States of Being
Leadership Coaching for Equitable Schools
Founder, Linda Belans, Ed.D.
The Center for Coaching & Leading
Free equitable education is a foundational means to end poverty, secure justice, and preserve and advance Democracy. We coach to the belief that all students and educators have a full voice in their pursuit of education, have a right to embrace their identity, and to make cultural demands on institutions without barter, fear, or retaliation.
Why A Sense of Belonging?
What does this have to do with equity in coaching, leading, on the health and well-being of schools and organizations, and on the impact on teaching and learning? What does a sense of belonging have to do with our survival?
People have to feel that they matter. In order to cooperate, build teams, and embody active empathy, we have to have trust in one another. A sense of belonging is critical to developing, nurturing, and sustaining trust. This is because perceived isolation –– feeling alone ––can create a matrix of harm that undermines trust. Most frequently reported are a heightened vigilance for social threats, an increase in anxiety and hostility, and withdrawal. (Even poor sleep and daytime fatigue are consequences of a sense of isolation.)
Being alone and feeling alone or isolated can be related, but they’re not the same thing. We’re a social species with an irrepressible need for long-lasting positive relationships. We can feel alone, even or especially in a room full of people, or as part of a group or team.
In schools and organizations, this occurs when there is not an active anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-LGBTQI, anti-ableist culture. Belonging means that we have to feel free to have a full voice, to participate and contribute in the design of the world we inhabit. It means we have the right to make demands on institutions without barter, fear, or retaliation. This cannot occur if we’re constantly scanning for threats, feel anxious, or managing hostility. People who feel lonely worry more about being evaluated negatively than those who feel a sense of belonging. So, the safest thing we do when we’re feeling isolated and threatened in a workplace is to withdraw.
Racism is more than actively excluding people of color from leadership roles; it’s a consequence of making assumptions about others when a working culture does not consciously and dynamically create a sense of belonging.
This has short and long-term consequences when there is a chronic sense of isolation. The matrix of behaviors described above most commonly leads to false interpretations of the person who feels isolated: they’re not prepared, engaged, confident, or worse –– not smart enough. The most significant consequence is the assumption that they have no leadership qualities or potential. This impacts promotions to top leadership positions, perpetuating the cycle of predominantly white-led schools and organizations, and the propensity for the proliferation of white- supremacist organizations. And the unbroken cycle continues.
Why Coach and Lead to Strengths?
Learning from our failures can be useful. But identifying what we’re doing wrong only tells us what not to do again and does little to help us understand what we’re doing right so we can continue to do it. By focusing on what we do well (perhaps intuitively or instinctively), we learn to exercise our strengths intentionally, and strategically.
Coaching to leaders’ assets, strengths, and talents provides them with information about what they already know how to do, and hones their ability to use their assets in other situations. When we coach to people’s strengths, we build loyalty and trust, which makes it possible for us to Be Bold when we need to be.
Unless we can truly see the higher self in others (and in ourselves), and anchor our coaching sessions in successes and strengths, we will fall into the seductive trap of defining our leaders by what we and they come to believe are their weaknesses. We and they will view them as “less than,” at best, and “broken,” at worst—and we will be in a constant state of trying to fix them. We will have no image of them flying, only flailing or failing.
Employees need to sense themselves succeeding if we want them to stay on the job long enough to build expertise and institutional memory, two critical links to counter student attrition and the opportunity gap in schools that serve primarily children of color.
Coaching to assets offers collaborative access to what employees bring to their work, what they excel in, and what their dreams are. We coach leaders and teachers to infuse their community with its aspirational vision of serving students.
As coaches, we imagine the leader at her best, regularly see the promise in her — her highest self. We imbue the leader or teacher with her own intelligence and help her connect the dots from previous successful experiences she has had, especially with those new to teaching or leading. Perhaps her experiences might have been as a member of an affinity organization, a sports team, or any other group she has led. These successes and strengths can be translated to her current work using the Coach to Assets guide.
It takes everything we can muster not to put our attention on the things that aren’t working, but it’s a discipline that must be practiced in order to be successful. This isn’t to say that the leader or coach shouldn’t notice areas where further development is needed. It means that we coach to notice what people do well so that they can call upon these strengths in other areas of development.
As coaches, we want to model this practice and be transparent about it so that our leaders can learn how to do this with the people they supervise and coach.
The big end in mind is to create conditions in which students feel free to have a full voice in their education, and that they have the right to make cultural demands on institutions without barter, fear, or retaliation. It means that they participate and contribute in the design of the world they will inhabit.
Why A Center for Coaching & Leading Now?
I've dreamed of creating a States of Being Center for years. I had to get it right first –– to figure out a model that speaks to the times we're in –– our children are in, our schools, and our country are in.
The model that has emerged as most effective is to work directly with leadership teams to infuse their schools and organizations –– from senior leadership to students –– with a sense of belonging, anchored in strengths-based coaching, leading, and teaching.
I am driven by a ferocious need to see the higher self in others, and the belief that schools should be centers of love and dynamic teaching and learning. Where all who enter schools feel free to speak their truth. Where leaders, teachers, administrators, maintenance crews, cafeteria employees, bus drivers—anyone who touches students’ lives—are steeped in the understanding that they are tending to students’ souls and hearts, as well as their minds and intellect. That high impact schools prepare students for their imagined futures when rooted in compassion, culturally relevant teaching and learning, robust curiosity, and a working knowledge of child development. This is how students become their full, authentic bold selves.
What’s clearer to me is that we have to care as much, if not more, about our students’ and teachers’ aspirations as we do about test scores and data. There must be a deliberate, clear-eyed practice of infusing equity into every decision and move that leaders make. We need to actively teach these skills, and the language of these skills, to all who have a stake in educating our students as we imagine them into their futures.
If we are going to deliver on our promises to all of our children, we have to discipline ourselves to see the higher self in the struggling first-year teacher as well as in the emerging and seasoned leader, bus drivers, custodians, board members, families —anyone who has contact with our students.
If we are going to save democracy, we have to collectively imagine and plan for the kind of world we want our children to inherit and inhabit. We have to create schools that address this vision. There is too much at stake.
This is why I created the States of Being , the book, and this Center —to offer a coaching response to these pressing questions: What are schools for? How do we manifest them?
We need an educational system that fosters a sense of belonging in our students so that, no matter what their background, they can envision themselves in positions of privilege, leadership, and power. We have to be part of creating a place of belonging that will allow them to be fearless and vulnerable in order to become their best selves.
– Donnell Bailey,
Excerpt: States of Being: Leadership Coaching for Equitable Schools
We need teachers who can connect students to their higher selves, and we need school leaders who can do the same for the teachers. Whether a student is at an elite private school or a low-income public school, what makes the difference is whether a student is consistently viewed through a lens of deficits or whether the student is given a chance each day to get it right.
– Donnell Bailey,