Is Coaching Scary?

“When there is no enemy from within

The external enemy 

Can do you no harm.”

African proverb

When a school wants to enact a system-wide change in the ‘ways we do things around here,’ the traditional answer has been to hold an in-service workshop. Schools bring an expert on campus for a couple of days, and jumpstart teacher learning with 15-45 hours of current, practical knowledge. Workshops, especially if the facilitator is knowledgeable, engaging and skilful, do provide inspirational sparks that may improve teacher practice.

I say ‘may’ because like the general population, there will be learners who will apply what they have learned even without follow up coaching. But there will also be learners who may not. As far as professional development goes, holding a one-off workshop is an expensive attempt to revitalise teacher learning if there is no effort to sustain learning in the school baked into its regularly scheduled activity.

If, after a great workshop experience, there is no effort to sustain teacher learning, the situation might likely remain as before the workshop. Teachers are still isolated, and sharing discontinues after the workshop leader leaves campus. When sharing discontinues, there may be few teachers who have applied workshop learning into their practice. These few may have enjoyed a regeneration of student engagement and learning.

However, adult learners might have no space or opportunity to think through the changes they are implementing into classrooms or few opportunities to hold data dialogs on effects of implementation. This is where coaching comes in. Coaching after workshops supports teachers’ thinking in the long and iterative process of new implementation.

Coaching in a learning organisation

Peter Senge and his colleagues (2000) discussed how learning organisations promote new ideas in the workplace. To address change and build teacher capacity, teachers are more able to work through new implementation by learning with each other in a collaborative context, and access to a coach helps strengthen a teacher’s process of integrating the new with existing practices.

Coaching creates reflective cognitive spaces.  It promotes sense-making around problems that emerge in practice. In schools working to address the knowledge-action gap in times of change, coaching provides cognitive processing with a support person so that the one receiving coaching can reflect on his or her problem-solving process. 

Coaching allows teachers to become more aware of their own practice in great specificity, surface assumptions about learning, and find pathways to their learning goals and those of their students. The meta-awareness that emerges through coaching is key to building a school culture whose purpose is to deliberately impact change through learning. 

Here are some reasons why coaching might be scary.

Coaching is confused with appraisal or supervision

One of the misunderstandings of the coaching process is when the role of a coach is not clearly separated from the role of a supervisor. This might happen if there are multiple roles attached to a person who happens to also be a coach.

When the coach is also attached to a supervisory role, there is a sense of vulnerability present in the coaching conversation. In an open coaching conversation around practice, the person being coached might share information around confusions, miscalculated decisions, a gap in knowledge, issues that characterise learning and growth. 

If the coach is perceived as a supervisor, there might be some doubt in the coachee’s mind whether the disclosures in a coaching conversation could be used in appraisal. This lessens trust in the coach, and as fear creeps into the coachee, the coaching process is contaminated with mistrust and fear. 

Internally, these emotions hijack the problem-solving capacity of the brain. Externally, there may arise a mistrust in the coaching process if the boundaries between coaching and supervision are not clearly drawn for the organization.

Coaching is about an internal process.

Trust is a big factor in cultures that embrace coaching as part of a learning system. Coaching is most of all about the internal states of the person being coached. In training of Cognitive Coaches for example, coaches are keyed to focus all attention on the thinking of the other person.

Other coaching behaviours we might also notice in the Cognitive Coaches are:
The agenda for the conversation comes from the person being coached.
Coaches don’t take notes during the conversation.
Coaching language is about the other person, and does not meander into the coach’s “I.”

A coach mediates another person’s thinking, and this cornerstone of a coach’s identity means that they lend their consciousness to the other person. They become less, and the other person becomes all, during a coaching conversation.

At times, even when a coach takes great care to pay full attention and applies intentionality into coaching behaviours that build trust with the other person, the coachee’s internal journey might surface fear.

When we reflect on change, which is an outcome of learning, the navigation through change requires clear examination of assumptions, beliefs, and other internal structures that are very closely tied to who we see ourselves as teachers.

And, talking about change makes us vulnerable.

Change might mean that what we might already be very good at is something we have to let go.

Change might mean that we might not yet be good at the new practices we are looking to implement.

Change might mean that we don’t yet know something.

Change brings out vulnerability, and the idea of not knowing and not knowing what to do is a scary space to find oneself.

Ambiguity and uncertainty are the enemy in these internal journeys. Human brains are wired to embrace predictability; in our larger-scale evolution, predictable solutions have served survival. People do not like when life is ambiguous and uncertain, and these circumstances bring lots of distress to a person.

The suggestion here is that perhaps internal examination is what brings fear, not the process of coaching.

There may be a misconception that coaching is ‘fixing’ a person.

There is also the mixing of support functions. That coaching is just like consultation, and therefore we can use a coach to fix a person by telling that person what to do.

Consultation is a support function, and it works best when the person asking for support is definitively asking for suggestions and ideas. In this particular situation, we do not coach because the difference between consultation and coaching is the origin of the solutions. Consultation is providing solutions to a person. Coaching is supporting the other person’s thinking to surface solutions from within.

Mixing support functions has resulted in people calling consultation ‘coaching’ in the popular media, which confuses the purposes of these two support functions.

When we think of the role of coaching in a learning organisation, we might reflect on the most powerful changes that happen to learners.

I am thinking of a middle school student, who was often late, lost, and unprepared and who visibly and regularly showed needs to strengthen his self-management skills. Teachers told him to ‘get organized’ and ‘come prepared to class.’ These directions telling him to self-manage did not change his skills expressions of self-management; he did not learn by being told what to do.

Then there was the iMac with iMovie. All of a sudden, technology made it possible for self-reflections to be recorded in the classroom. The student recorded himself explaining his first-quarter performance and justifying his levels of achievement by citing work samples. 

After editing the progress report video, the student watched it with his parents and they dialogued on his first-quarter performance. In that conversation, as he wrote later in his post-conference reflection, he wrote this insight.

“I had some skills that were getting in the way of performing better. I know I’m knowledgeable and I think I can achieve higher levels because I have strong academic skills. What’s getting in the way is I don’t know how to organize myself. I need to learn how to do that.”

Learning that reveals itself from within is powerful.

And coaching, that internal journey we might take with a coach whose intention it is to support our thinking, might be what helps us see clearly that we are the authors of our learning.


Senge, P., Cambron-McCabe, N., Lucas, T., Smith, B., Dutton, J., & Kleiner, A. (2000). Schools that learn: A fifth discipline fieldbook for educators, parents and everyone who cares about education. New York, NY: Doubleday Dell.

Featured Photo by Erik Eastman on Unsplash

Author: alavina

Cognitive Coach and author. I simplify personal power so you can use mental resources and find pathways to your goals, be more productive and feel in control every day.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.