by Suzy Israel
As a young teacher, for the two months before I met my first class, I desperately searched for the yellow binder. I looked in every classroom but it eluded me. I searched on my hands and knees and climbed on ladders. I looked inside file cabinets, under tables, in boxes, and on every imaginable bookshelf. Nowhere. The three-inch yellow binder, the only hope I had of receiving a prior third-grade teacher’s notes and support, was not to be found, at least not yet.
That year of teaching was a challenging one for me, as the first year is for many new teachers. I struggled to meet the needs of my young learners, and I struggled with my feelings of inadequacy as a teacher. I remember the face of Jake, a happy and willing student, who finished all of his work almost immediately upon receiving it. Providing differentiation for Jake was well beyond my capacity as a new teacher, I didn’t even know where to begin. That year I worked harder than I did in any subsequent year of teaching, but my challenges were intensified by my certainty that the answers to all of my problems could be found in that missing binder.
I happened upon the yellow binder in October of my second year of teaching. It was at the bottom of a box of fresh reams of paper, waiting for me all along, and I had missed it. Over the course of the coming weeks, I paged through the binder as if I had personally unearthed the Dead Sea Scrolls. I put sticky notes in pages that I thought would be useful and annotated many of the margins. By the time I had read the binder cover to cover, I was overcome with a feeling that surprised me and continues to surprise me to this day.
The work in that binder was skillfully and lovingly prepared by a teacher who had taught the material for years before me. She had covered all of the curriculum and had spent time planning for different types of students with a variety of educational profiles. And yet, something about the contents of that binder didn’t feel quite right. As I sat and pondered the heavy binder, I thought about what I had hoped I would find within its pages. I had been eagerly searching for the answers to many of my questions—and there they were, bound by three large rings. I then thought about the students who would be in my classroom the next day and the day after that, and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to teach directly from those materials after all.
Although I continued to refer to the assiduous work of the master teacher who left me her notes for years to come, they weren’t mine, and somehow, they didn’t quite fit. What I thought I needed, the easy access to good materials, did provide me with a feeling of great comfort and support. But I came to realize that what I really needed was to continue to spend time digging deeply within myself, to find my own voice in the classroom, and to create a binder of my own.
Solitude and Loneliness
The thing I remember searching for over 25 years ago has since become emblematic of the type of support that I have pledged to offer (and not to offer) to school leaders through my work as a coach. A professional coaching relationship is based on the belief that the coachee has the capacity to solve his or her own problems and is intrinsically capable and able to lead. In this coaching paradigm, professional and personal growth come about through a collaborative partnership of equals, aimed at maximizing the potential of the client. The work is synergistic and aims to build capacity, rather than solve a particular problem.
School leadership is paradoxical in nature. On the one hand, the leader is the public face of the school every day—at the school dinner, at a basketball game, in the local synagogue. Simultaneously, leadership is solitary. No one knows the daily demands of the job or the many directions in which one is commonly pulled. No one knows all the information that must be kept confidential, the tough decisions, the emotionally-charged conversations. Because there is only one principal, there really isn’t anyone else in the school with whom that person can truly collaborate, which is inevitably isolating.
In his article “The Effective and Reflective Principal,” former superintendent John Ritchie points out that “Solitude is not the same as loneliness, but it can easily turn into loneliness, especially when paired with the tiring public demands of the job.” Because of the complex nature of the work, a leader can feel lost in a sea of dynamic challenges and conflicting obligations, and these feelings can be compounded by expectations that he or she always knows what to do and should always exhibit bold decisiveness. A coach partners with clients to determine which are the biggest questions that need to be addressed and then explores avenues for the client to arrive at answers that fit his or her leadership style and beliefs.
Helping Leaders Create Their Own Binders
The best coach will never offer the leader a three-inch yellow binder. A coach will instead afford the leader a space to collaboratively process particular situations and empower him or her to be conscious and deliberate about decisions and pathways.
It is true that the work of the school leader can be complex and even isolating. And at the same time, it is this very complexity that makes the work immensely rewarding. Every day is filled with the unexpected, the dynamic, and the joyful endeavor of educating children.
As a coach, I have learned to always assume that my client is a capable professional, an expert in his or her field. It is my responsibility as a coach, as a thought partner to my client, to ask thoughtful questions and to actively inquire in order to facilitate the choices they are about to make based on their beliefs, and based on the contents of the binders they have written for themselves, whatever color they may be.