Confident Humility and Coaching | Steve Barkley
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Confident Humility and Coaching

Adam Grant defines confident humility as having faith in your capability while appreciating that you may not have the right solution or may not even be addressing the right problem. He reminds us that humility is not about low self-confidence. It’s about being grounded and recognizing that we are flawed and fallible. Confidence is a measure of how much you believe in yourself. You can be confident in your ability to achieve a goal in the future while maintaining the humility to question your current skills or approach. (Think Again)

Ines Lee, writing in Mind Café, states that confidence encompasses at least two domains: certainty about one’s beliefs and conviction in one’s abilities. Humility encompasses the same domains: uncertainty about one’s beliefs and doubt in one’s abilities. The tension lies in the suggestion that we need to be both certain and uncertain about our beliefs while having both conviction and doubt in our abilities. A confidently humble person is aware that their thinking might be wrong (and hence is not certain about it) but is confident in their ability to arrive at the correct solution (and hence is not riddled by self-doubt)

Lee shares a quote from Phil Tetlock’s book, Superforecasters, that I thought applies to educators planning for teaching and learning: “A recognition that reality is profoundly complex, that seeing things clearly is a constant struggle when it can be done at all, and that human judgment must therefore be riddled with mistakes.”

I see that description perfectly fitting a teacher who is planning a lesson with an “expectation” of who the students are that will be participating. On any given day, any number of experiences can change the students’ readiness and willingness for the planned learning event. While I’d hesitate to label the teacher’s instruction as a mistake, it didn’t accomplish what it had been planned to do and the teacher needs the confidence to modify or replan and the humility to not need to place “blame.”

The element of self-doubt is sometimes referred to as “imposter syndrome.” It’s when we ponder, “Am I really up to this?” Am I qualified?” In an interview, Adam Grant suggested, “ When you have those imposter thoughts, see them as an opportunity to be a better learner and use it to propel yourself forward, instead of holding yourself back.” He cited Basima Tewfik’s research suggesting that there are surprising benefits to doubting whether you’re as good as others think you are:

  • Medical professionals listen to their patients more carefully when they have more frequent impostor thoughts.
  • Investment professionals made better decisions on average when they had impostor thoughts.
  • Impostor thoughts can motivate you to work harder and smarter.
  • They can remind you that you don’t know everything and need to learn from others.
  • They might cause you to rethink the way that everybody else has always done things.

As I read and explored the idea of confident humility, I pondered the connection to coaching. I’m thinking that as coaches we should be practicing and modeling it and that our coaching should build a teacher’s confident humility.

Ines Lee offered some behaviors of humble confidence that I think may provide some ideas.

  • Detach your identity from your opinions
  • Open yourself to contradictory ideas
  • Understand uncertainty
  • Build a deliberate process
  • Trigger and commit when the time comes

Coaches modelling

A starting point for me is an instructional coach continuously presenting herself as a learner. A coach shows curiosity for the teaching and learning process. They are flexible and know that there is more than one way for student success to be achieved. A difficulty coaches sometimes face is personalizing a teacher’s rejection of our suggested approach or even of the school’s required approach. A bruised ego interferes with a coach’s ability to keep the teacher engaged in thinking. I have found success in working with a teacher to test out his differing hypothesis from my suggestion. Keeping the conversation more like scientists than lawyers can open possibilities.

“Confidently humble people recognize reality as composed of shades of grey, not the extremes of black and white. They understand that there are more than two sides to the story and embrace competing and conflicting claims.”

– Ines Lee

Coaches supporting teachers’ humble confidence

Continuous teacher growth requires teachers to be vulnerable and risk discovering that their current practice can be improved. Our egos can get in the way when we feel a need to protect ourselves from discovering what we did not know. From my earliest work with coaching, I saw the need to provide teachers with feedback that was reinforcing of their thinking and commitment to student learners. Teachers often spend so much time working in isolation that their “real” work is seldom recognized. Celebrating with a teacher (could be a smile or thumbs-up) as an instructional strategy succeeds in generating the desired student engagement in learning production behaviors can have a lasting impact.

Just the way that teachers need to individualize positive feedback and the next challenge to maximize student success, coaches need to personalize both for teachers. Teaching is a profession which like other professions has much uncertainty. Humble confidence can guide us as educators to continuous learning that supports today’s and tomorrow’s students.

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