Positive step

7th April 2000 at 01:00
Indecisive? Lack motivation? Life coaches are there to point you in the right direction. Already big business in the United States, they claim they can help improve your professional and personal life - and they're gaining in popularity over here. James Bennett examines the value of a 'synergistic partnership'

Ever get the feeling your life is missing something? A therapist maybe? A personal shopper? Chanting and crystals? No, that's all so Nineties. The ultimate accessory in these first years of the new millennium is a life coach. Anybody who's anybody in the States has one, and it's fast catching on here.

Just as a personal trainer puts you on the road to physical fitness, so a life coach steers you to a new, improved existence, at home and at work. And, wouldn't you know it, there are life coaches specifically for teachers.

Monique George is one of them. I haven't met Monique. She is to me - as she is to all her clients - just a voice on the phone at a Bedfordshire number. It's a warm, slow, soothing voice that talks in honeyed tones of synergy, positivity and unconditional constructive thinking. It's the kind of voice that might convince you you could cope with anything God or Ofsted could throw at you.

Talking of the Almighty (Ofsted, not God), the inspectorate is top of the list of problems clients bring to Monique. Others include "exhaustion, lack of time, lack of balance between work and home, bullying, professional paralysis, boundary and integrity issues, feelings of demoralisation, changeinitiative overload, lack of confidence, fears of leaving the profession and fears of sharing concerns".

Clearly then, our coach knows the problems. Does she have the solutions? You won't be surprised to hear that: "Solutions come from within, from a commitment to strengthen one's personal foundation, making time, developing extreme self-care habits, building strong boundaries, raising personal standards, eliminating personal and professional tolerations, restoring integrity and reorienting one's life around personal values, etc."

Well, I think I could manage the "etc", but I don't know about the rest. And why should I pay money for a complete stranger to tell me how to run my life? Monique pounces on my words. "Telling people how to run their lives is something a good coach would never do." Instead, it's a case of "accelerating the process of emergence". And for that "synergistic professional partnership", she'll charge you around pound;35 per hour-long session, or pound;450 for a group session.

Picked yourself off the floor yet? Then consider whether pound;35 an hour is really an awful lot for something that radically improves your life. Let's give this a chance.

The first thing you'd want to be sure of before parting with your money was that your life coach was qualified to do what he or she promised. Can't anyone set up as a life coach? Monique admits this is so, but adds: "They'd be caught out very quickly." Monique and her colleague, Jackie Arnold, trained with the Coach University in the United States and are members of the International Coaching Federation. Monique says she also brings "a background of 16 years' teaching, training, counselling, psychotherapy and Eastern philosophy".

Still, I don't understand why I might need Monique. Don't I have colleagues to turn to, not to mention friends and family? Monique talks of "a dramatic decline in the quality of interaction between parent child and extended family". She adds: "Friends often have a vested interest in remaining friends. They don't push you much, they don't have the advanced training to develop you, and they don't always remain fully objective. And, unfortunately, the more busy we are, the more isolated we become."

With Monique, on the other hand, you get "a professional friend in the background whom you can count on to listen, challenge, encourage, endorse and be unconditionally constructive". What you don't get is a shrink. "Coaching is not counselling," she stresses. "The relationship starts by assuming the client is healthy and whole and ready to grow in leaps and bounds."

Convinced? Ready to sign up? Well, the bad news is that life coaching is not suitable for everyone. "It does not work for the arrogant, egocentric or anyone with an abusive personality," Monique says. As few of us would admit to these defects, I suppose we're all in.

Two of Monique's recent clients certainly have positive stories to tell. Rose Davis, 40, is in her final year as a classroom teacher. She decided to quit after coaching from Monique.

Rose, from Luton, says: "I got to know Monique because we were having some problems at our school and the education department sent her in, and paid for four sessions for several teachers. I decided to carry on beyond that in an attempt to restructure myself." And are you restructured? "Yes," she laughs. "It made me question whether I was in the right job - and I decided I wasn't."

Before anyone accuses Monique of driving valuable teachers from the profession, Rose is quick to point out that she will stay in education - and that the decision was her own, merely teased out by Monique: "She made me step back and question things about my life."

Rose realised that what she really wanted to do was to teach black history but that she couldn't do that in the way she wanted within the national curriculum. "I felt the best way to do it was through drama, so I'm going to set up my own company. I'm looking for funding from the lottery or local authorities, so I can offer the service free to schools. I hope to be up and running by October, and I'd never have reached this point without the life coaching."

Barbara (not her real name) is deputy head at an infants school that is in special measures. She strongly recommends life coaching. She says it has made her a different person to the tearful, frustrated woman she was a year ago.

The head invited Monique to talk to staff after a bad Ofsted inspection last year. Barbara, 47, had six months' coaching, paid for by the local education authority. "The main thing was time for myself. There wasn't any." Monique told her to start at home by making bath time special. Then she began to "claim" 15 minutes at the end of each school day when she wasn't to be disturbed by staff or children. "I used it to reflect on the day, and to organise myself."

This approach was soon extended to home life. Barbara began claiming Tuesday evenings for herself, leaving her husband and teenage children to their own devices while she practised relaxation techniques Monique taught her. "I'm a different person now," she says. "Far more confident and less tearful - and things are improving at school too."

Monique George and Jackie Arnold can be contacted on 0800 074 1838. The International Coaching Federation website can be found at: www.coachfederation.org

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