Being the Change #CyberPD Part 3: Becoming a better observer

Even though I am late – really late – in finishing this post, I really wanted to use this opportunity to reflect. In this final reflection on Being the Change by Sara Ahmed, I was struck by the ideas around intent and impact and of becoming a better “observer of the world” and how they connect to coaching.

I am about to enter my first full year as a coach. I work in a community where I am an outsider – I am not First Nations, yet the students and many of the teachers I work with are. When I was reading this chapter, many of the ideas resonated with me. My experiences and perspectives may differ from those I work along-side: “I have only the experiences that have shaped me (127).” Coaches are often seen as experts that can help teachers change and grow as educators. They ask questions and offer support to help teachers hone their practice – I am not trying to “fix” teaching practices. I don’t and won’t always know what is best for the simple fact that I have different life experiences than my students and teachers – and this became more evident as  I read the final chapters of Being the Change. 

Listen more, talk less. This means that even though most resources on coaching talk about the importance of questioning to drive learning forward, asking lots of questions (well-intended though they may be) may not have the intended impact.”Where our response may begin, swing, hang or end in time depends on how we self-identify, how we see others, and our universe of obligation, not entirely on the event itself (126).” Intent and impact can be very different and to make sure that my message is clear I need to be deliberate and reflective as a coach… I need to become a better “observer of the world.”

Ahmed’s point in chapter 5 about intent vs impact connects well to learning I have done around communication and interference. In Instructional Coaching: A Partnership Approach to Improving Instruction, Jim Knight talks about how interference can mean that the message we are trying to send and what the listener hears can be very different, and that “when a conversation has implications for someone’s identity, a person often finds it difficult to hear the intended message being communicated (69).” And what is more personal than the way one teaches? As someone coming from the outside, I need to be aware that when working with teachers their identity is at stake – and this becomes even more relevant when working with colleagues from a different cultural background. While Ahmed discusses identity being at stake in relation to crises, I can’t help but draw connections to coaching. When coaching as someone from the outside, I need to take care that my questions and comments do not send a message that my perspective is more important or that there is one right way to do things. I need to be a better observer to determine when (and what) to ask, and when to listen and observe to build trust with the teachers I work with, while still communicating my belief that teachers can continually grow their expertise to make decisions as to what will best support their students.

“The work of social comprehension requires us to be mindful of not only what we mean to say, but how we say it, and how the messages we send (intentional or not) impact others (117)”

In failing to keep these ideas in mind, I risk not only being ineffective as a coach, but I can damage relationships and lose the trust of my colleagues. I believe that when we value the identity, experiences, and perspectives of teachers (and students) we all learn more.

I once had a student ask me what I think the meaning of life is (one of many existential conversations that can sometimes happen when examining ethics and the mechanisms for life in a biology class). I responded with something like: “do all the good you can whenever you can.” I think after being a part of this book study, I would need to add that having good intentions is not enough… We must consider the impact our “good” actions have on others.

“Do small things with a big heart (Ahmed 133)”

Being the Change #cyberPD Planting the Seeds

This is my first foray into #cyberPD, and I am happy to be part of this community.  This year we are diving into Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension by Sarah. K. Ahmed:

As I wrap up what has been a challenging year, I am glad to have this chance to take a step back and think about how to tackle the tricky topics that come up.  As I read and thought about the introduction, I know that I can definitely be more open and build more loving and compassionate relationships with teachers and students. This book gives excellent concrete tools to model an open and curious mindset in order to better understand and respond to those tricky topics.

So having spent some time reading the first part of the book (between nap schedules, summer visitors and house projects that I put off until the summer) and I have thought about how I can use the ideas in the book in my practice… And there are so many ideas! I will focus on the big ones – the seeds to start this garden:

  1. Relationships

The quote Ahmed uses when talking about what caring and love actually look like stood out:

“having high expectations and great hopes for all students, believing in their abilities, and respecting their identities (2).”

This, in particular, strikes a chord with me. I know the students – and teachers – I work with are capable of great things. I want them to know this… and I think the best way to communicate my belief to them is to have high expectations of them.

The tools she uses throughout the sample lesson to build relationships and community were another great way to learn about each other. Asking open-ended questions and having students share and identify connections – and being open to responding to questions builds trust that is so necessary for a learning community. And lastly, modeling vulnerability: we need to push past our own comfort zone to set the tone and show that we are part of the learning community.

2.   The Power of Identity

“When we give our students the floor to say who they are and what that means to them, they are far less likely to allow someone else to do it for them (PG 3).”

From my experience teaching at the high school level, students are struggling to figure out who they are. A big part of that is understanding culture. (Aside: I work with Indigenous students). One of the things I really love about this book is how it makes a strong case for the school-home connection to help in filling in the gaps students may have about their background. One of the things I want to work on in the upcoming year is to make this connection stronger. It is so important to give students the space to explore their identity and culture for themselves, so they are able to speak for themselves as the above quote illustrates.

Some other final thoughts

I like that Sarah Ahmed includes lists of mentor texts that include a variety of culture and backgrounds. One resource I might add to this is Debbie Reese and the American Indian in Children’s Literature site for book lists and articles with a focus on Indigenous perspectives – while the site is American, there are many Canadian resources on the “Best Books” lists.

The seeds have been planted…

Photo by Daniel Hjalmarsson on Unsplash