The Coaching Professor

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Our national, in fact international, challenge is to find common ground and actually address issues rather than just argue about them. That’s not just a slogan from Forbes, it the challenge of our times. Our education systems are in the middle of the mix; that means that instructors are on the front line.  This will require from faculty members what Lisa Westman calls instructional coaching (

Defining the Term.  In sports, the coach is often the critical difference. My father attributed his conversion to Jesus Christ to a coach at Pepperdine University. You don’t have to go far to hear the accolades and testimonies from men and women whose lives were changed by a coach. Bear’s Boys: 36 Men Whose Lives Were Changed by Coach Paul Bryant is a book full of testimonies about men who found purpose in life from a coach who cared about them. These stories can be repeated a thousand times over about coaches who changes the lives of students in their athletic program.

The Burden. I’m talking about more than athletic programs. I’m talking about teachers in every academic department. But the burden is already so big! Teaching is a BIG job and requires so much already. The very act of the transfer of information can be exhausting in itself. Add to that the explosion of research that buries each of us with information that has to be sifted through to determine what applies and what doesn’t. I’ve quit using Google alerts because my inbox gets so engorged with “stuff” that I’m afraid my computer may start vomiting at any moment.

We are blessed at OKWU with cohorts. These are smaller classes with students who generally share their educational experience over the years. Still, there are meetings to attend, professional development to acquire, SLO’s to hit, papers to grade, lessons to develop, and PowerPoints to help artfully communicate. I’m exhausted just thinking about that list and we all know that’s just the hem of the garment. So how do we add to that “coaching” our students? How can that be done? Last week I actually asked my wife to quit praying for me to do “Kingdom work” at school because the load seems to get heavier and heavier as more students bare their lives to me in search of help. (By the way, I repented of that request on the way to class). Transfer of information is hard enough. Transformation of our students’ lives seems beyond the pale and as more and more students call for help, mentoring, and counseling sometimes I think I’m so preoccupied that I can’t even get through the normal requirements of life. I can really identify with that lady on TV who puts her keys in the fridge, no offense to her intended. Brain overload is common among professors. Ever hear of the absent-minded professor? There’s a reason for that. Einstein actually was riding on his bike to teach a class one day when he discovered that he had forgotten to put his pants on. Fortunately for everyone, I haven’t reached that stage…yet.

The Challenge: The challenge is that the stakes have never been higher. As the quality of parenting worsens, both police and professors have more to deal with the resulting personal problems. The qualification of coaching is now added to the list of the job description for academics. We all have students who seem to be saying to us, “Put me in, Coach.” With all that in mind, what are some skills we need to hone to meet the challenge.

  1. Listening. Professors and Pastors and Politicians often seem to do a “less than adequate” job with this. We often work hard to answer questions that no one is asking. Fortunately listening can be learned, but it takes practice. Listening and hearing are not exactly the same thing. You can hear without listening. Listening with the intent to understand is different from listening with the intent to reply. A good coach listens in order to understand.
  2. Communicating. The problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished. Talking past each other never works. Plato reportedly wrote, “Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools speak because they have to say something.” I say he reportedly wrote that because I’ve read most of his books and have never actually found that quote. Regardless of who wrote it, it’s true. Our students need to hear not just our lesson plans, but our hearts. A good coach communicates care.
  3. Understanding. I loved that old Pella Window commercial. Two women are admiring the beauty of a newly installed Pella window with blinds between the double panes. Just outside the window, the husband is having trouble with barbequeing. It goes from bad to worse. The fire explodes, the grill launches like a rocket, the man, in panic, is trying to put the fire out with a garden hose, the dog runs around chasing the poor man, the grill crashes back to ground, and the women just continue admiring the window blinds. Here’s the issue: “The presenting problem is almost never the real problem.” When a student comes to us to share a loss, a hurt, a wound, a good coach understands that.

I usually start my communication classes with a discussion on Aristotle’s focus on pathos. I ask each student to share their passion in life. An odd thing almost always happens. The student, instead of addressing their passion in life, reverts to talking about a deep wound that occurred to them in the past. For some of the students, this is the first time they’ve shared it in public. Many of the stories are heart rending. They pour out pain, in the public class, then apologize for not addressing the original question of passion. The reality is that pain and passion are often connected.

My take from this is that our passion is often related to some private wound. When we find that wound, uncover it, work with it in a healthy way, we find our purpose … a purpose with passion. It’s strange how, somehow, pain and passion are connected. Think about The Passion of the Christ. A good coach helps their students to find their purpose. No athletic team wins without passion. That passion almost always starts with a good coach.

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