With a little help from my friend
What a personal trainer can do for your body, a life coach can do for your entire existence. Or at least that's the claim made for the practice of "life coaching", which originated in the US and is now increasingly taking hold in Britain. But does it work?
Three months ago, we nominated a teacher, 22-year-old Katherine Twyman, to undergo a course of weekly telephone sessions with Monique George, a life coach specialising in education (Friday magazine, April 7). At that time Monique laid out her philosophy of creating a "synergistic professional partnership" with hard-pressed teachers to coax the best from them. Has the partnership worked for Katherine?
Katherine is nearing the end of her first year in the profession, teaching English to all ages and abilities at the Westlands school, a 1,500-pupil secondary in Sittingbourne, Kent. She lives in Dover with her partner, Philip, an immigration officer, and the couple have recently bought their first home.
She is already missing the coaching. "It's strange not talking to Monique," she says. "I was quite sad at the last session."
Life coaching does not come cheap - it can cost up to pound;35 a session - but, cost aside, Katherine says she would recommend it to any teacher, as long as the coach is up to Monique's standard. "She's very intuitive. We'd talk about one thing and she'd say, 'I think you've got a problem with so and so', which seemed quite disconnected. Maybe I'd be flustered and didn't know why, and she'd point out the reason."
So how private were these discussions? Does this stranger now know more about Katherine than her nearest and dearest? "In a way, I suppose she does. It was all about how I felt about my family and friends, stuff at work, who I did or didn't like and why. I really opened up."
Having done that, Katherine appreciated the way Monique responded. "Next time we spoke she knew exactly who I was talking about. I'd mention someone once and next time she'd bring them up in conversation. She was obviously making notes and paying attention."
There was no pressure to reveal everything. "She brought up a few areas that I said I didn't really want to talk about. She'd try to come back to it the next week, but if you said no she wouldn't push it."
So do we now have a new, improved Katherine? "Yes, I have changed. I think I would have changed anyway, because when I started I'd only been teaching for one term. Now it's been two terms and I feel a lot more settled. But Monique has definitely helped. For one thing, I've got more energy now because of simple things she's suggested.
"I told her I was always feeling lethargic, with no motivation to do anything, especially in my spare time. I'd just lounge around. She made me look at everything I ate, drank and did. I was getting headaches at the weekend and we worked out it was because I was drinking lots of coffee during the week to get through the day at school. Now I only drink decaff. She also thought I was dehydrated and suggested I drink six pints of water every day. It was difficult at first, but now I get up and drink a pint before I do anything else.
"After a day at school I used to collapse in bed at 9.30 or fall asleep on the sofa. Now I'm able to go to bed an hour-and-a-half later and I find it easier to get out of bed in the morning.
"She also got me thinking about exercise - I didn't do any. So I started swimming and going for a walk once a week. Phil started coming as well, so he's feeling healthier too.
"Monique gets you to be aware of what you're doing, then she leaves any changes up to you. I decided to cut back the chocolate I was eating. I've lost about a pound a week for three months - a stone in all."
Very good, but you can get all that at Weight Watchers. What is harder to come by is expert guidance on your teaching career. "I was having doubts that teaching was right for me," says Katherine. "Monique made me think about the reasons I went into it, what I liked about it and whether I could get that from a different job. She helped me with practical problems I was having in the classroom, and now I feel more confident and motivated.
"She sent me parcels of books that I'd find helpful. I'd read a chapter then we'd talk about it. There was practical help on classroom management and we talked a lot about dealing with pupils with special needs, which was something I was having problems with.
"Of course, you can get that kind of help within the school, but it's a big school with a large number of NQTs, and to get help you really need to go and look for it. Also, you don't want to appear needy - you want to look confident and ripe for promotion."
One question most life coach clients will surely ask themselves at some point is whether their "professional friend" is in it for love or money. "I was bit cynical at the start when she said how much she wanted to work with me," says Katherine. "But after a few weeks you don't think about it. It's quite a luxury having someone there completely for you for half an hour a week, just interested in what you're saying. So you use it."
Some might fear that life under a life coach will become one great Cosmo survey of endless self-analysis. Katherine says not. "She did send me lots of paperwork to start with. There was one called the 'clean sweep programme', a list of 100 things which you tick off as you achieve them. These are all the things that bother people - having a hairstyle you like, having all the appliances in your house working, or your car being clean. You feel really smug when you manage to tick some off. At first, when I only had 15 out of 100, I thought, 'Oh no, my life's a mess'. Now I'm up to about 65.
"But I did say no to some of the things she asked me to do. You're encouraged to say certain things to people in certain situations. Things like, 'I think you're imposing on my boundaries' or 'You're damaging my sense of self'. I'd never say those in a million years."
In fact, Katherine's one criticism of life coaching was the use of American jargon. "I didn't feel comfortable with it. Monique might be saying something which was really quite profound, and I'd start thinking 'that's silly' because of the language she was using. For example, you're supposed to develop a 'personal sprinkler system' to get people to back off. It felt like technobabble."
The life coaching also covered Katherine's finances. "I didn't like it at first because I didn't want to think about money. Monique asked things like how much was in my bank account, what day did I get paid and how much did I spend on food. I had to say I didn't know. She said I had no awareness of money and asked me to write a letter to 'Money' as if it were a person. I thought that was weird and said no.
"Then she asked again, and I did it. No, I'm not showing you. I didn't even read it to her. You had to think about how you treated Money, whether you knew it well or not, or found it threatening. I sat upstairs laughing as I was doing it - but I'm glad I did it because I found it helpful.
"Monique got me to budget properly, which I have never done before. I was a bit depressed to see how little I had at the end of the month to spend on myself, but it felt good to sort it out so that everything is now paid on direct debit. It has sometimes been a cause of friction between me and Phil, but now it's all sorted out."
Katherine was also introduced to "visualisation techniques". She says: "I gave up on that quite quickly. Monique wanted me to visualise what kind of day I wanted every day, but I'm not good at doing things like that. If I had a rowdy group to teach, I had to stand at the door visualising a calm lesson before I went in. I tried it, and although it didn't calm them down, it did calm me down - and I dealt with the class better. She got me to realise that remaining calm when some child is trying to antagonise you is better than bellowing."
All in all, it sounds like three months of rewarding but challenging work. Were there no indulgences? "Oh yes," says Katherine. "Monique would say I'd made a lot of progress, so what could I do to be nice to myself? So before long I was saying things to Phil like: 'I'm going to have a candlelit bath for two hours with a bottle of wine - and that's because I deserve it'."
Monique George can be contacted on 0800 074 1838 and is offering callers a free life coaching session in September and October. Her website, www.goldenvision.co.uk, is due to launch in July.