What Teaching Could Be: A Coaching Model

Salute to the Sun (Dominique Saks on Flickr)

For the last year and a half I’ve been getting certified as a leadership coach, to add to my consulting practice in education.  As one of my dear friends observed, this has meant a dramatic plunge in my writing production.  I’ve been training, thinking, interacting, reading, researching, and BEING a coach so extensively that I haven’t been writing about the act of coaching, or reflecting out loud how I think coaching has potential to transform the field of teaching.

So of course I’ve been beating myself up about that a bit, feeling a sense of unease about not reflecting on these experiences explicitly in some published form–as if these musings, and my meaning-making  might not “mean” anything or add up to anything if I didn’t do it in some measurable way.  It doesn’t count if it’s not published, my academic training tells me.

Then I realized I actually have been writing all along.  I’ve been reflecting with my mentors, to my teachers, to my new coaching colleagues, and most especially to my clients–my beautiful and inspiring coaching clients.

I’ve been reading through some of that reflective writing, noticing how I’ve been putting these ideas about coaching and teaching together and thinking about what makes the act of coaching so powerful and awe-evoking for me–because I truly find it so.  Coaching, for me, involves a connection to the divine, because the act of coaching involves actually watching people grow and become more brave and competent, in your presence, from week to week, as they notice stories they have about themselves and make changes to them.  And you, as coach, get to bear witness to that, hour by hour, week by week.  What a great privilege it is to be to be engaged in work like this.

I love this new work so much more than I ever loved teaching, and I deeply believe teaching has much to learn from coaching.  In an effort to make this a group-think, I am laying out some my thought-milestones in my journey to becoming an ICF certified leadership coach, as have I transitioned from full-time consultant–with lots of opportunities to tell people what to do, and from a sometimes academic, with lots of opportunities to cite the research–to a very different stance:  someone who bears witness to the greatness of other people by enthusiastically asking them questions and listening to their stories.

Here is one of the first letters I wrote to Lloyd Raines, a colleague (with whom I am now going to teach a course at the Institute for Transformational Leadership at Georgetown University), about the differences between teaching and coaching.

What teaching could be/coaching model–April 2012

I believe we are in similar places intellectually and spiritually. I too through the decades, have had many “splitting the seed” moments: around teaching and my own teaching acts, around self and my own self-knowledge acts, and finally around the act of conventional knowing itself–another kind of illusion in some ways is just another kind of story, with all the attendant limits.  

One of the things that greatly greatly attracts me to coaching is the not-knowing paradigm (as Mike McGinley says, “You don’t have to know anything,”)–such an extraordinary and powerful paradigm shift from the conventional academic paradigm in which I was socialized.  

The great gift of a coach is to be endlessly curious about everything and to hold not-knowing very tenderly and reverently.  I love this, the freedom and sense of adventure it gives to the work, and the way it shifts power in along all the lines your remembrance with your students describes.  I also do truly revere, and honor, the conception that the client is already creative, resourceful, whole, has a deep inner teacher whose wisdom the coach, in some sense, is simply helping to provide some access to.  This is in itself a piece of social justice, a reversal of the conventional dynamics of power.  It’s hard, of course, to always live up to, because we are so socialized to be in knowing.  But that’s a deep part of my own journey, and part of the preparation for every coaching call.  In my work out in the world, if I assume that the folks I am organizing with (and I’m about to get on an organizing call) already “have what they need” that changes the nature of the conversation, from my positionality to the sense of what is called for in the interaction.

My larger vision is that coaching is in fact a powerful model for “new” ways of thinking about teaching, which the education sector is desperately seeking.  If teachers were trained as coaches, schools, if they continue to exist, would look very different, for adults, children and all people who interact with them.  If you assume the student is already creative, resourceful, and has what they need, you as a teacher are looking for what’s already right, where the invitation is, where the current is already strong and where you can gain some momentum.   I had dinner with my mentor Sara Lawrence Lightfoot on Tuesday night, and we agreed about what a powerful shift this would be from the current deficit model of regarding students, and the notion that knowledge is statically added to the empty pantry of the mind.  To me there is a message about social justice there–if students were treated in this way at school–how might this change their whole lives? How they see the world? How they show up in the world?  The coaching model’s possibilities are very, very exciting and generative to me. I‘d like to help bring some of this vision to the sector. 

A discussion worth having?  Do you as a teacher look out at your classroom of students and think, “They already have everything they need?”  How might I join with them in a learning project?  This is a powerful vision of teaching for me.

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