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Exploring Boundaries Between Coach and Coachee

A coach who wishes to remain anonymous emailed this question:

I just took a position as an instructional coach at a large urban high school. I've never been a coach before and am new to this district. I'm excited about the work but am struggling with one aspect: many teachers have invited me to go out with them and socialize. They go out in big groups on the weekend and are good friends. I have heard that some of the outings get a little wild (and there's a lot of drinking). I'm uncomfortable with this. I don't think this is professional of me to do, and especially not with the teachers I'll coach, but I also don't want them to think I'm not interested in building a relationship with them--and I also realize that maybe I could be friends with them. Do you think it's possible for a coach to be friends with her coachees? Should I go out with them if it'll help me build a trusting relationship with them?

Confused New Coach

Dear Confused New Coach,

I think this scenario is more common than you think. Coaches often work in this nebulous, neutral territory between the ranks of teachers and their administrators and that can be a confusing place. Sometimes coaches rise from the teaching staff at a school--they move from having been a colleague to a coach, and that's really confusing. It's worth thinking carefully about this new identity for yourself and how to navigate it so that you can remain aligned with your vision for yourself as a coach.

First, you might consider that there are many ways to build relationships with coachees. You want to develop a relationship where the trust is based on your competence, coaching skill, and integrity rather than on how fun you are at a party. Your coachee will trust you if he thinks that you'll guide him to develop his practice, to be the teacher he's always wanted to be, and to refine his capacity to meet the needs of his students. This kind of trust takes time to cultivate, but it's the kind that leads to deep learning, risk taking, and long term impact.

Personally, I have always found it awkward to have anything like a social relationship with someone I coach--not while I'm coaching them nor in subsequent years. Our relationship has always had a dynamic where I've been the listener, I constantly hold and reflect a vision for where my coachee wants to grow, and I'm the gentle but firm pusher towards that end. I've worked with many teachers and leaders whom I've liked as people; I've often thought, if she wasn't my client, we'd be friends. But I find that a very awkward boundary to cross. While I'm coaching someone, I don't share personal information; I maintain a fairly firm professional relationship. So this isn't something I'm comfortable with. I've seen other coaches take a different stance, however.

Who do you want to be as a coach? What's your vision for yourself? What are some alternatives to going out and drinking with your coachees--that still might allow you to know them socially, but that might not be as risky as you describe their social outings to be? How might you communicate your decision to decline their invitations--so that they don't feel offended and so that they understand your reasoning? How can you be honest (that's critical in order to gain trust) but not make it seem like there is anything wrong with their invitation?

I might say something like this:

I really appreciate the invitation. I feel so welcomed into this community and I'm grateful to be a part of it. Right now, in order for me to be the kind of coach who can most effectively support you and our students, I think it may be confusing for me to socialize with you. This is just my experience as I explore this new role...Would it be possible for us to have lunch one of these days? I'd like to know more about who you are and about your experiences as a teacher.

What have other coaches done? Have any of you felt comfortable socializing with teachers you coach?

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