I Want One of Them. I Need One of Them! TEACHER COACHING

© Julie Boyd 1999

‘Ah wants one o’ them. Where do I git me one o’ them? Ah need one.’’ I’ll never forget
the sight of a very large African American woman bearing down on me like the Titanic in
full sail as I stood at the front of a roomful of 1000+ teachers. I was keynoting a
conference in America on Collaborative Approaches to Professional Learning and had
just finished explaining the purpose of a professional coach. She was adamant that she
wanted one- and I was the person to tell her where she could acquire such a beast.
Coaching is the most sophisticated form of professional learning and early attempts to
introduce it to teachers in Australia were often quite disastrous. Not because the goodwill
and intent wasn’t there- but because coaching sessions often became ‘advice’ or ‘critical
friend’ sessions where the poor person being ‘coached’ walked away feeling as if their
professional self worth had just been trampled to death.

Coaching requires a great deal of skill to be effective. Teachers, of course, do make
highly effective peer coaches, provided they have been trained properly in both process
and attitude. To lay yourself open to professional scrutiny is one of the most private acts
you can perform as a teacher. And if that is not respected then the recipient of poor
coaching will often feel violated to the point that they are reluctant to engage again for
some considerable time.

Yet it is an extremely important aspect of professional growth. Despite the best intentions of
personal reflection and ongoing self questioning, an individual rarely has the ability to monitor the
subtleties and nuances of the impact of their verbal and non-verbal language on others. To have
another pair of eyes watching for specific information can be an invaluable experience, providing
the appropriate agreements have been put in place for the role of the coach, the gathering of
information and data and the relaying of that information in a useful manner.

The fact that education systems are now employing very, very few external consultants
should be a concern. While always seen as an ‘expendable luxury’ it is these people who
have been in a position to bring alternative world viewpoints to education. Their demise
means that once again means we run the risk of insular thinking and practice that simply
means that education may become even more alienated from what kids need to survive
and thrive outside school walls.

As one moves through the various levels of ‘teacher maturation’, from being a new
graduate operating at a purely concrete survival level to a highly experienced person who
has been in a state of ongoing professional growth for many years, different forms of
coaching are required. For example:

Level of Professional Maturity Major Concerns Coaching Focus
New graduates Activities/Behaviour Student Engagement/
Teacher Language
3rd Year Survivor Content/Curriculum Content/Curriculum
Older teacher who has not Motivation Attitudes
Engaged in ongoing professional and Curriculum
Self development Managing innovation
Experienced and highly motivated Challenge and intellectual Professional
stimulation conversation triggers
Fast forward fifteen years from the African American woman to last week when I was
having lunch with a friend who is in a very senior position in the public service (boy is
his superannuation safe!). He was regaling me with a story about his 12 year old daughter
who had been causing her parents and teachers considerable concern last year as her
attention to boys had suddenly begun to outweigh her attention to learning. As, in the
past, I had had considerable success in assisting in the development of methods to
segregate male and female adolescent hormones for schools (through single gender
classes, reverse integrating teenage boys into special school situations in order to put
them on very extended work placements, and the establishment of single gender minischools),
I suggested they consider a single gender school for her. They did, and
subsequently enrolled her in a single gender public school in Victoria where she was
‘doing brilliantly’…until…’one of her teachers decided to put her into a group with kids
of lesser ability and I’m worried they will pull her down’(my friend’s words, not mine).
Well! Just as I was about to embark on a lecture on the virtues of (effective) collaborative
learning, having introduced the practice to thousands of teachers across Australia in the
80’s and 90’s he continued. ‘But Sienna (codename for daughter) told me in no uncertain
terms what she gained through working with the other girls, as well as what she was able
to help them learn- and I must admit I was a bit gob-smacked!’ (a very rare experience
for my friend!) Then he went on ‘So I started thinking about how I could adapt this idea
to my staff.’ Lunch then turned into a learning session as I helped him learn how to do
just that. He paid for lunch!

My own professional career has spanned a muliplicity of professional roles. Each one
seen by me as an apprenticeship for the next. I deliberately sought out mentors at each
stage to help me with my intended professional progression. Sometimes it was simple. A
phonecall to invite a writer to lunch and ask them to talk about themselves- irresistible for
most people. Other times, more formal (particularly in the business community). My
mentors have ranged from other mothers to Managing Directors of multinational
corporations. My coaches from sporting heros to people with failing small businesses.
The aforementioned friend coached me in working with politicians and governments. My
attitude has always been that I can learn something from each and every person I meet
(including how not to do something). My current mentors, though neither are aware of it,
include a first year teacher and the federal treasurer who, in very different ways, are both
reminding me constantly how easy it is for people to be hurt and taken for granted!
Coaching and mentoring are crucial to ongoing healthy professional development for
educators. I believe that once we stop learning we die professionally- be that after five
years of teaching or fifty. And one way to maintain support, challenge, enthusiasm and
passion if to incorporate regular coaching and mentoring for all educators. And the
coaches and mentors should not always be other educators as that is one way to maintain
exclusivity and shared ignorance.

Having had broad range of experiences across a number of levels of education,
community and corporate sectors, I would highly recommend that all teachers should
have a variety of experiences with others- both within and outside the education field.

*Learning buddies are a great way to enhance mutual learning with others in your own
*Peer learning may involve others at a similar level across different schools or campuses
*Coaching may involve those at a higher level of professional maturation
*Mentoring may involve those in other fields you find intellectually or professionally
*Mutual coaching and mentoring with those in other fields should be mandatory for all
educators who have been in teaching longer than 3 years- and for all Principals and senior