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Coaching Ourselves with Compassion

It was my honor to write this guest post that originally was posted on Sherry St. Clair’s blog Reflect to Learn. The post is adapted slightly here. The content is based on Compassionate Coaching: How to Help Educators Navigate Barriers to Professional Growth that I co-wrote with Kenny McKee.

In March of 2020, our lives changed. We long to get back to our carefree days. We miss social gatherings with friends and family. As educators, we can’t wait for the day when we can see our students’ and colleagues’ smiles. We will get back; it just will take time. Each new day brings a unique opportunity for new beginnings, a way to move forward from the pandemic.

Our journeys through this pandemic have had similarities and differences – yet we are all grounded in the same experience. Every one of us felt the pains and the wave of emotions as well as the joys of human compassion.

Before this COVID-19 experience, Kenny McKee and I set out on a path to write about how instructional coaches could help teachers (and themselves) navigate challenging situations. Little did we know, when we started to bounce around our ideas two years ago and set our sights on writing a book for ASCD, that we all would experience some of the most challenging times of our personal and professional lifetimes.

As we started our work, we found common barriers to instructional improvement at the individual and team levels through our ongoing work with instructional coaches and school leaders. While writing, a pandemic hit! WE DIDN’T SEE THAT COMING! We witnessed each of the barriers in ourselves and school leaders, teachers, instructional coaches, students, parents, and beyond. Kenny and I can’t wait to share our book, Compassionate Coaching; How to Help Educators Navigate Barriers to Professional Growth with you – slated to be published on June 30, 2021! What follows is a sneak peek at our work.

Have you experienced any of the following (before or during the pandemic)?

  • I don’t have the skills to do my best work right now. (Lack of Confidence)
  • I don’t have the power to do my best work right now. (Failure)
  • I don’t have the time to do my best right now. (Overload)
  • I don’t have the processes to do my best work right now. (Disruption)
  • I don’t have the community to do my best work right now. (Isolation)
  • I don’t have the environment to do my best work right now. (School Culture Challenges)

Take a moment to look at the picture above. Even though there is a fence (a barrier) in the background, the trees draw us into the image. Our upcoming book is similar. We name barriers (the fence), yet we created a compassionate coaching focus to differentiate coaching for each obstacle. We share ways to focus and see the good! The understanding of human complexities is the key to personalized and compassionate coaching resulting in transformational change.

Just like our changing seasons, these barriers are not permanent states or character traits of teachers (or ourselves); they are seasons of our professional lives where we encounter challenges that may inhibit our professional growth. They can return at different points in our careers.

Each of the barriers can impact our performance, but it doesn’t mean we are poor educators. Barriers are situational. We are not labeling teachers. Rather we strive to provide a compassionate coaching focus for each barrier to shift from avoidance to navigation.

Each of us can use these same compassionate coaching techniques as we reflect on our daily lives and set structures and goals as we move forward. I know I’m not alone in having faced several of these barriers – Let’s strive to find ways to coach ourselves through any barrier we meet on our journey.

Lack of Confidence

When we lack confidence, we often feel like we do not have the skills to do our best work. Our compassionate coaching focus for lack of confidence is PARTNERSHIP.

During the COVID-19 experience, we all had to add to our educational tool kits, using technology to facilitate learning, probably topping the list. If this caused a feeling of lack of confidence, who could you partner with to increase your skills? Chances are, there are colleagues in your school to reach out to. Or perhaps you can look to Twitter or Facebook groups.

Last spring, a group of educators created a FREE Distance Learning Playbook, an idea Jim Knight first posted on Twitter. For several weeks about 100 educators got on Zoom to crowdsource the playbook. We used Jim Knight’s Coaching Playbook process to develop one-page guides to several virtual tools, complete with one sentence about the tool, the tool’s point, how teachers and students use it, and a simple checklist. The opportunity allowed everyone to become more confident and skilled in using the tools needed for successful hybrid and virtual experiences. The playbook is free to use.


If you feel like you lack confidence, find someone to partner with! Reflect on the people in your lives that have helped you through the challenges you faced.


Failure is a natural step in the learning process. I’m drawn to the acronym F.A.I.L. – standing for First Attempt In Learning. Think back to a new learning experience. For me, a recent experience has been learning to crochet. My first attempt at a square dishcloth turned into a triangle. My first thought was to make triangular dishcloths trendy! Yet, I was determined to overcome that sense of failure. I got a good laugh at my project and set out to master crochet skills. I asked questions, watched videos, and took classes to empower me to be successful and proud of my work.

Our compassionate coaching focus for failure is precisely that – EMPOWERMENT! Have you experienced challenging situations through the pandemic that caused you not to have the power to do your best work? A feeling of failure can emerge from both internal and external sources. When we notice this feeling, it is time to shift our thoughts and words.

A strategy I’ve found helpful is to jot down what I’m grateful for EACH DAY – from the simple to the complex. Try rewording a challenging situation into a statement of gratitude. Instead of “I just can’t reach teachers or students in a virtual format,” think, “I’m grateful for the technology advancements to help us through this pandemic.” You can even shift your thinking to the future, such as “I’m grateful for the teachers I am empowering through the use of a variety of virtual solutions.”


If you feel like you don’t have the skills to be successful, empower yourself by building upon your strengths. Start or continue to journal what you are grateful for each day.


Our lives have been turned upside down since March of 2020. Time, or the lack of, has always been a factor when we feel a sense of overload. Even though we spent more time at home, time has been a factor in coordinating our new normal.

Administrators I’ve talked to feel like the “covid-police.” They have new hats to wear, yet their past hats are still with them. Teachers and instructional coaches feel the same. Planning for virtual experiences, hybrid, and even onsite are taking much longer. We are finding the need to create a plan A and B just in case something goes wrong.

Our compassionate coaching focus for overload is PRIORITIZATION.

Two strategies I use with my virtual coaching clients are:

  1. Break down goals into small priorities that you can accomplish in a few weeks.
  2. Collect small wins along the way that can be shared and celebrated at our next virtual call.


If you find you don’t have time to do things well, set priorities and boundaries for your work. Develop a way to track your small wins so that you can reflect on them.


The amount of disruption in our lives leads to the feeling that we don’t have processes to do our best work. This disruption is especially true with the virtual learning experiences we have to create. Teaching and learning as we once knew it has completely changed. We need to find new ways to engage both adult and student learners. Think back to all the new learning you have personally experienced during the pandemic! Please take a moment to pat yourself on the back! I am so proud of how educators have stepped up to the challenge!

Our compassionate coaching focus for disruption is ROUTINE. One of my favorite books on habits and routines is Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear. One strategy mentioned in the book is habit stacking. For example, I stack habits for my morning routine. After I make my morning coffee, I feed the dog. After I feed the dog, I sit down and journal my daily gratitude statements. After that is done, I grab my coffee and set three main priorities for the day. Once you get one set of routines stacked, you can keep adding more. This habit stacking process has helped my “work from home” life stay somewhat focused.


If you feel like you don’t have the processes to do your best work, try setting small routines.

What habits can you stack upon each other?


We’ve been in pandemic mode since March of 2020! The feelings of isolation are real. You may be feeling, “I don’t have the community to do my best work right now.” As humans, we are wired for CONNECTIONS – which is our compassionate coaching focus for the barrier of isolation.

Instructional coaches have felt this isolation as they navigate what coaching looks like for them during the pandemic. Recognizing our feelings of isolation is an important step! Find ways to reach out to others in similar situations either locally or globally.

Even if we have technology fatigue, it is still an excellent way to stay connected. I’ve found Twitter to be a great way to connect with educators. If you are interested in instructional coaching, I invite you to join the #educoach chat each Wednesday at 8 pm CST. I co-founded the chat in 2011 with Jessica Johnson and Shira Leibowitz. Our book The Coach Approach to School Leadership: Leading Teachers to Higher Levels of Effectiveness came from that online connection. The three of us met face-to-face for the first time after the book was published. Now, I am joined by team of awesome co-moderators joins me for the weekly #educoach chat. We chat about a variety of topics related to instructional coaching. You can check out the archives of some of our past chats here.

But, I’ve also found the need to unplug totally. Reading, exercising, and pursuing outside interest such as crafting and whole food plant-based cooking has brought new connections. I’ve taken classes, participated in online book studies, and found like-minded interest groups to connect with others.


If you feel like you don’t have a community to do your best work, find ways to reach out to others, and build your own learning community. Check out #educoach on Twitter.

School Change

Our upcoming book refers to three types of school cultures: shifting, stagnant, and toxic. In 2020, our school environments as we knew them made a gigantic shift – one that was totally out of our control. We were forced to make many internal changes. As we reflect, we must give ourselves some grace. We did what we could to serve our school communities. Our compassionate coaching focus for school change is OPENNESS.

We’ve all experienced the same storm, yet our experiences differ. I recently had a conversation with a school superintendent. She reflected on her own school’s culture – one that pre-covid she considered relatively healthy. The staff worked well together and embraced learning, collaborating, and being innovative to meet student needs. Even with a strong school culture, she has noticed a few setbacks during this school year. She intuitively turned to guide the staff to celebrate all the good they have accomplished.


If you are working in an environment hindering your best work, what can you do to model the way? How can you guide celebrating the good that has been accomplished?

One Final Note

We have been forced to embark on a journey with no road map. As you reflect on the past year – whether at a personal level or school community level – take time to note your WINS and be open to finding new paths for the barriers that caused you to stumble.

I’m a firm believer in coaching. I have sought to be the recipient of coaching throughout my educational career. Even in my 38th year in education, I’m constantly seeking ways to reflect with others to grow as an educator. This deep reflection allows me to expand on my goals in ways I couldn’t have done by myself.

Who coaches you?

I love partnering with instructional coaches and school leaders to empower them to COACH with CONFIDENCE. Often coaches and school leaders have many ideas they want to implement and find value in working with a coach of their own to see these ideas move to implementation at a much faster rate!

Even the most successful people in the world have coaches — an extra set of eyeballs, a perspective from outside of the frame, words of wisdom from someone who’s done it before, someone to help manage a dozen ideas and get you started on one.

Atul Gawande, Want to Get Great at Something, Get A Coach (TED Talk), author of The Checklist Manifesto

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