Would you like a coach?

As we go through life, many people support our progress. Personally, this support has included, at certainly critical points, a selection of coaches. From a sailing coach when I was seventeen; a business coach when I was twenty-one; a triathlon coach when I was twenty-five; a life coach when I was twenty-eight; a breast-feeding coach when I was thirty; a social impact coach and a governance coach now that I am thirty-three.

Whether we were on the water or in a boardroom and whether they called themselves coaches or not, these people provided support that had clear similarities. Fundamentally, they challenged my behaviour and made an aspect of my practice – from tacking in strong winds to leading a meeting – measurably better.

As educators, we have a range of support available to us. Imagine a spider diagram with you at the centre – how many different people, paid or unpaid, currently support you in your role? Line managers, family and friends, trainers, mentors, leaders, students, peers etc

 

Now cross out:

  • Anybody who works above you in the hierarchy of your institution
  • Anybody who works below you in the hierarchy of your institution 
  • Anybody who is biased towards you or emotionally attached to you
  • Anybody who does not work in education
  • Anybody who is in competition with you
  • Anybody who speaks to a wider audience, not you alone

Who’s left? Anybody? These people support you and do a good job but it is hard from them to coach you. This is why unless you have amazing leadership, open and honest colleagues and dedicated time and space, coaching within institutions (though reasonably easy to set up) can be tricky to establish and embed.

I have spent a lot of time, whilst coaching and being coached, thinking about the support put in place for teachers particularly and why coaching support is so vital, and different from the support you receive elsewhere. Whether it’s life coaching or teaching coaching you’re after, I think there are five aspects of coaching that are key:

Lateral: Most schools have a well-defined pecking order (based on years in teaching or leadership responsibilities or pay scales) and, even if your leadership is collaborative, being supported by someone above you in the hierarchy is hard for both of you. They may manage your performance, decide your pay and be part of any disciplinary procedures and this realistically limits how honest you can be with them in terms of sharing mistakes and concerns. Coaches lie outside of your hierarchy – they are neither ‘above’ or ‘below’ you.

Critical: The lateral support allows for honesty and, as a warning, this honesty can be uncomfortable – coaches can tell you what others may not, because, again, they do not work with you day-to-day. Through questioning, they can short-cut straight to the problem. This is usually something you are well aware of and have not had the time or the space to discuss or something you were ignoring in the hope it would go away. I find that I spend a lot of time finding out from people something they already know but that they did not necessarily want to hear. Critical questioning is a key part of the coaching process.

Informed: Coaches tend to have a specialism – this is reassuring for the people they are working with and helps get consent. In order to keep the lateral and critical relationship, coaches are informed but detached – detaching themselves from irrelevant information that will not help you to improve in the aspect of your work. Though the improvement will come from you, a coach asks questions as opposed to delivering answers – they will guide you towards a workable solution.

Reciprocal: We can be passive recipients in many forms of support – the after-school training session towards the end of term; the line management meeting that turns into transferring jobs from someone else’s list onto yours; the department meeting where most of the agenda is not relevant to you. In coaching, this is not an option – you get out what you put in. Because coaching is usually a choice by the individual, the accountability ends with you – you are not improving for the sake of your line manager or your students – you are improving for improvement’s sake.

Focused: Coaching has a timescale and an aim, a question that needs answering or a dilemma that needs solving. With questioning and observation, a coach can change an emotionally dilemma: “I love working with kids but I am so tired and I am not sure all the work is worth it. My head thinks I’m rubbish – my last work scrutiny was really bad” into a focused one: “Most of my time is spent planning lessons from scratch every night which means I am behind with my marking.” Working together to solve this problem will free up time in the evening, boost student progress and praise from superiors resulting in increased professional and personal well-being. Having a clearly defined focus, allows impact to be measured.

Coaching provides invaluable support for teachers and if we practice the skills, it can be easily accessible – you can provide coaching support for your teacher friends and they can provide it for you. As long as it is lateral, critical, informed, reciprocal and focused, it has the potential for transformative impact on practice.

Kate is a freelance teacher educator and coach working under the name of Hands Down Education. She has taught English and Maths in London and Dorset, been an Assistant Head and a DfE Teacher in Residence. 

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