Education Opinion

In Search of a Metaphor for Coaching

By Elena Aguilar — July 13, 2014 4 min read
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One of the keys to being an effective instructional coach is to be absolutely clear on your role: What is your purpose in coaching? What are you supposed to do as a coach? These questions pop into my mind when I’m working with a teacher or leader and I start feeling unclear on my role or purpose--and usually what comes into my mind is a tinge of self-doubt and the question, “What am I doing here?”

This question grounds me in my role which after many years, I feel closer to understanding. Simply put, I think my role as a coach in schools is to help someone else develop as a professional so that they can most effectively serve the community for which they work. Coaching is professional development. The point of the professional development is to serve the children, families and communities in which we’ve chosen to work.

A step beyond this lies a grander role for me which is to empower another person. I think that if our schools were full of adults who felt empowered to solve their own problems, ask for help from others when necessary, and examine their own strengths and areas for growth, we’d make great strides in transforming our schools. Empowered people have emotional intelligence, aren’t wandering in shame and fear and “not good enoughness,” are empathetic and reflective and can be present for others. So often when I’m coaching and a moment of what-am-I-doing-here arises, I think about what choices I can make in that moment to help my client become more autonomous and empowered.

In Search of a Metaphor

I use metaphors a lot when coaching others because they help me get a quick glimpse inside their minds and hearts. Metaphors can be like a shortcut to our unconscious, a way of bypassing our intellect and rational mind. I’ve been long in search of a metaphor which precisely symbolizes my role as a coach. I still haven’t found one that encapsulates all aspects, but I think I’ve found a few that I like and that I keep coming back.

The first metaphor is of a farmer who cultivates effective teachers and leaders. I think of how attentive farmers must be to weather

systems and soil quality and the context in which plants grow. As a coach, I have to be aware of the systems that impact my client, of the context in which they’re working, of their own “ripeness” or “readiness” to grow. Farmers also have to have exceptional patience. They know they have a huge responsibility to tend their plants, remove weeds, provide water and nutrients, but they also know that then they must step away and let the plants grow. There’s only so much they can control, only so much they can do. Urgency doesn’t do much to make plants grow. They have their own rate of development which we can’t control. So much of this correlates for me to the work of a coach. There’s also something deeply peaceful about the work of farmers and I often feel a deep, quiet tranquility within myself when I’m coaching.

The second metaphor that sometimes reflects what I feel I do is that of a chiropractor. I have a wonderful, kind chiropractor who I see when I’ve got something going on in my body that won’t resolve itself through my usual means. When I see him, he quietly and

intuitively examines my spine and neck, feeling for where something might be out of alignment. And then, when he’s sure he’s found the precise spot that needs an adjustment, he gently moves things until they are back in their proper places. There might be a second of pressure or a disconcerting loud pop in my neck, but I trust him tremendously to do whatever he feels needs to be done. And then I almost always stand up feeling so much better and I feel I can see more clearly and breathe more deeply. I’m amazed that such light touch can result in a huge relief of pain.

Sometimes when I’m coaching I feel like my role is to help a client find those spots where they’re out of alignment. Maybe their thoughts or actions have been misaligned to their core values or beliefs. Maybe they’ve been doing things that have been causing them pain. If I listen very deeply and ask the right questions, I can sometimes surface what’s causing the pain or misalignment and I can help them shift back into a place of clarity. Sometimes in order to professionally develop and become empowered we need a little adjustment and healing.

Finally, the third metaphor that resonates for me is that a coach is like a tour guide. The kind of tour guide I imagine myself to

be is one who jointly plans the trip with my client, who helps her identify an end point and some possible routes, who points out things along the way that the client may not notice, who struggles up steep mountain paths together and cheers for the client when she makes it, and who suggests a rest at times or encourages the client to keep on going for just another ten minutes. On this journey together, as a coach I may have knowledge at times that will help the client, but I also have tools and resources, encouragement, and feedback that might help the client be more effective. I often feel like when I meet a new client we’re about to embark on a major, life changing trip together.

Coaching Is a Partnership

I sometimes have doubts about all three of these metaphors because I worry that they place too much of the action of coaching on the coach. To me coaching is a partnership that only works if both parties are equally engaged. I think this is reflected in the three metaphors I shared--the farmer, the chiropractor and the travel guide--but it’s really important to me that we see the equal participation of the coach and client. So I’ll continue my search for the perfect metaphor while fully accepting that it may not exist. It’s really all about the pursuit which pushes my thinking and learning about coaching.

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