How do I respond when teachers share that they are overwhelmed by student needs, paperwork, parent demands, and curriculum requirements, as well as their own personal struggles? Steve explores how coaches avoid becoming defensive and encourage staff collaboration.
Read Steve’s blog, “Empathy to the Complaining” here.
Ready Steve’s blog, “We Are In This Together” and find the Wheatly diagram here.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:16 Hello, and welcome to the Steve Barkley ponders out loud podcast for over three decades. I’ve had the opportunity to learn with educators at all levels, both nationally and internationally. I invite you to listen as I explore my thoughts and learning on a variety of topics connected to teaching, learning, and leading with some of the best and brightest educators from around the globe. Thanks for listening.
Steve: 00:43 Coaching when staff are overwhelmed. I recently facilitated a session for instructional coaches who requested support for working with teachers, teams, and PLCs who were overwhelmed. They stated that folks were overwhelmed by student needs, paperwork, parent demands, curriculum requirements, not to mention their own personal struggles. Coaches and leaders had asked me, how do I respond? I built this session around two strategies. The first, responding to the teacher’s immediate statement with empathy. And the second was looking at building collaboration, finding ways for people to work together when their natural response often when being overwhelmed, is to pull apart. What follows is a segment from the recorded session.
Steve: 01:55 So, here’s the teacher giving what I would call the kind of overwhelmed response. “The district has given us a new curriculum, which causes a great increase in planning time on our part and now we have to attend all these cross grade meetings taking more of our time.” And what I found watching coaches is that hearing a comment like a comment like that, there’s two natural coaching responses and the first one I call, the coach takes responsibility for the problem. So in this case, the coach says, “I’ll see if I can shorten the meeting.” The other one that I plug in there is, I cringe when I hear coaches start their presentations at PLC meetings or at PD with an apology. You know, “I know how pressed for time you folks are so I’m going to…”
Steve: 03:00 You know, if you’re doing a quality PD, the quality PD is going to be helpful to us. So avoid you taking responsibility. And then the second one that I find is that people become defensive. And so in this case, the coach’s response is, “the curriculum office is requiring every school to hold these meetings.” So I interpreted the teacher’s comment as being targeted at me and then in defense, I pushed it off to to somebody else as being responsible. And I want to go on now to give you empathy statements for responding in these cases, but I want to reinforce how clearly I see this happening now. I was just on a call today with a principal and a two teacher leaders who are looking to start PLCs in their school and it’s new to their school.
Steve: 04:14 And so they found – it’s a middle school, they found a grade level that’s been the most energetic and positive of all their grade level teams, that’s the group that they want to start with. They wanted to start with with English language learners and every time I got them ready to start, they were apologizing to me for their staff. And they were letting me know that the reason the English language learners were struggling more now have all these reasons connected to COVID and quarantine. And I finally had to just cut them off and make the statement, “folks nobody needs to apologize for anything. We know what everybody has lived through. There’s eight weeks left in the school year. You’ve got some struggling English language learners. What do you want to make happen for those struggling English language learners?
Steve: 05:14 There’s just no need for anybody to take any blame. It’s what do you want to do to set a goal? And then how would we work together to make that goal happen? So this is a really important time for you to be able to listen to people’s stories and avoid taking it on either in, in solving their problems or in defending yourself from it.” So I recommend a thoughtful, empathetic response when you hear these kinds of statements from people. Again, I’ve given you a link where you can go ahead and read in greater detail. And the empathy in my mind occurs in two pieces. So in the first piece of empathy, you empathize with the person accepting the feeling or the emotion that they’re having and then you put a period. So this is the same statement that about all the time to cross grade level meeting’s taking. So here’s the coach’s first statement: “A new curriculum does put planning and time demands on already stressed teacher schedules.” There’s your period. You’ve empathized, you’ve accepted. Second part: “I’m hopeful that our cross grade level planning leads to greater student success, which will reward us all.”
Steve: 06:53 You’re drawing their attention to a future success. The other strategy I use for the second part I call an alternative direction. So again, I’m going to empathize. “It’s a hairy time for many teachers. What have you seen in the new curriculum that will be most helpful to your students?” So I’m hearing your empathy and I’m coming over here and asking you a question.
Steve: 07:23 You aren’t responsible for the new curriculum. You aren’t responsible for people’s schedules and all the pressures they’re feeling. You accept it and you empathize with it and then with optimism, you’re making the best of the situation that we’re in. So let me just – I just wanna reinforce this, that the key to using empathy is to pause so that you can give a thoughtful response back.
Steve: 07:58 And an ongoing statement that I use is, “if you’re feeling defensive, shut up.” And I say that because you feel defensive in your stomach, you know, and your gut is a good read of how you’re feeling. What you don’t want to do is answer the person from your stomach. So if you’re feeling that defensive from their response, you really need to back up and take a breath and be able to shift from your emotion responding to their emotion, to your thoughtful brain responding to their emotion.
Steve: 08:53 Second piece of strategy then. So empathy is the one response you want to have for the people who are overwhelmed, but remember the second part of the empathy. So you’re empathizing by accepting the feelings that they’re having, okay? Recognizing the feeling that they’re having, and then either pointing to future success or an alternative direction. The other key to keep in mind is that this is the time to work together. So when I was having that conversation today with this middle school team, with the English language learners, the more stressed you’re feeling, the more it’s the time to pull together. And schools who successfully responded to the crisis of COVID did it by pulling together and collaborating. I posted a blog at the time. When some schools found out on Friday that they weren’t going to be open on Monday and over the weekend, bus drivers,
superintendents kitchen staff, and teachers figured out how to get meals loaded on a bus on Monday and being delivered to kids’ homes.
Steve: 10:22 And if you walked into the kitchen while those meals were being done and getting to the bus, you couldn’t tell who was the custodian, the cook, or the superintendent. Everybody stepped into collaborating to get common goals done. So for you to study and look into this deeper, I recommend the work of Margaret Wheatley. So here’s her statement: “When common vision, information flow, and diverse relationships are in place, teams generate creative solutions and experimentation that moves us not only to survival, but to improvement and transformation.” Again, the link will take you to a blog that I wrote on this. Here’s the picture, and this is – do not hold Margaret Wheatley accountable for the drawing – the drawing is mine, it’s my interpretation of her work. So Wheatly said your job as a leader is to get information to flow among people. To get people to know each other in the development of relationships and to do that around a common vision.
Steve: 11:39 So that whole conversation I was having with those teachers leaders today, are there teachers on your team who are concerned about some of the English language learners progress as sixth graders and their ability to be successful next year? Is that an issue for people? And as soon as they could identify that that’s a common issue, that that’s a common vision that’s going to hold people together, that’s what’s going to drive their work. For them, they already have relationships with each other. That’s the good news. That’s why they were picked as the team to start with. So now they’re identifying a common goal. Now we got to do is create a PLC structure so that information flows. So who knows strategies to get English language learners to take more risks that that will increase their ability to develop the language?
Steve: 12:39 How do we get that information out to each other? How do we go into each other’s classrooms and observe those five or six English language learners that our team is really worried about and cause that information of what’s happening in the classroom with those kids to flow back out to all of us? So notice, when you get those three circles to come together, what comes out of there is creativity and experimentation. So your job is to constantly be looking for ways that you can bring those circles together. How do you get people on teams to know each other better? How do you get people to talk about what they want to make happen? My big new line for me with professional learning communities is goals before norms. Everybody’s big on setting up norms for how groups are gonna work together.
Steve: 13:35 For me, first thing to do is get a common goal. If I’ve got six teachers who are all upset that these kids haven’t developed enough English language skills to be successful next year, and I’m losing sleep over that where that’s going to bother me all summer long, now I’ve got a reason to really work hard with the people I’m working with together as a team in order to make that happen. And as soon as we start conducting an experiment, we’ll learn something new and whatever that new thing is, it’ll either give us new information, it’ll take us into a new relationship, it will cause us to fine tune or broaden our goals and that’s where your whole continuous improvement piece comes from.
Steve: 14:19 When people are overwhelmed, slowing down on your part as you respond to the overwhelmed emotions is an important first step. Remember for sure to take that mental step backwards if you feel defensive at all. If you’d like some coaching to support you in examining ways that you respond, drop a note at barkleypd.com and I’ll be happy to respond. Thanks for the important work you do and the support that you provide.
Steve [Outro]: 15:04 Thanks again for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean and please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.