Fiona Hurtado, teaching and learning coach in South Africa, identifies three sources of loneliness as a coach and how to combat them.
oaching and being a coach have been an amazing journey for me as an educator, offering insight into the teaching profession unlike any other role. Coaches share their expertise with teachers while simultaneously learning from them, all without the time constraints of being a full-time teacher themselves. They have the freedom to walk into classrooms without the pressure of being an evaluator, and have the privileged role of listening to teachers' goals and supporting them as they reach for them.
Coaches are still somewhat of a rare species in the educational landscape, however, and despite our teaching heritage we've evolved into something that is often difficult to describe to others and, at times, even to ourselves. Although there are advantages of being a coach, it can actually feel pretty lonely at times, but it doesn't have to be. Here are a few common causes of loneliness in coaching, and some easy ways to get over the hurdle.
1: Feeling like an "Outcast"
Cause: We might be homeless, feeling like we don't truly belong to any particular division, school or campus.
Most coaches were impactful, enthusiastic teachers in their pre-coaching lives, often invited into the coaching role because they were seen as people-persons in their schools. They'd be the ones who would instigate conversations in the lunchroom, know everyone's name (and probably their childrens' names, their dogs name, and maybe their favorite restaurant or sport!) and "always show up." Community matters to them—feeling a part of a good fight, building up a subject or grade level, developing pride and capacity in those around them brings them joy.
Coaching utilizes this skill set, but the sense of belonging within the community changes. In my role, this meant changing within a school. When I began coaching, I had all the connections of my teaching role, but my new role totally changed the dynamic of my relationships. At best, I was still a colleague but without the ties of a division; at worst, my presence was viewed with suspicion.
Fix: Turn up/show up.
Make sure you attend community events—attend school plays, stand-up meetings, sporting meets—and calendar your lunch for the same time as teachers so you can join them and bond. One bit of feedback I received from a teacher this year was to be more visible. Next year, I'm thinking of changing up where I set my meetings with teachers so that they are in areas that see more traffic (e.g., the staff room, or the library) and scheduling time to drop-in on teachers I haven’t seen in a while.
2: Unclear Identity
Cause: Our identity might feel ambiguous, resulting in being misunderstood by faculty and leadership.
Despite coaching being an ever-growing role in districts and schools, there's still plenty of confusion about what we do and why we do it. Initially, we may be perceived as "fixers" who work only with those who need "improvement," or worse, evaluative spies. Or it may simply be that people do not know how to use us, running into the fairly major roadblock of "I'm not sure what to do with a coach." Coaches often find themselves becoming "yes people" in an effort to be useful. From my experiences talking with peers, most coaches can recollect a moment when they found themselves doing something that was not coaching at all—becoming a substitute teacher instead of a co-teacher during a coaching cycle, for example—and thinking, "How did I end up here?"
Becoming a coach can test your identity as an educator, too. For example, as a coach you might ask yourself, "If you value teaching so much, why did you choose to leave the classroom?" Suddenly the identity you forged as a teacher needs remodeling, and since many of us work alone, we are left to work on this coaching identity in isolation.
Fix: Clarify your role for others and what you value within the role. Share the following with teachers:
- What is a coach?
- What do you do, and maybe what don't you do?
- What kind of relationship do you hope to share with them?
It also sometimes helps to offer suggestions as to how teachers can use you as a coach, and you can marry that with generating some business at an entry point that is comfortable for the teacher. Being transparent about your role makes it easier for the communities you work with to feel confident about the nature of the exchanges you have with them, and to help them—and you—find your place at the lunch table.
3: Absence of a Team Culture
Cause: We lack the network gifted to us by a grade level team or department.
Rarely are coaches lucky enough to be part of a coaching team or even share an office with other coaches. However, even if they do, they may not share the same responsibilities. The many variations of the role of "coach"—literacy, numeracy, instructional, technology integration, teaching and learning, divisional specialist, and the list goes on—can almost force coaches to separate corners as we focus on our areas of expertise, and not necessarily how we are alike as coaches. If you're lucky enough to share a like-role with a colleague, as I am, it is often difficult to find time to talk shop and build a relationship in a coaching capacity as we devote our time to working with teachers.
Fix: Devote time to connecting and learning from your coaching colleagues, either "at home" or from your broader coaching network.
A really exciting move our team is making this coming year is to all take a coaching course together. Although the content isn't new, the course will give us structure and purpose for conversations about our coaching and make us prioritize time to learn together.
Another move I made in the last few months was to join a blogging tribe; knowing there are other coaches out there who might offer different perspectives has made my reflections more considered and probably more honest. Reaching out on Twitter and other platforms is eye-opening in affirming the work you are doing. Being a contributor, as well as a consumer, of the wealth of knowledge and experience is what cements that sense of belonging to a community.
A wise friend of mine often says we teach people how to treat us, and it rings true when I think of the feelings of loneliness I've experienced as a coach. Getting over the feeling of loneliness ultimately comes down to how we actively foster relationships with those around us. If we want to get over the hurdle, we have to make the leap!
About our Guest Blogger
Fiona Hurtado has been in education for 15 years, teaching on five continents in High and Middle Schools, and coaching for the last three in South Africa. As a member of her schools' Teaching and Learning team, she works across two campuses, Grades Pre K–12, supporting teachers as they strive towards their professional goals and improving student learning. Fiona is passionate about formative assessment and learning through concepts, and leveraging these to connect teachers and enhance the coaching process. In her spare time, Fiona can be found adventuring overseas with her husband and two kids.