Coaches Need Coaching, Too

By the 4th of July, I had been to the recycling bin at least a half-dozen times since school ended. Each time—and sometimes after several trips in a day—I would greet Micah at the front door and bring him over to the bin, lift the lid, and brag on all the things I had managed to purge from the piles that had littered the office floor since I brought everything* home. He was adequately impressed every time. “This is the equivalent of putting my tools away,” I told him, some of which had been boxed and back-breakingly bustled with me to at least two schools and three different jobs over the past decade.

(*When I say everything, I do mean minus ten boxes of books that found good homes and effectively dismantled My. Entire. Classroom. Library.)

Day after day after day I thought the purge was nearing its end, and it wasn’t until the end of July that I was finally ready to set things to right. That meant it was now time to find order in the piles that had survived. Yet I am a file-by-pile sort of person; this task seemed daunting.

So what did I do? When I couldn’t see the forest for the trees? When I was standing in my office alone staring at the piles in front of me?

At first? I avoided the task. It was actually during one of my many side-track sessions that I found the answer: Without a coach around in the summer to get me through, I could turn to coaching nonetheless. Enter the Affinity Map protocol.

Affinity Map: Purpose

Affinity Mapping is designed to “define the elements of a larger topic or task.” In this case, the larger topic is instructional coaching, and I was looking for ways to define what the “parts” or “elements” are so that I could organize all the “stuff” on my desk. In other words, What would I print on the cover of the binders? What would I label the tabs?

Yes, these were the questions I was stuck on. Good thing I read the protocol through before I got started; it works best when “begun with an open-ended analytic question.” It was already working, transforming my detail-oriented mind set on binder labels to a good ol’ existential inquiry:

What is my work as a coach?

Step 1: Set-Up

I went back to the piles that had begun to take loose shape as I cleaned out the last few boxes. I began adding post-its, giving each pile a name and then adding pages that went in each category to the bottom of each pile as I continued to go through file after file.

Step 2: Place the Post-Its

In lieu of chart paper, I turned to Jamboard to make the details visible. Rereading the protocol (again) pushed me to revise a few of my piles according to the facilitator’s tip: “Ask people to write suggestions that are concrete as possible.” For example, instead of maintaining a broad category of “MTSS,” I broke it into three categories: Data Displays, Data Analysis, and Planning for Differentiation.

Step 3: Categorize

Even as I began post-it-ing to the Jamboard, I realized I was already beginning to see connections. I started color-coding my post-its. Then, I let it simmer. I posted a picture of the board to social media hoping for some input, and it turns out, this was enough. As often happens, this alone made space for ideas that might bring order to the chaos even as I was paddle-boarding, getting dressed, or enjoying a book on the porch.

Step 4: Label

That brought me to the heart of the protocol: “Which ideas … have an affinity, [and] seem to belong together?” The answer was as close as my bookshelf (or the one I had in my previous office). Four main shelves: reading, writing (aka content areas), instructional practice, and coaching practice.

These broad labels helped me to get started with binders. The dividers within and across each binder were another matter, often coming from the order and organization inherent in that category. For example, reading and writing were easy to organize by workshop components and big ideas in the teaching of both whole- and small-group. Coaching was divided into “being” and “doing.” PLCs were organized around the continuum and Four Questions. And so on.

Step 5: Discuss

Just because I was working through this particular protocol on my own, does not mean it was done in isolation. The topic of organizing a coach’s work as well as the individual topics I was organizing themselves started showing up in ways that Steps 1-4 had made space for me to see:

For example, during my first day of training for the new school year I realized a few things that were missing from my files: an updated PLC Continuum, an assessment framework and intervention flow chart, updated workshop reference pages, etc.

Step 6: Next Steps

For this particular process, my next steps includes finding a home for the binders, not on a shelf of their own, but amidst the books in each of the categories that they share. There is the list of missing things that I need to print. I have begun pulling a few artifacts- things I imagine I’ll need early and often – out of the mix entirely, putting them at-the-ready in my single ring of sheet protected references. This system also has space for learning I’ll share with teachers in the coming weeks, months, and years.

From here, I need to just try it and see how it goes. How often do I refer to these files? How often do I simply reprint what I need when I need it? Maybe this means flagging pages I use as a way to make it visible which things could hit the trash next summer.

Step 7: Debrief

The debrief helps to codify, solidify, notice and name and – something I am horrible at once the details have begun to take shape – return to the big picture: What is a coach’s work? How did this process help me to define the work I do as a coach?

I am more convinced than ever that a coach’s work is teacher’s work, and this process helped me put pen to paper on the final belief I will share in this year’s welcome letter:

Bitmoji Image

What I know grows as we learn alongside one another; I am not the expert. I choose an inquiry stance and so will be in the “arena” with you, daring greatly: I will roll up my sleeves to learn alongside you. I will be unafraid to fall back and fail forward as we learn from our shared experiences.

This act of bringing order to the chaos is a step in rolling up my sleeves. It creates a cushion to fall back on, a foundation from which I can feel free to fail forward.

Coaching for the win!


Feeling stuck, overwhelmed, or otherwise in need of coaching? Here are a few tips from today’s Parallel Practice:
  1. Make It Visible. The same protocols we use to facilitate teacher and student learning can work for us, too. Ideally, this one would have taken shape in a collaborative way, but a protocol’s power is in the way it organizes time and space to make thinking visible and to be generative in the process.
  2. Coaching, not Coaches. Notice that this strategy relies on the tools of coaching, not on the skills of a particular coach. In this way, we expand our definition of what coaches (as a verb) our learners. Just like teachers don’t care where students learn something as long as they do, as coach I see the power in all sorts of sources for coaching. (To be sure, I do plan another post about “Coaches Need Coaches, Too.”)
  3. What Has Worked? The categories I chose for order and organization came from my own experience of how I have used resources to coach teachers in the past. Having a shelf for each content, one I can refer to for guiding questions, and one dedicated to ongoing learning and progress-monitoring have served me before. Why would I choose something different for this?
  4. Try It. I know the system I created here is not perfect. There were things I had trouble placing and even the fullness of the binders makes me anxious about the prospect of making room for new learning. I won’t know until I’ve tried it. And, hey! if these pages go untouched and unseen for another year, this “Try It” step can easily become the “Trash It” step.
  5. Return to the Big Picture. What is the question you are trying to gain insight on. If you, like me, often lose sight of the forest for the trees, do not skip this step. More often than not, the missing piece to my puzzle often appears when I step back to remind myself of why I started fitting pieces together in the first place.

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