In which I attend a coaching conference

I am full of seething resentment for the woman sitting behind me on this flight. She has been talking in a loud sing-song for about an hour to the baby she has just met on the plane. The child’s mother is quietly cooing and shushing her child to sleep, while this woman brays unhelpful things like: “You’re so tired, aren’t you? You’ve had such a big adventure! Yes, you have!” Clearly, there is something wrong with this kind of person.

I would like to be a better person myself. I would like to be serene and calm, finding a mild species of joy in the delight that this woman takes in travelling near a stranger’s child. Perhaps I would chuckle quietly, this better self, before returning to my own sublime thoughts. Instead, my bitterness is a parasite slowly devouring its host.

My predisposition to impatience, resentment and snark has me constantly questioning whether I am a good enough person to be a coach. I’ve done the training. I have some skill, I suppose. (I have a certificate at least.) But can I keep my “real self” hidden enough to be present and helpful to someone else? Or am I just a broken toy that should be kept away from the playroom?

I’ve spent two days at the fifth National Coaching in Education Conference, surrounded by better human beings. These are people who walk the talk. These are people who seem to embody coaching and manifest it. They ask questions and care about the answers. They allow silence instead of filling the gaps with jokes. These are folks who thoughtfully listen to the the better angels of their nature, while I slump next to them mocking the outfits of passersby.

Christian van Nieuwerburgh, embodiment extraordinaire and Professor of Coaching and Positive Psychology at the University of East London, opened the conference by asking us what coaching in education was for. He tentatively suggested that student success and wellbeing might loom large in the answer, given that the project of education is largely concerned with student success and wellbeing. Seems fair enough. This raises the spectre, though, of how our technocratic school systems would demand something more quantifiable from coaching. Student success and wellbeing is a concept that readily becomes equated with blunt measures like pass rates and attendance data. Coaching only works when more students have an A on their report card, so saith the technocrat.

For me, as for most attendees I’m sure, coaching is more than a means of getting extra As on report cards. For me, coaching is a way of singing a better world into existence. It is a way of being and acting that creates spaces and relationships with more respect, dignity and agency. It is better than autocracy and authoritarianism. It is better than hierarchy. It is a model for the kinds of being and relating I want our students to take with them into the world. It is a creative force for social justice and peace and good. It is its own reward.

The best coaching I’ve done is when I’m better than myself. I’m more slow and quiet. I’m more deliberate. I concentrate more and I give more of myself to others. I’m singing a better me into existence. It’s a way of being that I’d like to see in myself outside of coaching, though developing this is “probably a lifelong endeavour” as Christian warns in his Introduction to Coaching Skills. I suspect that this might not be long enough.

I am ensorcelled too by the destructive urge in coaching, as well as the creative. In a conversation with Rachel Lofthouse, soon-to-be Professor of Teacher Education at Leeds Beckett University, I described coaching as a plant root that wends through and breaks apart the concrete. Rachel replied that, of course, coaching at its best has to challenge, and to be disruptive and destabilising. Old notions have to be broken down before new solutions appear. One of my hopes is that the technocratic, managerial tone of our schools becomes challenged by the coaching approach. Rachel has written that: “The language of exploration and development through coaching and mentoring does not always translate easily into accountability regimes.” It would be nice if the accountability regime, then, was called into question, rather than the language of exploration and development. Alas, coaching is no more designed to fix school systems than it is designed to “fix” people. Even broken toys like me.

So at the end of a big conference, and after a long few weeks, I am rolling these thoughts through my mind and trying to process everything I’ve seen and heard. I’m not sure how well I’ll do. It was an extraordinary opportunity to connect with good friends and great minds, often at the same time. But as the annoying woman on the plane sang out: “You’re so tired, aren’t you? You’ve had such a big adventure! Yes, you have!”

Yes, I have.

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