:

1. Coach more.

Nerd alert: Whenever I say this to myself, I say it in the cadence of Aaron Burr’s advice in Hamilton: “Talk less, smile more!” While I tend to think the motivation behind his advice was pretty horrible, the gist isn’t too far off. I need to talk less and listen more. So, as Burr might say, “Talk less, coach more.”

If I was really slick or trendy, I’d get a fancy “Coach more” sticker made, but I’m not, so I just wrote it on the inside cover of my notebook. But every time I sit down with a principal or a teacher or a group, I look at it and remind myself to step back and listen first. It’s a quick reminder that I’m not always there to bring the solutions; sometimes I’m there to help them realize they have their Release thinkingown solutions.

Like I said, this is tricky for me. When someone gets talking about wanting to implement something that’s exciting for me, it’s too easy for me to jump in as the lead player. Instead, I’m trying to use language that squarely puts me in a supportive role so that we shift from “I” to “we” to “you.”

3. Ask permission to consult.

It’s nearly impossible for me to remain totally neutral when I’m coaching. My nametag does say “consultant,” after all. And, sometimes, when I’m listening in a conversation, I have a key piece of research, a resource, or an understanding that the people I’m working with just might not know. It would be irresponsible for me to not share something that is vital to the learning process, but I need to be aware of how and when I do it. Instead of launching into what I know, I need to make sure it’s a good time and thinking space for who I’m working with. Brené Brown talks about needing to be ready to give and get feedback, and Carolyn McKanders calls the move asking for permission.

It doesn’t need to be a super formal request, but I’m working on checking first to see if that’s where they’re at in their headspace. I might say something like:

“I have an idea. Is now a good time to share that?”

“There’s some research that might be useful in this planning. Are you at a point where you’d like to look at that?”

“Another teacher is using x strategy that’s working well for her. Is that something you’d like to think about now?”

3. At all costs, avoid the “I don’t know, can’t you just tell me what to do?” trap.

These aren’t my words, but I sure wish they were. In the training I went to, Carolyn McKanders called it a “trap,” and it resonated right down to my soul because I recognized it so well. Sometimes we have the best intention of putting the thinking heavy lifting on our participants, but they reply back, “can’t you just tell me what to do?” And, wanting to feel helpful, it’s so tempting to come to that rescue. It’s just like the students in our class who seem like they’d be happier to follow a formula than to do authentic writing. It’s a trap. Sure, they may seem to be satisfied with a quick solution in the moment, but are they really taking it on as their own? And what happens when it doesn’t work for them? If they aren’t owning their thinking, they can’t problem-solve around the missteps that are bound to pop up.

And, more than anything, I want our thinkers – our students, our teachers, our leaders – to be able to problem-solve.

How about you? Are you in a role where you lead, coach, or consult? How do you avoid jumping in to offer solutions too quickly? What other vulnerabilities are you starting to recognize in your own work? I’d love to hear from you. Comment below or find me on Twitter @megankortlandt.

– Megan

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