I’ve deliberated long and hard about writing this article, but I’m going to go for it. Indeed, if you’re reading it, then that’s proof that not only have I finally got around to writing it, but I was even brave enough to send it in. You see, some things I write about go down a storm. In fact, sometimes, even when I think I’m saying something slightly off-piste, it can still be welcomed be a few readers. But in this case, I fear that I may be standing alone. Nevertheless, I’ve thought it often enough, and now I’m just going to say it: I don’t think coaching is all it’s cracked up to be.
Over the years, I’ve had plenty of sessions of training in coaching. My first bout was years ago on a workshop run by the General Teaching Council. Remember that? Then, it seems, every time I was promoted, I was treated to a half-day or a day’s session led by an expert coach, whose first words were always along the lines of the fact that a single session wasn’t really long enough to train a coach effectively…but then went ahead and had a go anyway.
In many ways, the messages given in these training sessions have always been quite reassuring. It’s satisfying to hear that you have the answers to the world’s problems within yourself, you just need someone to help you unlock them. And certainly in education it makes a nice change to think that for once you won’t have an outsider coming in to tell you what’s what.
The trouble with all that is, often an experienced outsider is just what is needed. As a new head of year, when I was facing my first difficulties in managing the performance of my team, I didn’t want someone to ask me to evaluate the challenges and choose my own path: I wanted clear words of wisdom from someone who had been there before. I might not always have listened, nor necessarily have learned the lessons they intended, but I don’t think that the school’s NQT had the skills I needed.
Mentors and coaches
Similarly, as a new headteacher, it is mentors I seek at the moment, just as much as coaches.
Those of you who have any experience of this will note there that I highlighted my knowledge of the difference between the two roles there. Frankly, that’s pretty much all I’ve ever learned on one of those brief coaching courses. They all seem to consist of a good while spent on the difference between coaching and mentoring, a few roleplay exercises where person B pretends not to be interested in listening to person A, some bland pleasantries about “drawing out” people’s various skills and knowledge, and a few disappointing biscuits.
No doubt those of you who are big fans of coaching will point out that it isn’t for novices. But even as an experienced teacher, I have much to learn. The trouble with the common approach to coaching is that rather than pairing me up with someone more experienced, or with a specific skillset I need, the suggestion is that I just need someone to ask me the right questions.
I don’t buy into that. I need someone who knows exactly how teaching works – and who can suggest things for me to try, something for me to deliberately practise in order to improve my skills.
And perhaps there’s a place for that. As a leader, when faced with tough decisions, I might want to talk through my thinking with someone – often, it’s my wife who gets to listen to it all. But as a school improvement strategy? I’m yet to be persuaded.
Michael Tidd is headteacher at Medmerry Primary School in West Sussex. He tweets @MichaelT1979