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Are You Coaching in the Right Direction?

April 14, 2010

Recently I heard a coach refer to her goal of moving teachers away from where they are to where we know they should go. My internal response was similar to hearing a musician hit the wrong note. It didn’t sound right.

OK, the movement part makes sense. Coaching isn’t coaching if no change occurs in the process. But moving away? That sounds off.

I think what bothers me is the idea that someone else – in this case, me, a coach – would have the wisdom to lead another person away from themselves. Many people try to do this, including members of the teaching, clerical, and counseling professions, but it feels, well, dangerous, to make such attempt. French philosopher Michel Foucault pointed this out when he described the pastoral power that is enacted when a “shepherd” attempts to know what is best for his “flock.” Sometimes, tending to others in such a way is indeed helpful, but sometimes it is harmful, and often one cannot tell in advance which it will be. Who am I to know what is best for another person?

What resonates with me is coaching that leads people closer to who they really are. Parker Palmer speaks of such efforts when he writes about creating hospitable places where the person’s shy “soul” can reveal itself. In such situations, a coach builds trust and asks good questions to help others listen to themselves and become more of who they are.

I know that teachers want to be successful, and I understand that the most enduring image of teaching is that of engaging with the student and responding to her needs. (See Nel Noddings’ book Caring for more on this.) As teachers we sometimes lose track of these wishes because we become tired, overwhelmed, or cynical; nonetheless, they are at the root of being for the vast majority of teachers.

 When I as a coach help teachers move closer to who they are, there is a palpable difference in the coaching conversation. A kind of shaky tenderness takes over. It feels like a sacred moment. I know this is the right path for me.

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