I recently led a workshop with several new coaches about how they can support the leaders they work with in talking about and examining racial inequities. I told them what I always say about this work: “It’s our role as coaches to provoke and contain discomfort.”
I am grateful for the question that came next from one of the coaches. She asked, “What if talking about race doesn’t make the leader we are working with uncomfortable? I don’t want to create discomfort where there isn’t any.”
Too often people conflate discomfort with the awkward and undesirable. Our work is not about creating awkwardness for its own sake. Rather, our aim is to intentionally take coachees to the edge of their capacity as leaders to ultimately help them grow. When coaching for racial equity, our responsibility is to help leaders examine the challenges they are experiencing from multiple perspectives and to name what’s getting in the way as they take ownership of the challenge. Naming a problem is freeing and can diminish the power the challenge holds over you.
I think about a principal who recently was working with her coach to breakdown a conversation that had occurred in a staff meeting. During the staff meeting, a teacher made a comment that included a negative stereotype about students of color. The principal did not address the comment during the meeting, and she later regretted not leaning into it and making it a teaching moment for her team. With her coach, she ultimately named her barrier: She wasn’t confident in her own ability to have that courageous conversation and worried how she would look if she took it on in a public manner. Naming her own fear allowed her coach to help her identify strategies to overcome it, become a public learner, and bravely lead her staff to tackle racial inequities.
While recognizing the limits of one’s current capacity is uncomfortable work, it is critical for progressing as a leader and vital to supporting teachers to develop as well.
Racial inequities in our K-12 system lurk within so many of the entrenched practices and policies that impact our students every day. You can see them when examining which students a teacher calls on in class, how a teacher grades students’ work, and which students the teacher gives extra help to and which students she labels un-helpable. It also lives in the stories the school tells itself about who can achieve and why.
By guiding people to the edge of their capacity, we are encouraging them to see both how they have been part of the problem, and how they can be part of the solution. We push them to what researcher Ron Heifetz has termed “the productive zone of disequilibrium.” It is there, Heifetz writes, that someone can experience “the optimal range of distress within which the urgency in the system motivates people to engage in adaptive work. If the level is too low, people will be inclined to complacently maintain their current way of working, but if it is too high, people are likely to be overwhelmed and may start to panic or engage in severe forms of work avoidance.”
Once the leader sees and names the problem, there is a lot to consider. Imagine, for example, that, after examining your school data, you realize that students of color are being suspended more often than your white students. You say you want to change that, a critical first step. You can then ask yourself how much of the suspension problem you own. What have you done to allow the rate of suspensions to continue or to challenge it? What systems are in place that allow or enable these practices? Who does the suspending in the building and what is your role in taking action to overturn the problem? What will you do differently to ensure students are in classrooms learning? And what language can you use as a leader to talk about the problem with staff as a communal challenge, as you bravely blaze a path forward that serves ALL students?
We take leaders to the point of discomfort so that they can ultimately come out more confident, capable, and conscious of their capacity to make change effectively. Discomfort, in service of equity for all students, can be a catalyst for learning and transformation.
Francis Yasharian is Vice President of Leadership Coaching for the NYC Leadership Academy.