Sherry St. Clair: Coaching with Humility | Steve Barkley

Guest Blog: Coaching with Humility by Sherry St. Clair

I recently had the opportunity to have several conversations with Sherry St. Clair, the author of Coaching Redefined: A Guide to Leading Meaningful Instructional Growth. Sherry is a strong promoter of the need for school leaders and coaches to support teachers as they tackle the challenges of maximizing student success. Here she shares her thoughts on the role of humility in building necessary relationships.

Humble leaders always remember the limits of their knowledge and do not see themselves as superior. While their role demands decisiveness, they know that the best decisions cannot be made without the on-the-ground insights of those who work for them. Contrary to charismatic leaders, who prefer a command-and-control style, humble leaders proactively seek expertise from their teams and willingly share credit for successes. To humble leaders, employees are not a means to an end; rather they are humans of untold value who can, when intrinsically motivated, make a real and positive impact on the organization. Humble leaders see it as their mission to ensure that they do—to the greater good of the organization and those it serves.

You will achieve your greatest coaching potential through humble leadership. Humility is the launchpad to strengthened relationships with the teachers you coach and your capacity to best meet their needs and serve their growth. It is also the launchpad to your greatest potential as a leader and a coach.

humility word in mixed vintage metal type printing blocks over grunge wood

To Embody Humble Leadership:

Keep the emphasis off of yourself and on your teachers. To nurture relationships, I always advise coaches to start coaching sessions by asking teachers how they’re doing and allowing them to speak about their personal lives so that you may show your compassion. Once that humanizing conversation has closed, ask the teacher, “How can I help you grow today and better serve your students?” This simple question is an instant reminder to teachers that this work is about them, not you. Reiterating that you have no agenda other than supporting their development will nurture the trust that is a requirement to healthy and strong relationships with your teachers. When teachers trust you, they will become open to your feedback and guidance. There’s a quote that’s attributed to several people that captures the heart of this perfectly: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Know your limits & know your teachers’ ‘on-the-ground’ insights. No human can ever know everything. Nor are we expected to—a fact that humble leaders recognize as an asset, not a weakness. Coaches redefined are always learning and growing their skills; inherent in that is that we are always striving to know more because we do not know all. One thing you will not ever directly know is what your teachers’ students need in order to succeed. Such insights can only come from your teachers. If you do not ask for these insights, your coaching will be incomplete and, more importantly, fail to support teachers in meeting students’ needs.

Your teachers have “student insights”— direct observations about how and why their students might be struggling. Make a habit of asking your teachers what they believe their students need; doing so signals your respect for teachers and also encourages that they actively participate in your work together, which will reinforce a trusting relationship with them. Together, devise a plan to help your teachers gain the things they themselves need — skills, materials, additional supports, etc.— in order to meet their students’ needs. Coaching is, after all, a co-creation; it takes at least two people’s experiences, wisdom, skills, and insights to unleash the greatest potential and growth, as yours alone are only half the picture.

Collaboration - Business Concept

Unleash collective teacher efficacy. In terms of how humble leadership can impact organizations as a whole, one of its greatest effects is how it fosters collaboration — and, therefore, also allows teachers to nurture and benefit from trusting and healthy relationships with each other. The humble leader leads; that is, she does not micromanage or declare how work must be done. Once she has offered sufficient support and helped her team gather the tools they need to succeed, she gets out of the way and remains on the sidelines to offer additional guidance as needed. She trusts her team to do the work they need to do in order to meet goals and grow together.

An ultimate goal of the coach redefined is to create a learning organization; that is, a school that is guided by a culture of learning. I devote the last chapter of Coaching Redefined to talking coaches through the steps to unlock ongoing learning in the school. In a learning organization, teachers are learning together through structured and group learning processes they lead and manage (with your support as needed). Where self-efficacy is the belief in one’s capacity to learn and succeed, collective efficacy is a belief in the group’s capacity to learn and succeed. As an instructional influence, collective teacher efficacy (CTE) requires that teachers believe they can positively affect student outcomes through collective use of high-effect size and evidence-based instructional strategies. According to John Hattie, CTE is the number one influence on student achievement, with an effect size of 1.57. True learning organizations — where individuals are empowered to advocate for themselves and design collaborative learning that meets their changing needs such that CTE is unleashed — are only possible when humble leaders relinquish control and trust teachers.

Model humility. Admit to your teachers when you don’t know something and commit to finding answers. Acknowledge mistakes you make as you coach, offering apologies as appropriate. Ask for help. Ask your teachers for their ideas and insights, making them feel safe to share. Incorporate their ideas and insights so that they know you value them. Give credit where credit is due — publicly. Celebrate the achievements of your teachers and their students.

Modeling humble leadership will encourage others to behave with humility as well. When your teachers are also humble in their pursuit of ambitious goals, they will be more supportive of each other — reinforcing collective teacher efficacy, and thereby student success, yet again.

C.S. Lewis once said, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” In leading with humility, you will see your relationships with all the teachers you coach become stronger, more open, and more productive. I assure you that, as a result, you will not think less of yourself; yet, you will also not grow arrogant. Rather, you will develop more of that quiet confidence that humble leaders carry in their hearts at all times.

Thank you, Sherry.

You can communicate with Sherry here.

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