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The Art and Science of Coaching Educators

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By Sajan George, Founder & Chief Executive Officer for Matchbook Learning

Good coaches can bring out the best in us, but great coaches can reach superstar status. If we look behind our real or fictional heroes and heroines, we'll usually find a persevering coach. Luke Skywalker would never have become a Jedi without Yoda. Tiger Woods needed his father to teach him the game of golf. And Whitney Houston learned to sing in her mom's church's gospel choir. 

Coaches can vary widely in their approach, from intensive hands-on shouting to laid-back, passive game-time stances. However, all great coaches are expected to have the keys to unlock a player's motivational closet when the moment calls for it. 

Coaching is truly an art to behold when done well. But is it all an art? Can science aid a coach? Should it?

These are questions we are beginning to explore at Matchbook Learning as we coach our school staff, the majority of whom are educators. 

Numerous personality assessments exist that analyze a person's behavior (e.g., Myers-Briggs). The problem with most of these is that they often incorrectly place people into mutually exclusive categories like 'introvert' or 'extrovert.' The reality for many of us is that we actually fall somewhere on a continuum between these categories, depending upon our environment. 

A friend of mine recently recommended the Predictive Index (PI). PI measures people's core drives based on four factors: dominance, extraversion, patience, and formality. Each has a continuum from low to high. These drives and their respective points on the continuum can determine or predict behavior, and have shown to be statistically valid in over 500 independent studies since PI's founding in the 1940s. I trained our entire staff on this tool very recently after they took the PI assessment. 

But this isn't an advertisement for PI. My larger point here is that we can and should couple the same level of science (e.g., neuroscience, cognition, meta-cognition, brain development) we use for understanding how children learn, to how adults (those in care of children's education) learn. 

Every effective coaching relationship rests upon a foundation of mutual vulnerability, transparency and accountability. And how we give feedback matters as much as the kind of feedback we give.

Does the person you are coaching:

  • Prefer to collaborate with others on a particular challenge or weakness, or define and make their mark themselves? (dominance)
  • Need to socialize your feedback ('talk to think') or need time to process it themselves ('think to talk')? (extraversion)
  • Tackle multiple ideas at varying speeds simultaneously or work sequentially through one idea or problem at a time? (patience)
  • Engage once the strategic 'forest' picture of the strategy is shared or only once the tactical 'trees' picture of the strategy is laid out? (formality)

Again, the specifics of the four drives that underlie a person's behavior--whether it be from PI or some other scientific instrument--are less important. What is important is that we guide our feedback and coaching in ways that align to the science behind how each individual best receives and processes that feedback. For those of us pursuing personalized school models, there is really is no other way to align how we develop our students with how we develop our adults.

Generic, non-scientific but highly motivational coaching sessions are the stuff of movies and professional celebrity, and are less likely to have measurable long-term impact. However, our vision and philosophy of personalization--the importance of individual fit--requires a certain kind of integrity. Our people deserve this kind of integrity. After all, if the children we serve are worthy of personalized attention coupled with scientific principles, so are those we employ. 

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