After my last post, several of you wrote to me to tell me that you thought I was a great teacher, and that you appreciated what you learned from me. For that, I am eternally grateful. And as I enter the world of the coach again, I find myself pondering the differences between coaching and teaching and what they mean to me. I don’t think I ever bothered to investigate their differences very closely before, because I had never spent so much time teaching in my life. But now that I have 17+ years of teaching under my belt, I can pick apart the qualities of teaching and coaching quite well. These are my realizations.
Teachers want to teach and coaches want to learn.
This one holds the most weight for me, because I love learning. I love learning so much, I can’t ever stop. It's what I do in my free time. I’m curious about everything. And what I found after so many years of teaching the same things (whether yoga, or back-pain exercises, or scientific writing—yes, I teach them all) is that I am bored by teaching the same things over and over and over again, even though my students are different and the information is all new to them. I love when my students learn—it’s thrilling when they “get it!”—but that doesn’t give me nearly the thrill as learning gives me. That’s why coaching appeals to me. When I am coaching, I am constantly learning about the person sitting in front of me, telling me her story, revealing her struggles, her reality, her hopes, dreams, life. Teaching is goal oriented and I know the outcome when I begin; coaching is goal oriented and the outcome constantly surprises me, every step of the way.
Teachers can go through the motions and students might still learn; coaches must be 100% present at all times or nothing/no one moves forward.
Have you ever had a teacher or professor who was so boring, so clearly bored, so disengaged from the class he was teaching that you were not inspired to learn one bit? Of course! We all have! That’s one reason the great teachers we had stand out so well. Well, I have to admit, I can understand those bored/boring teachers, because I totally get where that bored/boringness comes from after repeating the same teachings for years or decades. I think this difference between coaching and teaching probably explains why I love coaching so much: It demands that I be present and engaged every moment, and when I am fully present, I am in flow. To teach something that I know so well takes lots of effort, lots of hard effort, to somehow make it exciting to students when it’s no longer that exciting to me. I don’t fake things well, so when I’m not excited, I think it’s easy for others to see/feel that. I didn’t ever want to become one of those bored/boring teachers! I think all students deserve better than that. And I will happily let all of the amazing, engaged, excited, enthusiastic teachers out there do their thing. And I will happily take classes with them, too.
Teachers have answers; coaches have questions.
This one goes right along with my first point. I might know a lot of stuff and have a lot of answers, but my job as a coach means I get to ask questions to help someone figure out their own answers to the biggest questions in their life. Answers I could never dream of, answers that surprise me (or us both), answers that are totally perfect for that person. And that, to me, is thrilling and never, ever boring. Watching someone solve their own problems is one of the most exciting things in the world to me. It’s like seeing growth happen in real time. I love it.
The stuff I know and teach is finite; people’s minds, desires, and goals are infinite.
What I mean by that is, the stuff that I have taught in my life (fitness and back-pain solutions, writing) have rules and limits. There are right and wrong answers to every question because the systems (the human body on the one hand, and English-language usage on the other) are closed: Once you learn the rules and how they work, you have the answers to all the possible questions and you’re basically done learning. Then, you just apply what you know. The structural makeup (muscles, bones, and joints) of the body doesn’t change each year, and language rules don’t change each year. They both exist in pretty much the same form all the time. When problems crop up, I apply the rules (i.e., my knowledge) to fix them. I’m not learning anything new when I do that.
But with coaching: EVERYone is new! Everyone’s goals, desires, dreams, and everyone’s realities, lives, and obstacles—they’re all different, all the time. Some people change goals and get new motivators and new obstacles every year. People learn, grow, and expand, unlike the finite, totally learnable body structure they carry around. This is why coaching holds my interest no matter how much I do it: It’s always new because to me, YOU are always new.
Example: If I had two clients, both 42-year-old mothers who each had a 1-year-old daughter and each lived in a walk-up on the north side of Chicago (let’s say Ravenswood) and each loved riding her bike along the lake and each wrote short stories in her spare time, and each of those mothers wanted desperately to write the world’s most amazing mystery novel about a mother of a 1-year-old daughter who solves crimes by dreaming the solutions every night (yes, these women have exactly the same goal!)—their motivations, obstacles, support systems, realities, preferences, solutions and every coaching session we had together would not be similar at all. They would be completely different people, so their coaching would be unique to them. THAT is amazing to me. THAT is what fascinates me and makes me hope I get to do this work forever. Coaching is about each client, and each client is unique.
Which brings up another important difference between teaching and coaching. Even if I was a 42-year-old mother of a 1-year-old daughter who had written the world’s most amazing mystery novel, and then I had these women as my coaching clients, I would not talk about my experience during their coaching sessions. Our coaching would never be about me, because my solution won’t work for other people. As a coach, I know that everyone’s motivations, obstacles, support systems, realities, preferences, and solutions are unique, which means they are also DIFFERENT FROM MINE. So in my coaching sessions, I don’t talk about me. I ask you. And I ask you. And I ask you… all the right questions until your unique solutions arise. (I guess one could put it rather simply: I enjoy listening better than talking.)
As a teacher in this same situation, I would do a TED talk and tell people how I wrote my amazing novel while juggling life with a 1-year-old and then you’d try to follow my advice. It would be about me, me, me and then you would set about trying to copy me, me, me.
See the difference between teaching and coaching now? Does it make more sense what I do and how coaching works?
If not, tell me your questions. I’ll try to answer as clearly as I can.
Coach, listener, observer, and sometimes teacher; constantly curious student of life. No longer working in fitness and wellness, but definitely happy to be fit and well.
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