Hello, I hope this finds you well. It is cold, dull and rainy where I am. I don’t know why I write about the weather so much; I guess it’s because where I come from, the weather is an endless source of fascination. When I call my dad, I can rely on giving and receiving a weather report. Anyway, the weather today seems relevant—be warned that this is a heavier Coaching Letter than most.
Over twenty years ago now, one of my cousins died. I had only spent time with him three times, on three different continents, although one of those times involved sharing a house with him for several months. Before Zoom and email were ubiquitous, I heard news of him; we weren’t in touch directly. I remember being at my home computer when my parents called to tell me. I think it was the weekend. And I just got on with my day. Then much later I realized that sadness had been creeping up on me for hours, and by the time I noticed, I was truly miserable. My husband was working in another state, so I called my friend Jim and we went out for ice cream. He sat quietly as I sobbed into my bowl.
I have learned that this process of feeling like I’m being invaded by a stealthy version of sorrow is typical for me when something bad happens to people that I don’t know very well but I care about—I remember dealing with a similar process when Columbine happened, and then 9/11. And that the amount of space that the sorrow occupies is all the larger the closer you are. I learned on Saturday of the loss of my colleague, Robert Henry, and as I write this, I can think of nothing else. And I am truly miserable.
I want to write about Robert because he embodied so much of what the Coaching Letter is trying to promote. He was kind and caring and compassionate without letting go of high ideals. He was thoughtful and careful. He was humble, and not shy about asking for help or resources or guidance even though he was already so senior and so accomplished. He was willing to revise his thinking when so many others of his stature might assume that they already knew what was best. He was delighted to learn new skills—I met him when Richard and I trained a group of superintendents to be coaches, and he was delighted and grateful to participate. This year, he wanted me to coach him on how to use Zoom and how to make his presentations better.
And above all else, he was encouraging. When I started writing The Coaching Letter, it was originally just for the group of five Hartford principals I was coaching at the time. Robert was part of the first round of people I sent it to beyond the original five, and he called me right away. Whenever he called me, he spoke to me in Spanish until we moved beyond the limits of my fluency, so I don’t remember exactly what he said. But I remember the message he conveyed: Isabelle! This is amazing! It’s great! There’s so much wonderful stuff in here! Where are you going to publish it? How are you going to get it to more people? And on and on. He was effusive and enthusiastic and it mattered a lot. I am not sure that I would have continued to build the Coaching Letter into its current form if it hadn’t been for knowing that I had at least one GIANT fan. I am grateful beyond measure for his passionate support of me and my work, which continued until he no longer had the strength to text me anymore.
Robert would expect me to make a connection to some other big idea or resource, so that’s what I’m going to do. I just finished reading Lisa Feldman Barrett’s 7½ Lessons about the Brain. I have plugged her work before: a list of ways to learn about her work in CL #128; insights relevant to coaching in CL #131. And because her name takes so long to type, I’m going to call her LFB.
I’m not sure it’s fair to say that LFB’s biggest idea is that our brains are not for thinking, but it’s way up there. Instead, our brain’s function is to regulate our “body budget”: the amount of energy you have to keep you alive and well is finite, and you need an organ that will act as a “command center” to make sure that you balance your body’s energy budget. Under this paradigm, feelings are not separate from thinking—there are many implications of this, and I’m just going to pursue one of them here: what our affect does and why. Starting on p.106 of 7½ lessons about the Brain:
Where does affect come from? In every moment—like right now, as you read these words—your hormones, organs, and immune system are producing a storm of sense data, and you’re barely aware of it. You notice your heartbeat and breathing only when they’re intense or you focus on them. You almost never notice your body temperature unless it’s too high or too low. Your brain, however, makes meaning from this data storm continuously to predict your body’s next action and meet its metabolic needs before they arise. In the midst of all this activity inside you, something miraculous happens. Your brain summarizes what’s going on with your body in the moment, and you feel that summary as affect.
Affect is like a barometer for how you’re doing. Remember, your brain is constantly running a budget for your body. Affect hints at whether your body budget is in balance or in the red. Ideally, evolution would have given you something more specific, like an app or a smart watch to regulate your body budget precisely… Unfortunately, affect is not so precise. It just tells you, Beep! You feel like crap. Then your brain must predict what to do next to keep you alive and well.
How does this idea connect with this moment? I know that how I am feeling today is a product of the fact that the loss I have experienced constitutes a significant withdrawal from my body budget. I know that in similar situations in the past, I have failed to account for this—and as a result, have done stupid things like run a red light or lose my keys. I know that I shouldn’t do anything today that is going to cause me stress, so I’m going to avoid the news. I am going to avoid anything that involves significant concentration, like planning a workshop, or using my chef’s knife. I know that thinking about Robert may make me sad but will also make me feel better—hence my writing this Coaching Letter in his honor. I know that I could, if I wanted, “power through” but just because I know I could do it doesn’t make it wise. I’m going to make myself tea and watch a movie and think about my good friend who died yesterday, and trust that he would like this Letter.
Let me know if I can do anything for you. And if you want to do something for me, find someone to encourage. Best, Isobel
Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
CCSC Services to Districts
Author of The Coaching Letter
Author with Jennie Weiner of The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders: Principles and Practices Routledge