I recently worked with a preschool that was very highly regarded in their community. It was a lab school for the local community college, they had achieved national accreditation through NAEYC, and was a three time 5-Star Quality rated center. The teachers never seemed to leave but Directors only stayed for an average of 2 years. I was excited to work with the teachers and the Director, who was on her 3rd year at the center. The center had received coaching services the previous 4 years from an internal party who had since left. When I walked into the center for the first time it quickly became evident that things weren’t all that they seemed. There was a tension in the air, the Director seemed nervous and stressed, the teachers were less than welcoming, and there were many challenging behaviors in the classrooms.
I realized that my presence may not necessarily be wanted by many in the center. I sat with the Director to get a sense of how she perceived the climate to be. She expressed that the staff had recently completed an anonymous evaluation on her and she got some negative feedback. She stated that “everyone hates her, she apparently is a terrible leader, and she is just waiting for the long-term teachers to leave because they have terrible attitudes.” Uh oh. This wasn’t going to be an easy process and I knew that I would need more information. I started by interviewing the lead teachers. They confirmed that they had some fundamental concerns with their leader, the Director, and that they had just the week before, taken those concerns to her supervisor. However, her supervisor, who was also a Vice President of the College, had recently been involved in a physical altercation with a colleague on campus and was soon resigning her position. (You can’t make this stuff up!) The teachers were frustrated and felt that the Director would not be held accountable. The problems were vast and serious. I struggled about how to move forward.
I decided to start at the top, with the Director. I led her through a reflective conversation to address some of the issues the teachers had identified in her evaluation. The Director really struggled with taking accountability. Though she admitted that most of the concerns were true, she felt that they were mean spirited and not her fault. She struggled with time management and because she consistently left tasks to the last minute, she was unable to ask clarifying questions or for help, and so often made mistakes that caused loss of funding and training opportunities for staff. Instead of being able to recognize that her time management skills needed to be addressed, she blamed the mistakes on a lack of training and/or that people would not answer her emails and so she couldn’t complete the task on time. After a few of these conversations, I realized that my coaching efforts would look very different than at previous centers.
My expertise is in classroom environments and effective teaching practices, not in team building in a toxic environment, but I was going to need to help work them through it if I wanted to get to the point where I could coach effectively. The first thing I did was to read Fierce Conversations by Susan Craig Scott M.D. This book taught me so much about team building, leadership, and how to have the difficult conversation with the Director that needed to happen in order for everyone to move forward. One of the great take-aways I learned from her book is that if someone is not a good fit, or they are unwilling or unable to get on board with building a positive work culture, you may need to help them “become available to industry”.
In this case, the Director decided to leave the center at the end of the process and teachers who had one foot out the door decided to stay. Once that change in leadership happened, things quickly improved in terms of a positive work environment. A few of the most valuable lessons I learned through this process were:
- Buy-in is essential – both at the top and all the way down. If the leader does not believe the coaching process will be beneficial, neither will the staff. A quick survey about how each staff member feels about having a coach is beneficial.
- Relationships are important – as a coach you must first put the time in to build a relationship with your coachee. Through conversations, I had built a relationship with the Director where trust was established. This allowed her to hear difficult things without feeling like they were a personal attack. These conversations also allowed her to realize that she was not in the position she wanted to be in and gave her the confidence to go after another position.
- Research is your friend – When faced with a question or problem that you don’t have the answer to it is important that you do the necessary research. The term “fake it ‘til you make it” does not apply here! Teachers and Directors are looking to you to help them solve problems, you need to take that responsibility seriously. It is not helpful to guess or make something up just because you want to be seen as the “expert”. You are not an expert in all things. It is ok to say, “I am not sure, let me research that and get back with you.”
- Coaching is not one-size-fits-all – Coaching is a cyclical process, but the starting point will look different for each situation. It would not have been a successful process if I had not first addressed the leadership and negative climate issues at the previous center. I would typically work toward building a relationship with the teacher I will be working with as a first step. In this case, that was not possible as there were more pressing issues to deal with first. You have to be flexible and you need to be willing to leave your comfort zone.
I hope you found this post helpful. Please comment or share your coaching stories below.