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'How Do You Become a Coach?'

In response to my post, 'Coaching is Harder than I Thought,' I received an email from Kathryn, a teacher whose principal has asked her to be a coach next year. "After reading your blog, I'm rethinking it," she wrote. "I guess I hadn't really thought about what it would take. I just felt honored that he'd ask me to do it." Kathryn shared that she's been teaching for five years and is National Board Certified. Finally, she asked, "How do you become a coach? What could I do to become a coach before I take this position?"

Jon, from Virginia Beach Public Schools, emailed me with this:

We are fortunate that in order to earn an endorsement as a math coach we must take 5 college level math courses as well as 3 leadership classes. Some of us, me included, continued to earn an additional degree by completing 9 more hours of coursework. So we were well trained. I am interested to know how you entered this position and what kind of training you received.

Kathryn and Jon raise a core issue about how we become a coach. I'm passionate about coaching and committed to it as a vehicle for professional learning; I'm also very clear about what kind of coaching I think is most effective and how we become that kind of coach. To answer the question of how one becomes a coach, we must identify what kind of coach it is that we want to become and what kinds of coaches we need in our schools.

Here's the thing: in our schools, the label, "coach," has been applied to people in all kinds of roles: there are data coaches, literacy coaches, curriculum coaches, school improvement coaches, transformational leadership coaches, new teacher coaches, and so on. The work has looked very different, had different meaning, and been driven and directed by different factors. So it's hard to make blanket statements about what someone should know or be able to do to become a coach.

However, I'm going to be bold with a few assertions:

  1. All coaches working in schools must been teachers for at least five years. The experience of being a classroom teacher brings a knowledge, understanding, and skill set that is not attainable in any other way.
  2. Coaches working as content specialists (math, ELA, literacy) must have taught that content for at least five years. Ideally, they would also have an advanced degree or additional certification in that area.
  3. Coaches who work with adult learners must have exceptional communication skills and high emotional intelligence. These skill sets are measurable and can be developed.

Effective coaches use an extensive set of skills, have deep and wide content knowledge, and have developed a number of dispositions that allow them to engage others in a learning process. For example, a coach might have an advanced degree in her subject, she might have been a brilliant classroom teacher and have evidence of her impact on student learning, but if she can't listen and can't communicate what she knows to other adults, it's useless. If she doesn't believe that other teachers want to learn and improve their craft, her knowledge and experience won't make her an effective coach.

Coaches who work with adult learners really need to know something about how adults learn. It's not that we learn in a way that's completely different from how children learn, but there are some nuances and differences that we need to know about. Coaches who work with adults also need to embrace these differences. One thing I often hear from new coaches is something along the lines of, "It's not as much fun to work with adults as it is with children." So what are some other ways we can describe this experience that help us negotiate our feelings? For me, working with adults is rewarding, thrilling, complicated in a good way, inspiring, powerful, exciting, and actually, for me, it is often fun. I loved working with children, and I also love working with adult learners.

My own path into coaching was bumpy. I became a coach at the school I taught at. I saw a need to support new teachers and I was encouraged to try to fill that need. I had no preparation, little support, and it was rough. However, there was something about coaching that intrigued me and pulled me deeper. I attended some trainings, read everything I could find, and then found other coaches with whom I could learn. I'm still working to improve my coaching by reading, writing, and learning with others.

I'd love to see courses of study offered through universities or reputable organizations; I'd love to see districts and schools that clearly articulate the path to becoming a coach. I believe coaches must be master listeners and since listening is a skill that takes a lot of practice, so I envision courses on listening. And in addition to the path, I also want more discussion about and definition of the kinds of coaches our schools need. That end--what kind of coach--would help us create the process we use to get there.

That's the big, wide, and long-view picture. Back in the here and now, I'm often asked by principals for advice on how to identify a strong coach. Coaches ask how they can identify a good coaching position. And back to Kathryn's question, "What could I do to become a coach before I take this position?"

In my forthcoming book, The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation, I address these questions. I also offer samples of questions for those in positions of hiring and for coaches looking for jobs. These are also available on my website.

What do you think about the path to becoming a coach? What should that look like? What do you think are the skills, knowledge sets, capacities and dispositions that a coach should have?

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