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What is Coaching (in Education)?

by Annie Boate

What is Coaching (in Education)?

by Annie Boate

by Annie Boate

What is Coaching (in Education)?

what is coaching in education

It’s critical that you really understand what coaching is (and what it isn’t) so that you can communicate it clearly to your colleagues and – even more importantly – you can get it right!

The terms ‘coaching’ and ‘mentoring’ are now used extensively in schools but, as Ofsted verify – there’s no common understanding of what these terms actually mean! That’s because in the last few years, ‘coaching’ has become a bit of a ‘buzz’ word, and it almost seems as though everyone from the National College to the corner shop have jumped on the ‘coaching and mentoring’ bandwagon.

As a result, many schools have misconceptions of ‘coaching’. They genuinely believe that they know what coaching is, and they genuinely believe that they’re doing it – when, in fact, what they’re actually doing is mentoring, observing and commenting on a lesson, giving extra tuition, providing training, or perhaps demonstrating how to do something! The really sad thing is that this means they’ll never be able to achieve the sort of results and impact that would be possible if they did it correctly.

In fact, only the other day I met staff who were really nervous about becoming coaches because they thought they had to sit in the back of classrooms (or perhaps watch a lesson remotely on a live webcam) and then criticise and instruct their colleagues. And, of course, they had the idea that their colleagues would see them as ‘the enemy’ and hate them! To be honest they were probably right! They probably would have done if they’d gone down that route! So you can imagine how incredibly relieved they were when I told them that coaching really does not mean that!

In several other schools (where coaching has failed), all teachers were put in pairs or triads and told: “Right, you’re coaching each other! Go and watch each other’s lessons and then have a chat about it and come up with some next steps.”

That’s NOT coaching! That’s watching each other’s lessons, giving feedback and having a professional dialogue.

So what exactly is coaching then?

Well, if you’re one of those people who likes definitions, here’s my definition of coaching for you:

Coaching is…

“A structured conversation where a trained coach partners valued people in school to help them take quicker, more effective action that moves them from where they are to where they want and need to go, without giving them advice.”

Annie Boate

Now let’s break that down and look at it in a bit more detail…

What is Coaching – Key point 1:

Firstly, coaching is a structured conversation. In other words, there are certain things that you need to do in the right order, and that means working step by step through a model, like the 12-Step Model that we teach in our programmes and online training course. (We’ll talk more about models in Chapter 6). This structure keeps the conversation focused, productive and efficient. I imagine you’re busy if you’re anything like most people who work in schools, so if you’re a bit worried about how long coaching takes, I can tell you that most people get through our 12-Step Model in around fifteen minutes, so I hope that reassures you a bit!

What is Coaching – Key point 2:

Secondly, a trained coach. Good coaches are not born, they’re made! That’s because coaching is not ‘natural’. It goes against our ‘normal’ automatic behaviour and instinct a lot of the time, so unless we’re trained to do this effectively, we simply won’t get it right! We’ll say the wrong thing, we’ll get steps in the wrong order, and we’ll miss critical things out. So the more you learn, the more you’ll realise how much there is to learn, because unfortunately, coaching isn’t as easy as it first sounds!

In fact, that’s why we build a practical skills assessment into our training at an early stage. Without this, we’d be setting trainee coaches up for failure, as people genuinely think that they’re getting it right and don’t realise that they’ve developed some ‘bad habits’ which could become ingrained! So it’s critical that you master the skills properly and become aware of your bad habits, so that you can break them at an early stage.

What is Coaching – Key point 3:

The next point – valued people. Let’s be honest, you are not going to waste your time with people who you don’t value, so it’s really important that when you start coaching, people realise the reason you’re asking to coach them is because you value them, and you believe that they can work even more effectively (and help their department and school to achieve even higher levels of performance).

What is Coaching – Key point 4:

Fourthly, it’s also about helping your coachee to take quicker, more effective action. Very often people procrastinate. They worry. And they end up taking slow action or no action!

I don’t know if you can relate, but if you’re anything like most busy people in schools, you’ll have at least one BIG thing on your ‘To Do’ list that’s been there for ages. It’s like a dull ache that’s been going on for weeks, months or even years. You keep pushing it to the back of your mind and putting it off, because in your head it feels like a massive and seemingly insurmountable mountain to climb.

In fact, you might even feel so daunted and overwhelmed by this task that you’re not 100% sure where to start, so you either dive in without thinking it through properly or you stick your head in the sand and keep trying to avoid it!

You tell yourself you’ll get around to it one day. Perhaps in the next school holiday? The problem is that there are so many other things on your ‘To Do’ list that you simply can’t do everything. Nor can you do anything as well as you’d like to. You feel like you’re spending a lot of time ‘doing’, but you’re not achieving much or making as much progress as you’d like to.

It’s frustrating, demoralising and soul-destroying. I know because I’ve been there. And I also know that if you don’t do anything about this you’ll constantly feel overworked, tired and stressed, and then your health and home life will suffer. You may even burn out and lose your job.

It’s the same for your coachee, and the problem is that this approach is the ‘slow and ineffective’ way to work. If they dive in without taking time to think, it’ll actually take them a lot longer. And if they keep avoiding it (by filling their time with other things instead) then the dull ache gets worse; it takes up valuable ‘head space’ which slows them down and reduces their productivity.

Good coaching breaks this negative pattern; it’ll enable you to take quicker, more effective action because you’re actually taking time to ‘disconnect’ from everything around you and free up your mind to think! And when you’re asked the right questions, you’ll be able to come up with better ideas and insights which will help you to achieve your goal more quickly and easily than you’d initially thought.

What is coaching (in education)? Get an extra 2.5 hours per week

By the way, in case you or your coachee(s) are worried that you’re ‘too busy’ and haven’t got the time to stop and think, I’ve got some good news for you: research shows that every minute you spend thinking/planning saves you as many as ten minutes in ‘doing’ or taking action.

To put this in context, it only takes about 15 minutes to be coached using our 12-step model, so this tiny investment of time will increase your productivity and save you up to two and a half hours (150 minutes) in wasted time, energy and effort.

What is Coaching – Key point 5:

As well as helping people to work more efficiently and effectively, good coaching will move people from the point where they are now to where they want and need to go. Notice the focus on the future and moving forward. The point that the person wants and needs to get to could be anything!

For example, it might be managing workload effectively, better time management, getting a promotion, moving teaching from ‘good’ to ‘outstanding’ or from ‘requires improvement’ to ‘good’, managing behaviour more effectively, increasing attendance, developing leadership skills, improving pupil progress, raising grades, increasing progress 8 score, school improvement planning, preparation for Ofsted, post-Ofsted action planning, improving confidence, reducing stress or better questioning in the classroom… etc.

Whatever the goal is, how they get there doesn’t matter. It’s the fact that they’ve got there that’s the important thing.

What is Coaching – Key point 6:

To become a highly effective coach you don’t need to know the answers, because you won’t be giving them advice.

You might be totally shocked at that.

You might be thinking to yourself “But Annie, how on earth can I coach somebody if I don’t know the answers?”

I’ll let you into a secret – that was my first thought when I was asked to coach the Managing Director of a large industrial boiler company in the Netherlands. Despite my 3 years of corporate coach training I panicked! What did I know about industrial hot water boilers? (Zilch!) So how on earth could I coach this man effectively?

The answer was actually very simple. The way that I coached him was by becoming good at asking powerful questions so that he could find the answers himself. And that’s all you need to do! You don’t need to be the expert. In fact, it’s actually a lot harder if you are an expert in the field because you’re far more likely to make assumptions or start giving advice. Bear that in mind because otherwise, when you’re coaching, you’ll tend to ask questions that steer your coachee down the path to your best answer – not their best answer – and that’s dangerous because you could actually inadvertently set them up for failure!

Remember, the critical point here is: HOW they get there really DOESN’T MATTER. It’s the fact that they’ve got there that’s the important thing.


We hope you found this article useful, and we’d love to help you even more…

>> Click here now to book a FREE Strategic Consultation to show you how to use coaching to accelerate school improvement


This “What is Coaching in Education?” article is an extract from the Number 1 Best-Selling Book on Coaching in Education: “A Coaching Revolution” by Annie Boate, a former school leader & Coaching in Schools expert (with Foreword & Case Study by outstanding Headteacher, Monica Austin)

best education coaching book - coaching skills for senior leaders, teachers and support staff for coaching in schools

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