The COVID-19 crisis has been exhausting for all educators. We’ve had to be on all the time — ready for the next crisis, change of plan, or complex decision. Yet no matter how difficult things became, the instructional coaching team at our school continued to support educators through virtual, hybrid, and in-person learning instructional strategies and technology.
Coaches created a sense of collaborative learning, provided opportunities for supported risk-taking, and worked tirelessly to provide authentic opportunities for teachers to develop and replenish their resilience. Watching our instructional coaching team work tirelessly throughout this global pandemic, we began to wonder: How do they build and replenish their resilience?
Resilience is the ability to bounce back, cope, or successfully recover strength and spirit when faced with adversity (Masten et al., 1990; Gu & Day, 2007; Wang et al., 2018). It supports our ability to cope with exhaustion, fatigue, stress, and burnout (Chang, 2009; Aguilar, 2018) and has therefore been needed during the pandemic more than ever before.
Resilience is not an innate skill, but something we learn and cultivate. Because we all have unique perspectives, values, and previous experiences, we each develop resilience in different areas, at varying paces, and in different amounts. But we can support one another’s resilience through professional learning and support, and skillful coaches do this on an ongoing basis.
Although resilience in teachers has been fairly well studied, to our knowledge, there has been little research to date with instructional coaches. In fall 2020, we sought to address that gap by conducting a study of the perceptions and experiences of instructional coaches’ resilience and its relationship to their ability to coach teachers.
We conducted the study in one Midwestern state and included 42 pre-K-12 instructional coaches who completed a questionnaire and eight full-time instructional coaches who participated in a series of interviews. Here we share the findings and themes that emerged. All names used thought this article are pseudonyms to protect confidentiality.
What is resilience?
Coaches believe that resilience is important for their work, that it involves persistence, flexibility, and vulnerability when working with others, and is developed through supported risk-taking. Most of the coaches’ definitions emphasized the notion of forward movement. Although there were many commonalities in the coaches’ definitions of resilience, unique perceptions of the term and examples from coaching surfaced.
For example, Holly described resilience as one’s ability to keep pushing forward during an adverse situation or experience. Using examples from coaching, she explained that resilience looks different in different situations. Sometimes resilience may look like trying again, making changes, or thinking about something in a different way.
Lisa described resilience as “leaning into the sharp points when they come,” meaning that resilient coaches have the ability to embrace challenges, engage in critical conversations, recognize and address bias, and expose their vulnerabilities as they work beside and learn with teachers. She also included the examples of “not giving up on those tough questions. Or not accepting the status quo.”
The questionnaires and interviews revealed common themes coaches identified for building their coaching resilience: emotional intelligence, collaborative learning, and engaging in coaching-specific professional development.
Emotional intelligence. Many participants expressed the need for coaches to possess high levels of emotional intelligence, which is one’s ability to perceive, understand, regulate, and express emotions (Goleman et al., 2002).
Holly connected the importance of experiencing failures and understanding emotions, saying that productive struggle has helped her grow as a coach. She demonstrated emotional regulation by putting her struggles in perspective and not getting overhwhelmed by them.
Lisa agreed that regulating emotions is an important part of building resilience, explaining that it’s important for coaches to control how they choose to react to an experience or emotion. Coaches must strive to build safe, equitable, and inclusive learning environments for the entire learning community.
Collaborative learning. Coaches spoke of the need for teamwork, collaboration, and mutual support to build resilience. That ongoing support allows them to continually learn and implement effective coaching practices, which helps them feel more equipped when working with teachers and able to try again when things don’t go as planned.
“To build resilience, in part, you need intrinsic motivation because you have to personally want to progress and try again,” Holly said. “But externally, you have to have people around you who are encouraging you to try again. And I’m not a person who enjoys being shoved forward, but sometimes I do need a gentle nudge.”
Other coaches also talked about that “gentle nudge” or supportive risk-taking, saying it comes in the form of encouragement, planning together, and co-teaching. They said it helps them feel safe when trying something new and is therefore an important way to continue learning new coaching practices.
Conversely, multiple coaches said that when they do not have another coach with whom to collaborate, they often feel like they are isolated and experience minimal growth and effectiveness. For example, Maddie said, “Collaboration helps me not feel like I’m on an island. It helps me feel more confident in working with teachers.”
Jayce said, “Coaching collaboration makes me feel more confident in my abilities as an instructional coach. With the limited training that I had prior to becoming a coach, it also helps me really know that the things I’m doing are positive and worthwhile and what other things I should be thinking about doing or trying.”
Coaching-specific professional learning. Coaches also identified coaching-specific professional learning as a way to build resilience. “Professional development helps me develop resiliency,” Maddie said. “Like, doing the Onward book [by Elena Aguilar] and book study with my coaching team. … The important part is talking together about how to apply the information in our coaching practices. I also think going to conferences or hearing others speak would be beneficial. We just need to keep getting tools in our basket.”
Lisa agreed that collaborative dialogue is the most important part of professional learning. “In-field coaching and receiving feedback helps me improve, and that helps me build resilience,” she said. “Selfishly, I always ask for that debrief. Even if I can steal 10 minutes. I’m always seeking feedback.”
Lisa was not the only one who expressed the need for specific, in-field coaching collaboration or, in other ways, coaching for coaches. Clara said, “I would love to have somebody sit with me in coaching sessions. And if it was that same person [who also works with other coaches], they could go school to school and coach to coach and coach us. Then we could debrief on coaching solutions, coaching language — that way, it’s systematic.”
Other participants pointed out that professional learning for coaches should be ongoing and sustained, just as it should be for educators. They said that coaching-specific professional learning is critical not only to begin a coaching program, but also to build and sustain an effective coaching program that will work toward continuous growth for all learners over time.
In interviews and questionnaires, coaches suggested ways their colleagues and leaders can cultivate each of those sources of coaching resilience. These suggestions included the following:
To foster collaboration:
To provide coaching-specific professional learning:
Translating findings into practice
It is encouraging to note that each of the themes in the findings are consistent with the New Teacher Center (2018) Instructional Coaching Program Standards, even though we did not reference these standards when interviewing and surveying participants.
Emotional intelligence aligns with Instructional Coaching Program Standard 7: Instructional Coaching for Optimal Learning Environments, while collaborative learning and coaching-specific professional learning align with Standard 5: Instructional Coach Professional Learning, Learning Communities, and Onboarding, and Standard 8: Instructional Coaching for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, as well as Standard 7 described above. This suggests that coaches are well attuned to the needs and opportunities of their role.
It also suggests that educational leaders can use the findings of our study in conjunction with the Instructional Coaching Program Standards (New Teacher Center, 2018) to build and sustain an effective coaching strategy. It is our hope that this work will highlight the need to continuously develop emotional intelligence, foster collaboration, and provide coaching-specific professional learning so that all teachers and all students can thrive.
Aguilar, E. (2018). Recognizing the power of emotions and cultivating emotional resilience can help schools retain teachers. Educational Leadership, 24-30.
Chang, M.L. (2009). An appraisal perspective of teacher burnout: Examining the emotional work of teachers. Educational Psychology Review, 21, 193-218. doi.org/10.1007/s10648-009-9106-y
Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R., & McKee, A. (2002). Primal leadership: Learning to lead with emotional intelligence. Harvard University Press.
Gu, Q. & Day, C. (2007). Teachers resilience: A necessary conditions for effectiveness. Teaching and Teacher Education, 23, 1302-1316.
Masten, A., Best, K., & Garmezy, N. (1990). Resilience and development: Contributions from the study of children who overcome adversity. Development and Psychopathology, 2, 425-444.
New Teacher Center. (2018). Instructional Coaching Program Standards. Author.
Wang, L., Tao, H., Bowers, B.J., Brown, R., & Zhang, Y. (2018). Influence of social support and self-efficacy on resilience of early career registered nurses. Western Journal of Nursing Research, 40(5), 648-664. doi.org/10.1177/0193945916685712
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