The Curious Coach
Some truths about being a coach
This post is really for those who are thinking about becoming a coach, or those about to start in the role. I’m going to presume that you’ve done your reading and found an approach or a coach whose ideas resonate with you, so I’m not going to define coaching, or explain coaching cycles, an so on (and if you are interested in what that looks like for me, you might like this post and its follow-up here). What I’ll aim to do is demystify coaches, dispel some of the myths around coaching, name the changes in mindset you will likely have to make, and how your professional life - and honestly, maybe your world - is about to change.
1. You'll need a separate skill-set to work with adults
Basically, being a great teacher does not automatically make you a great coach. And being a coach doesn’t mean you don’t like working with children and young adults anymore, but it does signal a shift in your focus, and this might even cause a bit of internal conflict. No matter how great a teacher you are, you are not going to have any impact on students or their learning unless you learn the ins and outs of adult education, because almost all your work will now be with teachers. The good news is, your history as a great teacher will earn you some credibility, and your expertise will be valued. But people will also expect you to be a skilled coach, which might start with you not treating them like students…and this might be a hard habit to break. This change isn’t about swapping out your teacher identity for a coach identity; rather you are adding to your tool box. Start reading about adult education now and if you can find a mentor to help you even better - you will soon be shifting between being a teacher and being a coach with growing confidence.
2. Coaching is rarely a step up the leadership ladder
Actually it can take you off the ladder completely, so if that is your motivation then you might like to talk to your line manager or head of school before you make the move and see what it might mean for your future. Coaches operate alongside the usual chain of command in schools; when people ask where I fit I often draw a line and then show my ‘spot’ by pointing beside it (and as an aside, sometimes it's lonely out there, too). We are not, if our role is exclusively coaching, anyone’s boss. I have seen highly qualified coaches apply for leadership roles and pose a conundrum for interviewers: again, we don’t quite fit. Our skill-set is highly desirable but because we haven’t been managing people or had strictly-defined administrative or curriculum coordination duties, coaches can be overlooked in favor of a middle leader on-the-up. Which brings me to my next point:
3. Coaches are influencers, not decision-makers
A tip I got before I started as a coach was to let go of my ego - more specifically, that part of my ego that was fulfilled by acknowledgement of my ideas. As a coach, you will work with people who inspire you and get you thinking like never before. You will have many a great idea or plan. And then that idea will take root in others, and ownership will take root there, too. This clip about the first follower, which is worth returning to even if you’ve seen it, presents a good analogy. Coaches rarely get an honorable mention - which depending on your nature, might take some getting used to. I often tell people it is a bit like scoring the Best Supporting Oscar, and write about it here. There are so many upsides to being someone who influences - it is a chance to let your creative, curious side go wild. Coaches get to share in amazing collaboration because people know you are there for them - not to impress anyone. And often that collaboration is far and wide - you get to work with so many people that you might never have if you’d remained a full-time teacher. Taking joy in the achievements and growth of others - without assuming responsibility for it - is a big part of being a coach.
4. 'Potential' will be your default, and if it's not - develop the habit
This last point is what I was alluding to in my introduction when I said that maybe your world will change if you make the move to coaching. Until I became a coach, I didn’t think about how competitive the world of teaching actually is - our industry even has international awards and 'prize' money for the best teachers. We post our teacher-best life on twitter and our websites because we know they will be perused the next time we apply for a new role - it might give us an edge. Even our reputation in school might be quietly competitive, with 'favourites' - be they the students’, the parents’, and even the leadership team’s - sometimes considered institutional knowledge. These are the more implicit examples - the more overt ones include appraisals and comparisons of students’ academic achievements. Of course, this isn’t an isolated phenomenon and mirrors much of the corporate world, which encourages this competition to boost results. I’m not going to lie: I used to enjoy the buzz of competition, and on occasion still do. But as a coach, this is largely in the past.
You see, coaches aren’t in competition, and we don't believe teachers are, either. When you are in competition, you aren’t concerned with the betterment of your competitors - that would be counterproductive, right? You look for ways that you can shine, and that sadly means someone else's light has to not shine as brightly.
Coaches aren’t referees, either. We don’t step back and compare one teacher to another to see who is better. We do, however, see connections between teachers. We see opportunities to unite those who have common stories and common goals. We operate with the mindset that we are all on the same team, so we actively look for strengths in everyone we work with.
Sounds like a utopia, but here's the thing: you will start looking for potential in everyone, because it is what coaching is all about - if people don't have potential, then how can they grow? If, like me, you have thrived in that competitive educational arena before you became a coach, you'll need to cultivate a mental shift so that you don't search out the deficits and start seeing the strengths. You'll want to adapt your language, avoid the urge to fix and solve, and slow down (recognise the 'winning' tactics here?). It will take time, and practice, and like any habit, it will eventually become natural - an inherent way of being. And imagine how that might impact life beyond education? It has certainly impacted mine in so many positive and surprising ways.
If you are embarking on a coaching role this year or are thinking about it, know it is an incredibly fulfilling journey. Also know that the learning will be fast and furious and that there are many coaches who will be willing to support you as 'travel'. If there is one thing I'd encourage you to do it's to begin growing your coaching community (and if you aren't sure where to start, please ask!). Connecting with peers both in person and online has been invaluable to my development and has helped me diversify, recognise areas I'd like to explore for my own professional growth, and stay curious in times of challenge. They are a special group indeed.