Everyone is familiar with athletic coaches. Most are familiar with instructional coaches, too.
But what about student coaches?
Of course, these are teachers.
Teachers encourage students, motivate them, and help them build skills in one-to-one settings.
Through all of these acts, teachers are coaching students because they are teaching through relationships.
If teachers are coaching students, but not calling it coaching, why focus on the term?
Why we need to identify and name the act of coaching students
Putting a specific term on any practice has a few important functions.
Naming something brings attention to it. We can discuss coaching students easily when we have a name for it. A name makes it easier to measure and improve coaching students, too. We can also ensure teachers have strategies and tools needed to maximize the impact of their coaching moments.
It’s important to note that coaching is a specific act with a student, not a broad term to describe any interaction.
It’s not every passing conversation teachers have with kids. It’s not when the teacher is addressing the whole class through a lecture or questioning. It’s not when the teacher is grading a student’s work.
At the same time, coaching can happen in a variety of places and contexts.
For example, as a high school English teacher, I had some of my most impactful short conversations with students when talking to them outside the classroom right before class began.
In these moments, I was teaching students through building relationships with them. Those were coaching conversations.
What does student coaching look like?
In most cases, a coaching conversation involves teachers interacting with one student or a small group, likely sitting down, making deliberate time for that individual or group’s needs, and asking lots of questions.
The goal of this is to move beyond helping a student improve a skill. It’s more than ensuring students understand any specific information. Those outcomes might come out of a coaching conversation, too, but they’re not the focus.
The purpose of coaching conversations with students is to dig into a student’s mindset and the stories behind its development.
Teachers have all had students who “get in their own way.” This term applies to students who appear to have the skills needed to succeed, but demonstrate behaviors or patterns of thought that prohibit them from doing their best.
However, when a student is academically successful according to their test scores, grades and GPA, they can also benefit from coaching, and shouldn’t be overlooked in this discussion. Sadly, some of those severe mental health crises I observed while teaching were from high-performing students under tremendous pressure from their family, peers and themselves.
In short, every student has a story of struggle. Coaching can help everyone.
When a teacher makes time for coaching conversations with students, it’s a chance to dig into this mindset, uncover barriers to learning, and help students conquer mindset issues that may be holding them back from doing their best work.
Of course, these results usually don’t happen through one interaction.
As a teacher, I was often “playing the long game” with certain students, understanding that it would take weeks or months to establish a relationship with a student, develop their trust, and show them I was there for them. Only then could I begin to encourage and push them towards doing their best work.
This required prioritizing relationship building and conversations over other activities over the long term. At times, I might’ve been more lax about these students’ work habits at the moment, knowing that pushing them in this way wouldn’t be helpful. It was the process of teaching through relationships.
My story of discovering the power of coaching students
I once taught a student, who I’ll call Phillip.
He talked more than anyone in class. However, most of his comments were quick, random thoughts, vaguely inspired by the topic of the day. Occasionally, he’d share a beaming insight that soared over the heads of the other freshmen students.
From this, I knew Phillip had great verbal skills. However, when it came to writing, he was lost. His thoughts were too rapid, and he couldn’t keep up while typing or writing. So he felt blocked.
At first, this frustrated me.
I redirected him. I conferred with him 1:1 during class. He would say, “yes, OK, sounds good Mr. Dawson” and then go back to rocking in his chair or talking to students near him. I moved his seat. I lost my patience and appealed to his “grade” or “losing points.”
All the while, though, I talked to Phillip about his interests. I knew he liked music. He liked Magic: The Gathering cards. He was a social person and enjoyed asking me questions about myself and checking to see if I knew other teachers in the school that he liked talking to.
Eventually, I asked Phillip to stay after school, so we could work on his backlog of missing assignments. Despite my frustrations with his writing, he knew I wanted to help him.
When we met, I talked to him about one of our writing topics. It was an essay about his love of music and his experience learning the bass guitar. I asked him questions and realized he had great information to share. A perfect personal narrative.
Then, I turned on my iPhone Voice Memo app, and hit record. I repeated my questions. He repeated his answers. I played back the recording and said, “what if you don’t focus on coming up with ideas and writing at the same time? What if you just focus on writing down what you already said?”
The results weren’t miraculous, but it worked.
As a quick aside, this shift from writing to audio has been a valuable tool throughout my teaching career. School is often focused on writing as the primary means of capturing thinking, but audio is a convenient and accessible method for both students and teachers to use.
He still struggled with focusing. However, he popped on his headphones and started chipping away at the recording, writing down ideas he heard and wanted to keep. He finished the assignment and turned it in.
He successfully passed English. This was his second attempt, so it was a big deal.
The spectrum of skill development vs. emotional development
After I made time to build a relationship with Phillip, there were a few results.
First, he used this recording tactic to do other writing assignments. Second, most of his future writing assignments in class went more smoothly for him.
He built his writing skills. But more importantly, he realized he could write.
It was only through prioritizing conversations with Phillip and exploring his interests, that we discovered this idea to help him break through his struggles.
While coaching students will often lead to building content knowledge and skills, the biggest impact comes from emotional development.
When teachers coach students, and help them improve their mindset, they help them with the ultimate transferable skill, useful across classrooms and situations outside of school.
That is the power of coaching students. The power of teaching through relationships.