Hi, I hope this finds you well. This Coaching Letter is mostly a follow-up to Coaching Letter #122, about encouragement. But first I get to promote my own book! The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders, by Isobel Stevenson and Jennie Weiner, is now available for pre-order; Routledge has a back-to-school sale on at the moment, so now is the time to buy. When describing it to people, I find myself quoting Andy Hargreaves, who reviewed it for us and, I think, really gets what the book is trying to do:

“Strategic planning is the graveyard where promising ideas go to die. Put excellent ideas into a strategic planning framework and they will get starved of inspiring language, exhausted after endless meetings, and paralyzed by rigid frameworks and metrics. This book, however, is the antithesis of everything you assumed or imagined about strategic planning. Accessible, practical, and counterintuitive, it knocks traditional assumptions like SMART goals on the head and puts in their place a clear and simple alternative. Strategic planning, it turns out, is about actually doing something that matters, with the people you’ve got or are able to get, in a way that is feasible, and that makes perfect sense. If you want to bring strategic planning back from the dead and enliven your school’s improvement plans, this is the book for you.”

Obviously, I will try to slip in references to the book wherever possible, but for now, back to encouragement. In response to CL #122, I received messages from people with their own stories to share, or telling me what the CL had meant to them, or thanking me for reminding them to encourage others. These emails, by the way, matter to me enormously. So I started thinking about a meaningful example by way of follow-up. I thought that this time I should focus on the recipient of the encouragement, rather than the encourager. I think this is important, because we don’t accept encouragement from just anyone. We are selective. And I think there are two parts to how we judge: we have to believe that the person has our best interests at heart, and we have to believe that they mean it. Why? Why not accept encouragement from anyone? Because, fundamentally, what the person is encouraging you to do always involves risk, otherwise you wouldn’t need encouragement. And you have to base that decision on what you perceive to be accurate information, so you have to believe that the person encouraging you is telling the truth.

I thought about quoting from Anne Lamott who, in her book Bird by Bird, tells the story of having to cope with rejection from her editor: “But I called someone who loved my writing, who had encouraged me all along, and she told me to give the book a little space, a little sunshine and fresh air. She said not to pick it up for a month. She said that everything was going to be Okay, although she did not know exactly what Okay might look like.” And of course, everything does turn out OK. The coaches among us recognize this as process-level feedback but, as always, it doesn’t work unless you mean it—it is no accident that the writer turns to someone she already knows believes in her. People are crafty about where they look for encouragement.

I thought about quoting from Elena Aguilar, whose new book, Coaching for Equity, just came out. She tells the story of coaching Stephanie, who is full of good intentions, but fails in execution because her underlying expectations for her students are so low. The conversation that they have in response to Stephanie’s asking Elena if she (Elena) thinks she (Stephanie) is racist is jaw-dropping. The first part of the conversation is a fabulous example of why leaders should have coaching training—I wrote about that in this Coaching Letter from July of last year—and then, having told Stephanie that she believes that “you are operating from mindsets that are racist”, goes on to tell her, “I also think that you can unlearn these beliefs and change your practices. I think you could be a very effective teacher for black and brown kids.” And she means it—it doesn’t work unless you mean it—because she has been paying attention to what Stephanie values, and hasn’t dismissed her as a bad person.

But finally I settled on Brayden Harrington. I know you have seen the clip of Brayden speaking at the Democratic Convention, because there’s nobody left who hasn’t. But have you seen this clip of the first time that Brayden met Joe Biden? I am not making a political argument here—no one has a monopoly on having faith in people—and I could even pick apart for you, from a technical standpoint, what Biden said. But who cares? Because I cannot imagine there is a more unremittingly enthusiastic display of encouragement by anyone anywhere. And Biden means it—it doesn’t work unless you mean it—and the boy employs the technique that Biden taught him, and his life will never be the same.

All three of these examples involved significant risk—that the writer would expose herself to further rejection; that the teacher would put in so much effort to teaching differently and in fact being different, only to see no results; that the boy would go on national TV and be laughed at. There’s this slogan that shows up from time to time on motivational posters and the like: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” I always thought that was the wrong question. The question is, I think, “To whom do you turn to have the conversation about whether the risk is worth it?” I wish for all of us that we have several such people in our lives.

Let me know if I can do anything for you. And don’t forget to buy the book! Best, Isobel

Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
Center Staff
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