The Arts and Mentorship

Written by: Jordan Tinney

Published On: August 31st 2016

As Tara shuffles into the room, I greet her. Her eyes are fixed on the floor, the corners of her mouth are down and it’s clear that she is not in a good place. I ask her to sit, offer water and in anticipation of the meeting, I’ve made sure the Kleenex box is on the table close at hand. The bottom line is that Tara is angry and disheartened. She feels let down by the system and by those around her. The betrayal she feels has led her to me and she has insisted we meet alone. She wants to tell me her story and to seek help in determining her future as an employee of the district. As she settles in her chair, Kleenex in hand, I ask her to begin by telling me what brings us together today.

As she begins telling her story, I am aware of the iPad sitting atop a tripod in the corner. As it records our conversation, my mentor/coach sits at the side taking notes. From a quiet and remote corner in the room, we are being watched. Tara is part of an increasingly complex series of scenarios designed to observe my abilities, record my performance, and to provide direct feedback and advice on how to engage in dialogue in a supportive and productive manner. This scenario is a role play specifically designed to teach me skills in conversation and dialogue. Coaching leadership through drama and role playing has been a rewarding and rich experience and has reminded me of the powerful place of the arts in coaching and mentorship.

In my case, each scenario given is a case study based on real-world examples in education in BC. Each of us could easily gather numerous scenarios on a moment’s notice and the details not only lend authenticity to the issue, but they hit home from the emotional stand point. While the setting is artificial, the issue is not.

Tara and I talk for about 20 minutes. I would say it goes all right, but I am not happy with some of the dialogue. Tara is tough, focused and the dialogue is intense. The coach tells us to pause and Tara leaves the room. It is a welcome time for a drink of water and then we begin by debriefing the dialogue and we start reviewing the video right on the spot to talk about how I respond under pressure, how the dialogue unfolded, and what advice we may see.
The advantage of video is huge. I am able to review, moments later and to debrief why I answered questions certain ways, or to describe what I was thinking when I asked specific questions. The overall focus of the conversation is right before us. I am still feeling the Tara’s intensity as I debrief the dialogue.

We talk about a three legged stool of the dialogue.

• The content – what exactly are we talking about? What are the facts, background, perspectives that illuminate the situation? What actually happened in Tara’s eyes? What do I need to share with Tara as part of the dialogue? What is relevant? What is important?

• The process – how are we engaged in this conversation? What “roles” are we playing? How is the conversation unfolding? Who is talking? What points are being made? What is relevant and what is important? How can I remain “in” the conversation while also observing and adjusting as needed?

• The emotion – what is the song beneath the words? What emotional threads are tied to the facts and process? What is most important to Tara? What values are shaken? What was the impact on her and her professional life? How do I notice and name her emotions while checking my own?

The feedback on the day shows me the importance of finding the balance. While we sometimes focus on process and facts and we head toward a solution, ignoring or not paying enough attention to the emotional elements tied to the process can quickly escalate and terminate the conversation in an unhealthy way for all involved. Tara is tricky, but that is the design. In this role play, she is fantastic and pushes me to the edge of comfort in terms of how to solve her issues or help her along. It seems that one wrong question, one wrong summary of what she is saying sends her down the rabbit hole of despair and anger and it’s hard to get her back. Words matter and the conversation is a walk on a narrow path with cliffs on either side.

The entire process takes about two hours and my time with Tara is probably less than 45 minutes overall. The rest of the time we are analyzing video, talking about process and discussing strategies  to improve engagement. It is targeted and specific feedback – descriptive, focused, and timely. After our first break, we brought Tara back in and I tried again. We put strategies in place right on the spot as a way to learn more about the dialogue and process.

As I drive away, exhausted and exhilarated from the experience, I am reminded of the power of the arts in leadership coaching. This was just plain drama. Role playing with an audience and the critic standing there both in technical detail and in constructive emotional detail. I am reminded about the importance of mentorship for all of our teachers where being able to sit and share experiences with a knowledgeable colleague can play such a valuable role. I am also reminded that mentorship and/or coaching (two different constructs for sure) have a discreet skill set. In this particular scenario and role play, my coach gave expert detailed feedback. We actually swapped roles at one place and she modelled for me what it would look like. She not only described in detail what it would look like but showed me as well so I could see it in action while I observed. In my case, role play in case studies is but one piece of a larger professional development strategy and it helps me see and understand research in action.

In some Olympic events where athletes perform, there is both a technical score and there is an artistic score. Such is true in our professional lives as well. You can be an expert in the technical aspects of your work, but if you can’t pull off the artistic side, you certainly are missing a significant part of the role. We need to pay attention to both aspects, technical and artistic. The arts can play a significant role in your professional life as you explore case studies with colleagues.

As Shakespeare reminded us, especially in the public lives that we lead, all the world’s a stage. I look forward to meeting Tara again and preparing for our next performance. Whatever she brings, I know she’ll put me to the test.