Coaching… so just what does it mean?
‘Coaching’ is a word you seem to hear frequently if you work in education. Some think it a faddish thing. For others, it seems to sit on the school development year in, year out without taking a huge amount of traction. Some staff use it interchangeably to mean different things whilst other educationalists are very clear about when coaching should be used, and with whom.
One thing’s for sure though; it’s a word that hasn’t gone away and continues to make an appearance at an educational setting near you…
More recently, schools, teachers and leaders have been embracing an approach which is referred to as instructional coaching and, by and large, it certainly seems to be working for those who are using it – both for mentors and for mentees. This said, for me, coaching in it’s purest sense, as I understand it, is very different to instructional coaching. The latter process is more aligned with mentoring or telling and the former often uses quality planned questions to empower the coachee.
Of course, both have their place.
In the first our of EduCaveman blogs we explored the extent to which our schools and our system are afflicted with the Extreme Negativity Bias and how this phenomenon impacted on school culture. As an educator with an interest in school culture it was near impossible to overlook how, over the years, the many educators I have worked with, have used coaching as a tool with huge potential to bring about or strengthen cultural transformation, and lessen the impact of the Extreme Negativity Bias.
I am very careful when and how I use the word coaching as I am well aware that it means different things to different people. I hear it used continually and often it does not accurately describe the user’s approach. Let me clarify.
“Did you have a good afternoon?”
“I did. I was coaching my trainee”
“Excellent, what were you discussing?”
“I was advising her on effective behaviour management strategies”
“Well, I was chatting through my list of my top ten approaches which I have compiled over the years”
“Did she find it useful?”
“Absolutely. She didn’t say a word. She just seemed in awe of me and my list…”
A crude interchange but do please bear with me. This exchange between staff seems more akin to mentoring or telling than it does coaching. With the very best intentions, the more seasoned member of staff was imparting her accumulated wisdom and acting as the ‘expert’ in the scenario above. Did this exchange presuppose that the trainee might already have some of the answers / strategies / solutions within her already? Possibly not. OK, so what actually is coaching?
Coaching is the art of facilitating the performance, learning and the development of another.
Myles Downey - one of the world’s leading practitioners and thinkers in business coaching
For me, Myles Downey, very neatly captures the essence of coaching in the quote above. In fact, it was this very quote that propelled me to find out more and begin my own coaching journey. In 2006 I picked up a book which changed my thinking and my approach forever - Coaching for Performance by Sir John Whitmore. In fact, not only did the guidance in this book permeate my professional approach, it also transgressed my personal life too – particularly into relationships.
We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.
Epictetus - Greek Philosopher
If you were to speak with either my wife or close friends, I am fairly confident that the consensus of opinion would be that I am now a much better listener; what’s more, through the use of coaching questions, I am much more able to help my friends untangle their thinking often helping them feel more empowered, confident and energised.
The best and most succinct way in which I can explain the difference between coaching and mentoring is this: coaching is asking; mentoring is telling. If you adopt a coaching approach you seek to empower the person you are working with. You assume that the solution to the challenges they face reside within them.
Coaching is unlocking a person’s potential to maximise their own performance. It is helping them learn rather than teaching them.
Sir John Whitmore - a pioneer of the executive coaching industry
Typically, a coach does not act as an expert but comes to a conversation offering a service, acting as an equal partner, a sounding board, a mirror for the colleague to share their perception of reality and articulate their own solutions and ways forward. The role of a coach is more akin to that of a facilitator; through powerful and deliberate questioning a coach can elicit the solution(s) from their coachee or unlock their potential.
Before every coaching session I will typically remind myself that the guiding agenda for the session is my coachee’s success. This often helps me to fight my natural instinct to ‘help’ with advice or telling. I try hard, where I can, to leave judgment at the door. Linked to the point above, I think it would be both helpful and relevant to explore the role of a School Advisor. As someone, who sometimes wears this particular badge, I wear it with a certain amount of unease. Why? Because, for the most part, it isn’t how I like to work.
Seek first to understand and then be understood.
Dr. Stephen Covey - American educator, author, businessman and keynote speaker
And, on the occasions when I forget myself, an in-built mechanism pushes Dr Covey’s wise words (seek first to understand) to the very forefront of my mind. But surely, advising is part of my job? Well, yes it is, but I like to embrace another presupposition.
For most colleagues I work with, from trainee teachers to CEOs, I assume that the solutions to any challenges they may well be experiencing and discussing with me, are lurking somewhere within them. My job then, through careful questioning and active listening, is to elicit them. Why can’t the person you are working with be the authority, especially given that it is their school, their culture and their vision? After all, it is their problem or challenge and I am merely a guest in their workplace. The moment I sort it out or solve it, I am fostering a relationship of dependency. Occasionally when I am working with schools who find themselves in a tight spot with little time and I am asked for my advice. I will sometimes revert to a more instructional approach, acting as the ‘expert,’ trying where possible, to provide a menu of options to ensure there is a degree of ownership and autonomy. If I am asked which option I would choose, I would, of course, express my preference; however, this is not my preferred way of working. My point is that I try, where I can, to live by a professional mantra – ask more and tell less – it is as simple as that.
If you’re like most people, you probably seek first to be understood; you want to get your point across. And in doing so, you may ignore the other person completely, pretend that you’re listening, selectively hear only certain parts of the conversation or attentively focus on only the words being said, but miss the meaning entirely. So why does this happen? Because most people listen with the intent to reply, not to understand. You listen to yourself as you prepare in your mind what you are going to say, the questions you are going to ask, etc. You filter everything you hear through your life experiences, your frame of reference. You check what you hear against your autobiography and see how it measures up. And consequently, you decide prematurely what the other person means before he/she finishes communicating.
Dr. Stephen Covey
Ask more and tell less? So, what exactly do I mean?
I try, where I can, to facilitate the thinking and learning of the people I work with. Telling, for me, is the poor relation to asking. A person’s commitment to action is far stronger if they own their solutions or next steps.
Alex Danson, the hockey Gold medallist from Rio, is an excellent illustration of this crucial last point.
When she was younger and trying to break into the England hockey team, the Team Manager challenged her to improve her fitness and stamina in matches. She requested that her father help her and asked him to wake her up every morning to go out for a run. He said he wouldn’t do this; however, if she were to wake up and knock on his door, he would always join her no matter the weather (which he did). This subtle difference encouraged a far greater commitment to action from Alex, and the rest, as they say, is history.
For me, empowering colleagues through a coaching approach is often more preferable and, in my experience, can result in powerful longer-term changes for the better which can build both confidence and capacity in teams and organisations.
A good coach is positive. Your job when coaching is not correcting mistakes, finding fault, and assessing blame. Instead, your function is achieving goals by coaching your staff to peak performance. Focusing on the positive means that you start with what’s good and what works and spend your attention and energy there.
Marshall Cook – business author, and Laura Poole – associate certified coach
You can see then that coaching is an approach which is vastly different to mentoring. No better, no worse – just different. Whilst some teachers may naturally use a coaching approach, typically, the art of coaching can go against the grain. It did for me as a teacher, and for a while, it felt excruciatingly uncomfortable. I can remember my early cynicism. I’m a teacher for goodness sake; I am here to teach. You can’t just keep asking questions! Despite myself, I persisted - something that is definitely needed in the beginning. When working with pupils and staff alike, I deliberately took a stance of curiosity. I made a concerted effort to ask more and tell less.
My absolute conversion and commitment to the coaching approach was sealed as I began to see my staff growing in confidence and autonomy. This, I very much enjoyed watching. I shortly thereafter made another mental link which I have not since forgotten - a genuine personal eureka moment. A colleague, and I can’t remember who, once said to me, ‘we want our classrooms to be full of independent, self-regulating learners. Our job is, essentially, to make ourselves redundant.’ I have to admit that I found this idea somewhat strange at first. I guess, for me, the notion of redundancy, and the impact on my teacher ego, was not particularly palatable. However, I eventually acquiesced and later fully embraced this idea. It is still a central tenet of my thinking and one I hold dear. Anyway, that is not the point.
For me, as a wet-behind-the-ears leader, the penny dropped when I realised that my colleague’s quote rang true for grown-ups too; substitute ‘classrooms’ for ‘staffrooms’: ‘’we want our staffrooms to be full of independent, self-regulating learners. Our job is, essentially, to make ourselves redundant.’
I am a real advocate of coaching and truly believe in the power of coaching to transform organisational culture, nowhere more so than in education. Having embraced and used coaching as a tool since the early noughties, I can’t think of a more potent medicine which can help to lessen the cultural damage which has been inflicted by the Extreme Negativity Bias.
If what you’ve read resonates, visit www.educaveman.co.uk.
EduCaveman is an empowering book for ALL educators which dares to dream of the schools we all want. It marries a nourishing blend of humour with school reality which invites teachers and school leaders to reflect on, and move beyond, some of the more grating and long accepted educational practices. Prioritising people over paper, EduCaveman is a refreshing elixir which oozes practical positivity and imbues professional confidence.
EduCaveman will be available to purchase in the Autumn Term