After joining Schools Week as deputy editor, Cath Murray was sent to mingle with readers at a training event – and bring back her observations.

I approached the “coaching” day for education professionals with trepidation. Faye Kilgour, our trainer and lead coach for Graydin, a professional development organisation, had signed her preliminary email, “With heart”. On receiving it, the seat of my own emotions sank.

I’m no stranger to the heart-centred group activity. I spent three years teaching in an “eco-village” study-abroad programme in Costa Rica, for goodness sake. I know all about holding hands and sharing. And I know it has value, in a community-building sense.

So why the “heart” sign-off made me uneasy, I’m not quite sure. But it’s fair to say I entered the training session with some prejudice and a modicum of internal grumbling about airy-fairy CPD sessions, proper use of public money and wasting teachers’ valuable time.

But here’s what I learned.

1. Coaching is about helping people to access existing knowledge

We weren’t allowed to give advice, or tell people what to do. When paired up to “coach” each other, Kilgour encouraged us to “plant seeds, not give presents”. This meant we should listen, and occasionally interject with questions to guide our partner: “What do you think is stopping you?“ or “How might a more experienced teacher approach this problem?”

We were to avoid judgmental “Why?” questions and never indulge our own curiosity. Neither could we throw in anecdotes, go off on tangents, or simply change the subject when our partner became boring. This was not a conversation: it was about remaining intensely focused on the protagonist, while being ready at any moment to lob in a pertinent question. It was like being a ball-girl at Wimbledon – and just as exhausting.

But when we switched over and I took centre court, a strange power was unleashed. My ball-girl faithfully darted after every trailing ball, throwing it back to me: “What is your priority here?” “How might you approach that conversation?” “What steps are you going to take to achieve that?” Draining, once again, but also strangely exhilarating.

2. You have to start with the heart

No, really. I took Kilgour to task over the “heart” stuff. One participant said the “heart” focus immediately told her it would be her kind of training. I said I never would have come if my boss hadn’t made me.

But however you phrase it, this instruction basically means you have to start by establishing what your values are. In other words, the “What’s important to you about X?” kind of questions.

The idea is that until you know what you want from a situation, you’re not going to work out what steps you should take to achieve it.

Work out what you want, lay out your options, then decide on an action plan. Not rocket science. Except that all the while, you’re being supported by the equivalent of Anita – the beautiful, placid synth in the BBC series Humans – basically a human-like figure who looks, speaks and moves exactly like a human, but has no interest in turning the conversation to their own life.

3. Coaching won’t work for everyone

There is a place for mentoring, and for consultancy, both of which – we were told – are more focused on imparting knowledge.

At lunch, I talked with Kate Fiddian, assistant head at Orchard School in Bristol and a passionate advocate of coaching, who said she wouldn’t recommend it for “floundering” NQTs. “If you have somebody being coached who doesn’t have the answer, they can end up feeling frustrated.”

But for Fiddian – who first engaged with coaching on Future Leaders – getting more experienced teachers to “find their own route” through difficult situations is a great way to give them “ownership” of their professional development.

Then there’s the idea of “buy-in” – that you have to want to be coached. Fiddian hopes to include it as one of several options in her school’s CPD, but told me about a school that had tried to force it on all their teachers. It didn’t work.

 

I left feeling slightly vulnerable (it’s hard to tell strangers what you really want out of life!) yet more connected, and overall, more human.

Naomi Ward, editor of the upcoming Teacher 5-a-day journal and handbook, said she never received coaching as a teacher, despite requesting it. She left in 2013, after 15 years. “I might still be in teaching,” she told me, “if I’d had a coach.”

I don’t think it’s a magic bullet. But at the end of the day, my overall reaction was kudos.

At its essence, the workshop seemed to be about how to find out what you
really want to do, and how to go about achieving it. And it felt like everyone cared. The facilitator cared, the participants cared, and I imagined that behind each of these attendees, must have been an organisation that cared enough
to send them.