Main Points

  • Equitable Learning Spaces
  • Coaching Teachers
  • Strategies for Instructional Coaches
  • Issues with Bias and White Supremacy
  • Healing Conversations

Dr. Sheldon Eakins: (00:00)

Welcome, Advocates, to another episode of the Leading Equity Podcast, a podcast that focuses on supporting educators with the tools and resources necessary to ensure equity at their school. Today, I got a special guest with me, none other than Ms. Elena Aguilar of Bright Morning. And I am so excited to have her on with us today. So without further ado, Elena, thank you so much for joining us today.

Elena Aguilar: (00:24)

Thank you. It's great to be here.

Eakins: (00:26)

Pleasure is always mine. And I look forward to our conversation because you do a lot of coaching and coach specifically with an equity lens, and so I'm really excited to talk about that. But before we get into the subject of today's discussion, could you share a little bit about you and what you currently do?

Aguilar: (00:43)

Sure. I [am] currently a writer and a facilitator of virtual learning experiences. I am still a coach. I do consulting, but I really think of myself more than anything as a teacher. I was a teacher and a coach in the Oakland public schools for 19 years. And that identity is still -- feels most prevalent in everything I do is the lens of being a teacher and being with kids.

Eakins: (01:14)

Once you're a teacher, you're like always a teacher, right. And I'm glad that you operate it with the lens and the experience that you're bringing. So I'm really excited. So let's look into it, and let's get started with the first question that I have. So when we're talking about coaching, where do you recommend that we can start to help teachers with creating an equitable learning space?

Aguilar: (01:34)

When we're coaching teachers or leaders or anyone to create equity, We have to start with guiding them in reflection on who they are on their identity markers and the experiences that they've had around their identity markers and understanding what they do, what they believe and how they think about and understand equity in their classroom and the world. We have to start with understanding the person that we're working with and with guiding them through some processes to reflect on who they are, what they do, and how they show up in the classroom.

Eakins: (02:12)

You know, I totally agree with starting with the self first, self-awareness to me is key. Even in my course, my Teaching Through a Culturally Diverse Lens course. I mean, that the first module is self-awareness because I think if you really want to start doing this work, and especially if you're a teacher, for example, or a leader, like you said, that's open to having these conversations and wanting to do better and learn more. I think we really have to start with ourselves and I'm glad you started there. What would be maybe something that you would do -- or maybe activities that you normally do, or is it more of a sit-down conversation? How do you normally provide those opportunities to establish more of a self-awareness approach?

Aguilar: (02:48)

A lot of it is conversation, but there's some activities. For example, I always start with guiding someone into reflecting on and understanding their core values. Core values are really linked to beliefs. And so that can open up some conversations that might lead us into equity conversations. And then there's activities that I lead people through around cultivating awareness of their identity markers and how our life experiences have been informed by or shaped by it. So we'll have those kinds of conversations as well. There's [the] initial phase of coaching somebody. There's just a lot of getting to know someone. If I'm coaching a teacher, I might spend time in their classroom or engage with them in a conversation around lesson planning or something again, so that I can get to know them. I -- as a coach, I've created a four-phase model or four stages model for coaching. And this first phase is understanding the person that I'm coaching, understanding the context that they're in, and building a relationship with them.

Eakins: (03:59)

That's important. I mean, we talk about the importance of developing relationships with our students, but especially when we're talking about our colleagues, those who we're coaching think is also important for us to establish those relationships as well. Do you do like some kind of icebreakers cause normally not everyone is wanting to have a coach? I could imagine in your, some of your experiences, there may have been opportunities for your coaching that may not have been welcomed. So what kind of suggestions do you make for other instructional coaches out there who need some, or maybe some tips on how to kind of break the ice, especially when there's already a little bit of tension walking into that room?

Aguilar: (04:35)

Yeah. Well, it's important to understand why there's tension or distrust. And sometimes, that can be because teachers don't understand what coaching is or why they are engaging in it. Whether they have been told, like "You have to have a coach, and here comes your coach." So the first thing is to have some clarity around what is coaching, why are you being asked to engage in it? Who is this coach? What is she going to do? What are the guidelines and parameters around confidentiality? So all of that needs to get clarified. But I have found that people can really quickly and easily buy into coaching because we all want to be listened to. And essentially, coaching is about helping someone grow and providing support through really deep listening and some really good questioning. And that's the role of a coach. And so a coach doesn't come into working with someone from a place of judgment or evaluation or supervision.

Aguilar: (05:39)

We coach people because we believe in their potential. We want to help them and see them grow. We want to help them become who they want to be so that they can serve their students. And we are really good listeners, and that's quickly compelling to people because we aren't listened to very often in our lives. Not really deeply, not from somebody who has sort of no agenda, no vested interest in the relationship beyond that of sort of this professional coaching relationship. So I think there's a lot to do to build trust and address the lack of clarity or the uncertainty or the distrust.

Eakins: (06:19)

So let's talk more on the trust factor because I think one of [the] most important things, especially when we're approaching things from an equitable or with an equity lens, how do we create a shared vision? So you're coming in and like, and I love how you mentioned. It's not a thing of judgment. This is me wanting to listen and see what we can do to help you thrive so that ultimately your students benefit. So how do you create a shared vision towards equity as you kind of start the beginning phases of the coaching?

Aguilar: (06:49)

Ideally, the vision [is] something that is co-created by a school community, which would ideally include students and parents. And so a whole community constructs a vision, which hopefully is driven by a commitment to equity and has voices from all different stakeholders. So that when the coach and the teacher sit down to talk, it's not -- that's not the place in time to construct a vision. It's here we are working together to work towards our school's vision or mission or our organization or districts. So the mission, the vision emerges from the needs of students. And so we start with looking at what are the students needing? What are their parents or caregivers saying that they need and want from a school? A school exists to serve children. And in order for us to do that, we need to listen to them and understand what are they needing? What are they wanting? What's their perspective? And we serve them.

Eakins: (07:56)

I'm loving it so much. Now I'm glad that you touched on the part of what's important to our students. And what are some of your strategies when it comes to facilitating difficult conversations, maybe in the class you observed some bias, or maybe there were some judgments that were, you might have some observations and say, "You know what, I probably should talk to this teacher about something I saw," but it might be a difficult conversation about maybe beliefs or race or class or gender or anything like that. What are some strategies that you would be able to share with some of our instructional coaches out there?

Aguilar: (08:30)

That's a really important question. And the book that I just submitted, that's going to be out August 1st or so, Coaching for Equity, gives a lot of examples of what those conversations sound like and how we have those and when we have those. The first thing that I think about when I have witnessed something, and I know that I need to talk to a teacher about what I saw, the first thing I think about the first place I go is actually to myself and to what I call attending to my coach self because I also need to be really tuned in to what's coming up for me so that I can process that and reflect on the incident and process any emotions that came up before I go in and have the conversation with the teacher because otherwise there is for me and for many coaches, a risk that we won't do the conversation as well as we could.

Aguilar: (09:30)

If we're walking in with a lot of sadness and anger about something that we saw, which is completely valid and legitimate sadness and anger, we are entitled to sadness and anger. It happens, it can be fueled, but we need to have an opportunity as coaches to process that before we start coaching teachers about the incident. So that's really step one, step two is to plan for that conversation and to practice it and to figure out, okay, exactly what do we need to talk about? How can I open up this conversation? Is now the time? What are some different ways that I could do this? There can be some conversations that happen prior to a coach witnessing anything that it can set us up to have the conversation. So for example, when I [am] starting to work with someone and starting to get to know them and understand how they think about equity, at some point, I will also open up a conversation or include in the conversation, address some beliefs about, for example, what is racism?

Aguilar: (10:39)

And so rather than waiting for it to come up and then having to address it, I will early on, as I'm hearing someone talk about their beliefs and things, we'll get to the conversation. Well, what do you think is racism? And basically, what I put forward as "Let's operate from this principle" is basically that everybody is racist, and we have grown up in a culture and in a world in which white supremacy as an ideology is dominant. And so I use the Beverly Tatum analogy of racism being like smog in the air. And basically like, we've all been breathing it since we were born. And these are the ways that we've been breathing it in, and it's our responsibility to do something about the environment and to know what's coming into our system and to purify our system -- cleanout that toxicity. And so I kind of get people into like accepting that everybody's racist.

Aguilar: (11:38)

Everybody has internalized some distorted notions about people, and then we can expand into other biases outside of white supremacy and sort of like, we've all got this because the way that we think about what racism is going to create a lot of thoughts and feelings about how we engage in a conversation about bias. And so setting us up to like [inaudible], it doesn't mean that you're a bad person. If you are acting on biases, it does mean you need to change what you're doing, but it doesn't mean you're a bad person, and everybody's got this, and let's talk about it. So that's kind of what I set up in advance. And then let's say I have seen something in the classroom. I do some processing of my own feelings of my own thoughts, and I sort of process some of the -- for me, it's a lot of anger -- and then I could sit [and] think about, okay, so here's the conversation I need to have.

Aguilar: (12:31)

And maybe I go back in, and I say to that teacher, "Hey, yesterday when I was in your classroom…" Now, I'm a big believer in using data or evidence when we're having these conversations. Right? So we can't be abstract. So I might go up to a teacher and say, "You know, yesterday I was in your classroom, and I noticed that there were three students who kept getting up and wandering around the classroom, and you didn't respond to any of their behaviors. You sort of ignored them. And then I noticed one black boy got up and wandered around the classroom, and your response was to send him to the office." And so I will name it, I'll name what I saw. And I'll say, "I think we need to unpack this." And then I leave some silence. Let some thinking happened.

Eakins: (13:15)

Okay. And so tell me more, so you say, we need to unpack this. You explain what happened. Do you wait for the teacher's response and kind of go from there, or do you immediately provide suggestions? What's kind of your next steps?

Aguilar: (13:29)

Well, the next thing that is going to happen is very predictable because it really just has to do with our brains and our minds and our underlying mental models. The next thing that's going to happen is that the teacher's going to have some emotions, right? So just like, even in our pause, in our conversation, I can hear, and I can sense your emotions, whether it's like, "Okay, that's kind of heavy," or "That's a little bit of a…" and it's going to happen because that's how we respond. Right? And so the next -- so I do leave a little space to sort of see how they respond and what they say. And most likely, I mean, they could say anything from like, you know, "That's not what happened," so they could get defensive, or they could say, "I'm so embarrassed. I can't believe I did that." Or they could say, "You don't understand.

Aguilar: (14:15)

He's always getting up and wandering around and acting out," right? So the response will contain emotion, and the coaching model that I've developed, Informational Coaching, one of the key components of it is that we deal with emotions because we're human beings and we have them. And if we're going to transform schools, we need to deal with our own emotions and those of other peoples. So at that point, then regardless of whatever emotion it is that someone has, I will acknowledge the emotions. I'll say, "I can hear the frustration in your voice," or "I can see that you are feeling embarrassed or shame," or I will say, "Can you tell me about the emotions that are coming up for you right now?" And a lot of the time, the reason that we, I think, don't make a whole lot of progress in schools when we're dealing with issues of equity is because we leave out this component, we're all going to have emotions.

Aguilar: (15:13)

And if we -- there's no way we can move towards creating more equitable classrooms and towards dismantling systems of oppression without acknowledging and discussing emotions. So I'll create a little space for someone to say, as a coach, I don't have to take care of their emotions. I don't have to fix it. I don't probe into where they came from, but I can acknowledge it, and then we'll move into. So in order for us to see a change in behavior, we have to surface and unpack and explore the underlying beliefs from which someone operates, because every single one of our actions emerges from a belief, whether we're conscious of it or not. And so we actually have to engage people in a sort of excavation of their beliefs and continue to chip away at those mental models that are so oppressive to so many people in the world. So that's where we go next.

Eakins: (16:05)

Okay. My next question would be on your end. How difficult is it for you to have these conversations? I know, you know, everyone has different levels as far as comfort when it comes to having conversations about race or having conversations that deal with any kind of discrimination or prejudice acts. I mean, you say you've been a coach for over 19 years. Is it still difficult sometimes to have these conversations for you? Or is it kind of just a natural thing? Or just tell us more about that?

Aguilar: (16:32)

Well, so one thing is, I think you called these conversations, like when you have to have difficult conversations or hard conversations, I actually reframe that. And I call the conversations, healing conversations, which is a little clunky and it's not something, you know, like, "Hi, I'm here to have a healing conversation with kids today," but that -- reframing it in that way helps me see the potential. And when I think about them as like "Here goes another hard conversation," because really hard conversations that we can be having pretty much all the time. And then it's a reminder of the, okay, so to make a distinction because you and I are both having this conversation, we're both people of color. It's a different experience when you're a person of color, and you're coaching people around their racism, and when you're coaching, and I would say for me, it's coaching white people and people of color around racism is hard.

Aguilar: (17:26)

And I have different responses. I'm sort of like differently saddened when I see people of color perpetuating white supremacy, and I have a different [inaudible] white peoples' different, but so there's -- it's always emotionally activating, and there's always sadness. And I have a school-age child. I have a black male son, and it's a reminder when I'm coaching people around their racism, it's a reminder of my own experiences in school. It's a reminder of my son's experiences and my husband's, and it's my -- so all of that comes up, which is why it's so critical for me to do some processing and healing before I go into having that conversation with a teacher, so that I have done a little bit of the sorting of what's going on inside of me, so that I've drawn on some of the places that give me strength and nourishment and healing. And so that I'm not going in kind of raw and frazzled, which I did for many years, and it was not very effective.

Eakins: (18:26)

So tell me more about the healing conversation. Cause I liked the way that you're framing it and like, how did you come across that concept or develop that? And it sounds very positive. So tell me more about it.

Aguilar: (18:38)

Well, I found that after one year and then another and another, another of having what I thought about at that time, as like hard conversations or sometimes courageous conversations or having those conversations. And every time I thought like, "Oh, I'm going to have a hard conversation." Like even just saying that word, right? You can feel your body kind of like, "Ugh," and then I started -- as my coaching skills developed and I started trying different things. I would walk out of these conversations, feeling light and hopeful and optimistic as I saw people change. And I saw people engage, and I saw these breakthroughs, and as I learned the skills so that we could get there, get there faster, I would walk out feeling like that conversation was healing for me, for that person. It was healing. I know there's healing potential for the children, right? It's like -- and that's the thing is white supremacy has been damaging to everyone. Everybody has suffered under it. And so coaching white people and seeing how their awareness grew and the insights they came to, they made me think these conversations started really making me feel hopeful. And so it was just language. I started changing to myself. I was like, I saw a difficult thing in a classroom, and now I'm going to go have a healing conversation about this.

Eakins: (20:00)

Okay. Now, have you ever been in a situation in a class where you [are] maybe doing an observation that you felt like "I need to stop something," or are you, have you just typically observed, maybe followed up later because I know you've been kind of stressing the fact that sometimes we just need to collect ourselves and [inaudible] something before we go into those conversations. Has there ever been a time where you just, you had to say something right then and there?

Aguilar: (20:24)

I guess the only thing I've probably said in the moment, or the only things I've done is -- unless a teacher [is] really losing their temper. And so at that point, I might say something like, "Why don't you step out and get some water, and I'll stay with your kids right now." And that's just when I see them really escalating and sort of starting to lose it. Other than that, it's really risky in terms of the relationship that you have with a teacher to intervene and risk really breaking trust.

Eakins: (20:51)

Okay. General practice, as a coach, not ideal to stop a lesson or to interrupt a lesson. We want to allow our teachers to do their thing. And in follow up that we can [I] guess maybe have more data with our approach to having those followup conversations,

Aguilar: (21:05)

I would say so we can have the data and to preserve the trust. If you intervene, when a teacher's teaching, they're going to feel really undermined, unless that was an agreement that you have with them, you are in the classroom because you believe in them and because you see their potential and you want to help them grow. So if you have an agreement with the teacher that you could intervene then maybe, but otherwise it's really risky.

Eakins: (21:29)

Okay. I understand. So you did say you have an upcoming book. Would you like to share a little bit more about what our readers -- potential readers -- can expect to find and who the book is for?

Aguilar: (21:39)

Sure, the book is for anyone who is committed to having conversation that can create more equitable classrooms for children. And so the book is for school leaders, for teacher leaders, for coaches, for organizational leaders, for anybody who's committed to equity. And what I think is basically is that people know what they're seeing and they kind of know what they want to say, but they need more support in how to have the conversations and how to make sure that the conversations result in some changes and that they aren't just a reflective conversation. And so there are a lot of tools and scaffolds in terms of sentence stems and things to say, and how to build trust and why it doesn't work to call people out. And there's a lot of examples of coaching conversations. And so I think that we learn by hearing about examples and reading stories and that this book is full of them.

Eakins: (22:39)

All right. Well, Elena, I definitely consider you as providing a voice in leading equity. What is one final word of advice that you can provide to our listeners?

Aguilar: (22:47)

One final word of advice is know yourself, know your values, reflect on, understand your own life experiences, figure out how you can draw on what nourishes you, what gives you hope or faith or conviction that we can change and improve the world. Know yourself.

Eakins: (23:12)

Know yourself. I love it. And we started our conversation with that self-awareness is where we started the conversation. And we're ending the conversation on that same note. And I appreciate that. So Elena, if we have some folks that want to reach out and connect with you, what's the best way to reach you online?

Aguilar: (23:25)

The best place to start is my website, which is And there, you can find all the links to social media that I participate in and lots of free resources for coaching and lots of stuff there.

Eakins: (23:43)

Alright, give that website one more time?

Aguilar: (23:46)

Eakins: (23:49) We'll leave links in the show notes, Elena. Again, thank you so much. It has truly been a pleasure. Thank you for your time.

Aguilar: (23:58)

Great. Thank you so much, Sheldon.

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