Ana Hutton is the Coaching Champion and Staff Wellbeing Lead at Grove Park Primary School and in this article she identifies the important link between coaching and achieving potential, drawing on the best-selling book, Big Potential by Shawn Achor.
‘You shine brighter in a collection of stars’
‘Big Potential’ (2018) Shawn Achor, positive psychologist, Harvard University
When I first started teaching in a village school, my initial impression was that experienced teachers did not share their lesson plans or their experience with anyone. Their doors were always closed and the assumption was that if a teacher spent a long time devising a lesson, then they shouldn’t have to share the fruits of their labour with anyone.
Twenty-seven years later, times have changed, thank goodness. I now work in a wonderful team where we decide between us who will plan each lesson and photocopy resources for both classes. In this team, I am able to express my opinion, safe in the knowledge I will be treated respectfully and I thoroughly enjoy teaching alongside such creative and generous colleagues.
It turns out that working this way is much more beneficial than working individually. New research from acclaimed psychologist Shawn Achor (if you haven’t seen his TED talk on the Happiness Advantage, I recommend it as it is very funny) indicates that when we coordinate and collaborate with those around us, we all begin to shine brighter, both individually and as a school. We reach our ‘Big Potential’ rather than our small individual potential.
Psychologists’ new understanding of ‘positive systems’ teaches us that by becoming a ‘positive node’ in our schools and helping those around us improve their productivity, abilities and performance, we are not only helping our team become better, we are exponentially increasing our own potential for success. In short, the more we help others find their light, the brighter we both shall shine. As Achor says,
‘Big Potential isn’t about trying to go faster alone. It’s about working to become better together.’
We are conditioned to disproportionately value things we accomplish on our own but we are much more effective and creative when we share with others. Here are the methods that Achor recommends each of us establish in order to help our schools flourish. As you will read, coaching is an important part of this process.
1. Surround yourself with positive influencers
The height of your potential is predicted by the type of people who surround you. The key is to surround yourself with people who will lift you up rather than drag you down. Just as there is ‘negative peer pressure’ there is also ‘positive peer pressure’ and the latter is what we want to tap into. A positive coach can actually provide you with energy when you are low which helps you more effectively solve problems, deal with challenges and work towards your goals. Your coach should bring out the best in you, not the stress in you and you should do the same for your coachee.
2. Expand your power: leading from every seat
Trying to carry all the leadership alone is the quickest path to burnout. If we want small potential we should leave leadership in the hands of the leaders but if we want ‘Big Potential’ we must inspire and enable others to lead no matter what their position in our schools. In order to do that, every-one in our team needs to believe that they can create positive change, wherever they are in the system. They need to know that they can inspire others regardless of whether they are a leader or not. This is why coaching is so important as anyone can train to be a coach and can then witness how their coachee improves as a result of their help and support. Once a coachee has a shared sense of ownership, indifference and inertia turn into potential and enthusiasm. A coach has a duty to help their coachee see the meaning in their work-lives and to inspire them to learn more, do more and become more, no matter what position they hold in school.
3. Enhance your resources: Creating a prism of praise and recognition
Praise is a renewable resource. The more praise you give, the more praise you will deserve and then receive. However we should stop comparison praise as comparing is not praising. When you are coaching, do not compliment at the expense of others by using words like ‘best’. The best praise of all is by actions changed so if your coachee has a brilliant idea that they put into action, the most authentic way to acknowledge them is to change your behaviour by taking up their idea yourself. Praise from a direct manager makes employees the happiest and most engaged, so where possible tell senior staff when your coachee has been successful so that they can offer their praise too. Praise from senior management has been linked to dramatic rises in the retention of staff and since schools are suffering from the effects of staff shortages, the simple act of offering praise as often as possible can make a huge difference to staff morale and well-being. When being praised yourself, try shining the spotlight on the support system around you that made your high performance possible as this enhances Big Potential.
4. Defend against negative influences: protecting the system against attacks
We may not have the power to control our work environments but we do have the power to defend the good within it. The presence of seemingly negative forces can serve to make our teams stronger and healthier. One way to enhance team morale is to start every meeting with gratitude. For example, staff could discuss three things that went well. (As a coach, you might want to suggest your coachee makes it a daily practise to write it down three things that went well.) Research has shown that Navy SEALs have extraordinary levels of teamwork, engagement and loyalty which isn’t caused by the stress of their job but by the effort invested in helping each other overcome the stress. When we feel stress in isolation it is devastating but when we have a resilient support system around us, the negative effects dissipate. We need to help our teams and our coaches see stress as a group challenge not an individual burden.
5. Sustain the gains- creating collective momentum
Meaning keeps us going especially in busy and stressful times. As coaches, we should encourage our coachees to believe that as teachers, they are not just marking books and collating data but they are helping to educate a whole new generation of parents and leaders. Coaches should celebrate coachees for their companionship, their strengths, their everyday contributions as doing so reinforces a more empowered self-image and helps the coachee to see a vivid image of themselves as someone who is worthy of happiness and success. A study by renowned psychologist Adam Grant shows how celebrating the good in people can actually pull them in the direction of doing more good for their organisation. As a coach, you should celebrate success rather than trying to ‘fix’ your coachee. As Achor states:
‘The more we celebrate, the more we enrich our lives with meaning… (and so) we create and sustain a Virtuous Cycle.’