At the top of their game

Life coaching is turning teachers' lives around. Fiona Leney discovers why many are seeking professional advice and what it can do for you

Mention life coaching and the first thing that comes to mind is Californian tree-huggers. But as the American import has become a multi-million pound business in Britain, tackling anything from sloppy parenting to fashion failures, one of its more serious spin-offs has been coaching for teachers.

"Absolutely the best thing I've ever done", "Fantastic. It saved my life" and "Its 'can-do' mentality helped enormously" are some of the comments from teachers who say that coaching has turned their lives around.

Unlike counselling, which concentrates on talking through traumas and emotions, coaching is aimed at developing practical strategies to tackle personal and professional problems.

"Coaching doesn't give you the answers, but it enables you to find them for yourself - so they're real for you. It's not something that's imposed from above," says Heather Churchill, headteacher of Limes Nursery School in Bristol. Heather believes coaching saved her professional life when, three years ago, she was a new head, and struggling. She heard that personal coaching was being made available to teachers by the Bristol Education Action Zone (EAZ), a grouping of schools committed to raising standards.

"There was a risk I could have left - it is very lonely being a new head, and I didn't know where to turn. Coaching has been wonderful," she says.

Heather needed help to increase her confidence and make her realise that she was capable of doing her job. "Coaching starts by helping you to acknowledge what you are doing. It makes you see that you are managing. You then define the problem you feel you have. If you say: 'I can't do this', the coach will ask you to think about how you could do it."

Sarah Gornall, who was director of the Bristol EAZ at the time and now runs her own business coaching teachers, says there is a lot of confusion about what coaching actually is. This is not helped by the limited regulation of the sector. She is clear that, for a start, coaching offers teachers a different experience from mentoring.

"Confidentiality is vital - we are working with the client, not monitoring their performance. We are there not to give professional advice, as a mentor would, but to question, to be open to looking at all aspects of the client's life and to encourage them to develop their own solutions."

The fact that coaching can tackle personal and professional issues - crossing the divide of traditional counselling and career advice - makes it particularly suited to a personality-based job such as teaching. "I'm usually approached for help over a career or work problem, but it's often driven by personal issues below the surface," Sarah says. For instance, she is often asked for help with time management, conflict resolution and confidence problems. But a session on time management might reveal that work demands are leading to marriage breakdown, or that confidence issues are linked to someone's personal life.

"It can be intensely personal, but it is also professional. It's up to you whether you bring in other aspects of your life," says Heather.

She warns that coaching is no quick fix, but she is so convinced of its value for teachers that she is now coaching other heads in the area informally, and has made coaching available to staff at her school.

"It is hard work. If you're expecting someone to come in and make it all right, they don't."

Heather was lucky. Many teachers have to arrange their own coaching privately. Costs vary enormously, depending on whether clients attend a course or private sessions, but typically a one-hour private session costs about pound;100. A series of sessions is generally scheduled over a period of three months to build a relationship and begin tackling the most acute problems. Once progress is made, sessions are given when needed. "If the target is to improve confidence, we'll work on role play, practise positive body language and tone, and look at how a person is perceived. The great thing is that coaching engages the unconscious mind, so that the person can work between sessions on ideas they take away," says Sarah.

Jan Campbell (not her real name) found this to be true. As a newly appointed head of department and self-confessed perfectionist, Jan opted for coaching to try and ease feelings of panic and depression that threatened to overwhelm her.

"Externally I had this perfect life - an adoring husband, a lovely toddler, a flourishing career. But I felt everyone depended on me. It made me resentful that I was giving out all the time and could not express my own needs - and terrified that I could not keep it up. I thought: 'If I don't get help, I'll go mad'," she says.

As Jan grew more stressed, home life began to suffer, because she was spending longer at work and because, exhausted and irritable, she resented her family's dependence on her. At school, her relations with pupils and colleagues deteriorated as she felt she couldn't "waste" time dealing with them when she had responsibility for so much.

"I'm not a navel-gazer. I knew I needed a pro-active approach, so counselling wouldn't have helped. The coach I found was used to working with teachers. She knew where I was coming from," she says.

But Jan was so worried that going for coaching would be seen as a sign of weakness by colleagues - and weirdness by friends - that she kept the whole thing secret. Even today, though she is enthusiastic about its results, she does not want to be identified.

"My work-life balance is much better and I feel as if I can coach myself out of any tough situations. I'm much stronger mentally," she says. "I would say: 'I should be able to find a way of doing everything' and she (the coach) would say: 'Let's look at how you could do that, let's draw the timetable and block hours out.' At the same time, we would explore ways to ease problems with childcare or get my husband to take more responsibility."

Gladeana McMahon, a personal coach who has introduced her techniques into schools all over Britain for Teachers' TV programme Ease the Load, says Jan's case is typical of the problems she sees.

"Teachers are perfectionists and they don't cut themselves slack. I've been doing these programmes for two years and I've seen teachers on the edge of burn-out everywhere," she says. "I show clients a list of symptoms of stress, ranging from mild to health-threatening. When they realise they score eight out of 10, they start to listen," she says.

"It's a vicious circle when you are stressed and exhausted. You can no longer prioritise. You need someone calm and supportive to help you find your own solution, so you can identify your faulty thinking style and develop a successful one."

The National College of School Leadership has given its blessing to coaching as a professional development tool. Grants for coaching are available under the early headship programme.

Candy Kerpache, a former headteacher, was so impressed with the concept that she retrained with The Coaching Academy, the UK's biggest coaching school, and now, as well as her private work, also coaches school leaders as part of the National Professional Qualification for Headship course. "We are increasingly seeing coaching as part of continuing professional development," she says.

Jonathan Jay first began training personal coaches in the UK in 1999. Eight years on, he is a millionaire and head of The Coaching Academy. He says he wants to take coaching into other areas of the public sector, such as local government and the NHS.

"We have had hundreds of teachers who have done our courses and benefited - dealing with conflict and stress, learning how to handle difficult parents and colleagues and how to take their career in the right direction," he says.

"Whatever the critics say, coaching works. If it didn't, it would have disappeared in six months. There's nothing weird about it - it's simple psychology."

The details

For a taste of coaching that is less expensive than private sessions, Sue Gornall offers a two-day course for pound;275, and a one-day course for Pounds 150.

Many personal coaches offer sessions by phone if you live too far away for regular meetings.

For lists of accredited coaches and further information, visit:

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