Chapter 8: Be Coachable

{The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, The Mountain Principles:  28 Lessons on Leading and Learning}

Be coachable, reflective and resilient in your work so that you can continue to sharpen your skillset.

Years ago, while working as a curriculum coordinator, I was tasked with visiting the classrooms of social studies teachers and providing constructive feedback on teaching practices. Inevitably, the best teachers were the ones who possessed a thirst for feedback.  It was in their nature to want to add to their toolkit.  These teachers exemplified the growth mindset that Carol Dweck describes in her book.  This group of teachers varied in experience from the new teachers to veteran teachers.  What they all shared was a coachable spirit.  “How can I be better?” “What can I do to work smarter?” These teachers were a joy to work alongside because they never allowed themselves to become stagnant or delusional about their own effectiveness.

There was another group of teachers who were somewhat less effective.  These teachers, though struggling with classroom management and student achievement, were intent upon blaming the students, blaming the parents, and blaming the administration.  “If we had more technology…”, “If we had newer books…”.  There was always somTwenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explor.pnge external reason, beyond their control, that contributed to the chaotic learning environment or student disengagement.  They owned no parts of the process.  Their response to feedback was defensive and at times combative.  Working with teachers in this group was like walking through a mine field, navigating ego, fixed mindsets, and years of ineffective experiences.  Everyone else was the problem.

In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins writes, “A Hedgehog Concept is not a goal to be the best, a strategy to be the best, an intention to be the best, a plan to be the best.  It is an understanding of what you can be the best at.  The distinction is absolutely crucial.”  I believe that we all possess our unique form of genius, but the challenge is to discover that genius.  That process starts with your mindset.  In chapter three of Mindset:  The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck describes Thomas Edison in his lab in New Jersey working with 30 assistants to create the lightbulb after multiple failures and disasters.  She writes, “Yes, he was a genius.  But he was not always one…What eventually set him apart was his mindset and drive. He never stopped being the curious, tinkering boy looking for new challenges. ”

Each day I find myself calling up my mentors, sharing notes with my peers, and even asking my teachers and AP’s to teach me something that they have recently mastered.  Degrees, titles, and organizational charts mean little when it comes to growing yourself into the best version of you.  The best teachers I know are always looking for new strategies, reading a new book, or trying a new project in their classes.  They look at the classroom as an organic, ever-changing place where they change as well as the students.  Great teachers seek out feedback to help them solve problems in their practice.  They ask their teammates how to address an issue with student performance.  When they receive feedback from parents, peers, or administration, they are not defensive.  Instead, they reflect on the portions that are critical and think of ways to either change practices or change others’ perception of their practice.

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with a veteran principal who is now a regional superintendent in a large urban district.  For two hours, she poured into me lessons on leadership, school culture, and fostering a sense of community.  It was a powerful session where I learned much about the many layers of the leadership role and how the role itself can be larger than life.  Having the wisdom of the elders is absolutely necessary if we are to thrive and create the phenomenal spaces for learning that challenge scholars, endear families, and develop teachers into highly effective educators with a commitment to this work. _Sometimes the brick wall is just the canvas for your next masterpiece._ (3).png

The Mural Project:  Hitting a Brick Wall

Every principal wants to leave a school better than they found it.  Marbut Traditional Theme School is an expansive building with many bare walls. When you walk into the front entrance, there is a foyer with high ceilings and natural light pouring down upon a central logo in the floor.  As you come around the corner of the front office, on your left are glass display cases.  On your right is a glass case with samples of the school uniforms on display.  Just beyond this case is a sepia-toned mural of Barack Obama.  The building is over 91,000 square feet of beige wall space screaming out for color, character, and content.  During the school year, some of those open spaces are used to display student work.  As I’ve met with parents, teachers, and students, I’ve proposed the idea of painting some murals around the school over the next few years.  I began conducting my own informal opinion poll about the existing artwork in the building.  On the largest wall in the cafeteria was a painting of a huge mountain lion, two raccoons, and deer.  In the center of the painting were the words “Excellence Lies Before Us”.  I had my own opinions about the mural, but I first sought the input of two artists I highly respect.

During my time as a 5th grade teacher in Augusta, I’d been involved in a site-art project where students at Monte Sano Elementary would create and paint a 3-D art installation under the supervision of artist Jeff Mather.  Jeff and I had maintained contact over the years through social media.  Finally, I was in a position as principal of Marbut to bring him in to offer guidance on some of the ideas I planned for Marbut as we worked to become a STEAM certified school.  We met at the school on a Saturday and Jeff arrived with his iPad filled with images of the great art he’d been creating with kids all around the United States.

After several minutes talking about the direction of the school, its history, and our STEAM progress we decided to take a tour around the school.  Like most visitors, he was struck by the entrance with the natural lighting and exposed support beams in the ceiling.  He began pointing and spreading his hands out, envisioning a suspended piece of art hovering above our lifted heads.

I told him, “There’s this large mural in the cafeteria I want your opinion on…I’m considering painting over this.” As we walked into the cafeteria, I flipped on the lights and he stopped in his tracks.  His face went blank and he folded his arms.  He was silent for several moments and then he began to give a technical critique of the piece that articulated, in artists’ words, what most of us felt about the painting.  He mentioned the proportions, the flatness of the piece, and that it looked very dated.  He went on to say that even murals run their course and painting over it after 23 years may not be an issue since it’s only animals depicted in the mural.

The next artist I brought in was C. Flux Sing, one of the most dynamic visual artists in metro-Atlanta.  We commissioned him to do 3 murals at Marbut, but the locations had to be determined.  He, like Jeff, was in agreement that the mural in the cafeteria lacked the vibrant energy and color that I was looking to bring to the walls of Marbut.  He was excited when I told him of the possibility of repainting that space with one of his images.  We took the measurements and began talking about the designs for each of the 3 murals he’d be doing.

Coming from Tacoma, Washington, I’ve seen how mural projects can bring color and life to a neighborhood, school, or the side of an old building.  Something told me to ask a few more key stakeholders about my plans to paint over the mountain lion in the cafeteria.  I placed a call to my regional superintendent and she offered some sage advice that ended up influencing the direction of the project.  She told me the story of a time when a principal painted over a mural at his school without truly researching the history of the mural.  The backlash was fierce and the move was perceived as erasing part of the history of the school.  She explained that when alumni come back to visit, they sometimes seek out those landmarks that they remember and want to take photos in front of them.  Removing them would be what she described as a ‘hornet’s nest’ that should not be disturbed.

So there I was with this dilemma.  On the one hand, my artist friends critiqued the mural from a purely artistic standpoint and suggested a move toward replacing it.  A district leader looked at it from a community and school legacy standpoint, foreseeing the potential implications of removing the image.

Weeks later my art teacher and I met to discuss our STEAM certification initiative.  She stops abruptly mid-sentence and takes a deep breath and says, “Mr. Mountain…I thought of something!  You know how you’ve been wondering whether to paint over the new mural!  I have an idea.  What about painting the mural on the wall behind the curtains on the stage? It was a genius idea because all of our main school programs are in the cafeteria.  Behind the audience would be the mountain lion mural from 1997, raccoons, deer and all.  In front of them would be the new, colorful and inspirational piece by C. Flux Sing inspired by a song by Nas entitled “I Can”.  Between two images of children would be the words “I know I can be what I wanna be.  If I work hard at it, I’ll be where I wanna be.” We’d only need to pull back the curtains at the back of the stage.  The placement of the new mural would be symbolic with an image from our past behind us and in front of us an image that alludes to the bright and vibrant future that awaits each child at Marbut.

In looking back, it’s interesting to note that throughout history, the wisdom of African-American women has shaped history.  Coretta, Harriet, Sojourner, Maya, and Rosa all poured their wisdom into men who benefited from their guidance.  In this experience, once again it was two wise women who helped steer me from making a strategic error in my effort to leave a legacy and make changes.  Their wisdom and insight were the compass toward a compromise that ultimately had more symbolic value than the simplicity of painting over bad art to create better art.  It was a moment where I had to learn to be coachable and put the legacy of the school ahead of my own ambitious objectives. While the two artists I brought in offered considerable technical expertise and a vision aligned with my plan, the two sisters coaching me through this decision helped me avoid an unnecessary backlash from stakeholders offended by a well-intentioned, yet poorly executed move.  Always be coachable, even when it’s your call.A28C7490-7236-451F-A771-114CABAF71DB

Decadence is (5)

André Benito Mountain is an educator and writer whose work has been featured in Education Week, Washington Principal Magazine, Curriculum in Context, and TEACH Magazine.  He is the author of The Brilliance Beneath: The Power of Perspective in Urban Schools.  His forthcoming book, The Mountain Principles, captures lessons in learning and leading for educators and leaders.

email: principalmountain@gmail.com

Published by Andre Benito Mountain

Andre Benito Mountain is an elementary principal in the metro-Atlanta area. He is the founder of Def-ED Clothing and the author of "The Mountain Principles" (2018) and The Brilliance Beneath (2016). His forthcoming book is "Principals Don't Walk on Water: They Walk Through It" (2020).

One thought on “Chapter 8: Be Coachable

  1. Excellent piece bro. It speaks to minor and major stakeholders in every school system. As a leader in the RCBOE school system, you have given me great insight into some of the decisions I have to make. Thank you!

    Like

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