This month, colleague and friend, Michael Luft, director of the 14th Street Y in New York City, describes how his commitment to using self-awareness has supported his effectiveness as an Optimistic Leader. 

— Judy Jablon

Michael writes:

As a program director or coach, have you walked into a classroom, noticed something amiss, felt infuriated in the moment and therefore compelled to address it right away?

And how did that go for you?

For me, after a few too many of these experiences, I’ve learned that taking action right away in a state of frustration never goes well. First, my frustration showed and that’s what the teacher focused on, feeling criticized and therefore defensive. Second, because I insisted on a specific solution, the teacher had no space to reflect or contribute to finding alternative solutions.

What I have learned is that while my visceral response helps me see that there is something that needs attention, it is not a reliable guide in helping me decide how to approach the educator. I have learned to set up systems ahead of time that help me be intentional about how to handle situations that regularly emerge.

Here are some examples of frustrations I want to fix and how I’m using intentionality to be more effective as a coach:

Last minute absence calls: Last minute calls from staff to say they will be absent– especially from staff with repeated absences–really push my buttons.  I have learned to keep these calls brief, offering the person a quick recovery, and then moving on to find coverage. I make a note to address the pattern of absences in my next supervision meeting.  I can plan for the conversation without frustration and invite the person to reflect on how their absences affect the children and their team and together we can problem solve about planning for doctor’s visits and various other issues ahead of time. This has led to more successful resolutions of absence problems and improved relationships. By being less reactive, I’ve also done some thoughtful problem solving to help me. I’ve encouraged staff to text me and their team members so that I don’t have to manage the phone calls.

Safety issues: When I visit classrooms and see a safety issue, I deal with it directly and without annoyance. However, all other issues have to wait until I can approach the staff member at a more appropriate time when I am feeling calm.  During a recent classroom visit I stepped on a small rug that a teacher had set up in her room.  I noticed that it was not lying flat. My impulse was to yank the rug myself and have a talk with the teacher immediately. Fortunately, I paused to think before I responded and decided that although it was a safety issue, it was late in the day and children were already gone. I gave myself some additional time to think. A little more reflection helped me see that my frustration was in part due to the safety of the slippery rug but even more from stress about a recent fine we received due to a licensing issue. Venting my anger at this teacher about the rug would not have been helpful.

At the end of the day I asked to speak with the teacher.  I started the conversation by asking about her day and then segued to the issue of the sliding rug. When I asked how the rug was working out she said that it wasn’t, but that her intent was to have more spaces in the classroom where children didn’t have to sit on the linoleum.  Together we brainstormed some possible solutions to the problem. I then reminded her that when it comes to child safety we have to make the changes even before we have the new solution available and that the rug needed to be removed before children returned the next day.

By resisting the urge to react in the moment, I am giving myself the time and space to reflect. As a result, I’m fixing less and am engaging staff in co-operative problem solving.