Coaching: Becoming the “Guide on the Side”

Picture of Richard Bitgood

Richard Bitgood

The great privilege of online teaching

“Go, go, go! Get there! Slide!” These were the screams belted out by my son’s coach. They were immediately followed by an eruption of cheers from those of us in the crowd as Ethan slid under the tag at home to score the winning run in his 9U year-end tournament a few years ago. Yes, it was exciting to see his team win, and to see him grinning from ear to ear when he was named MVP, but what was more exciting was seeing him achieve his potential.

There is no greater tragedy than unrealized potential — knowing that you or someone you care about has the capability to succeed and yet doesn’t. Sometimes this is because of systematic injustice, such as lack of equal opportunity or active oppression. Sometimes this is because of a lack of personal responsibility. In most cases, it’s usually a little bit of both. Either way, watching someone you know fail to live up to what they are capable of is a heartbreaking experience.

This is especially true for those of us who have taken on the responsibility of teaching others. You could almost define the teaching profession as, “people who steward the potential of the next generation.”

So with this, let’s turn back to baseball.

I love the game, and so does my son Ethan. He has played for six years, and like every self-respecting 11-year old, he has dreams to make the Majors someday. As I’ve had the privilege of watching him grow, both in skill and in love for the game, I am struck by how dependent his experience is on the volunteer coaches who sacrifice their time to invest in the kids. 

Players thrive under great coaches but shrivel under the bad ones. And, there is more than one way to be a bad coach. Here are three types of coaches I’ve seen over the years.

Type 1: Stern Steve (Performance is all that matters – winning is everything.) 

Steve can be seen from the sidelines throwing his hands up and muttering maliciously under his breath at every bad play. There are high moments when the team wins, but the pressure causes many players to crack, so most do not reach their potential. 

Type 2: Happy Hank (Performance doesn’t matter at all – everyone gets a trophy!)

Hank doesn’t even know what the score is, and is super encouraging to everyone no matter what. Kids have fun but eventually get bored as they lose game after game and aren’t shown that improvement is possible.

But there is a third type of coach. This is the way of every good coach since the dawn of time.

Type 3: Balanced Bob (Effort is what matters – improvement is the win.)

Bob acknowledges that there is room for growth but doesn’t dwell on mistakes. He sets high expectations but yells an encouraging, “So what?!” when an error is made. He doesn’t focus on the outcome but on building the attitudes and behaviors that will lead to success: effort, habit-building, and resilience. The amazing thing is that the results inevitably follow: Bob’s team wins as his player’s grow into their full potential.

So why the focus on coaching? There are obvious parallels between coaching and teaching. In online education especially, we more often find ourselves in the role of “coach” as compared to traditional classroom learning. This is due to the fact that in the online context we naturally move from the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side”, a shift Alison King advocated in her 1993 article.

This is something that I love and embrace about online learning. In my years of teaching mathematics and computer science online, I found that I had more opportunities to connect one on one with students. These opportunities were sometimes focused around content, but more and more I came to realize that the conversations needed to be about the attitudes and behaviours that the student needed to embrace in order to succeed. I became a coach for my students – the one responsible for nurturing the potential in them. I believe this is the great privilege of online learning.

This is not to say that this doesn’t happen in the classroom. In fact, Alison King was advocating for moving to a “guide” role in the classroom — online learning didn’t exist in 1993, as there were only 623 websites on the entire internet. However, in the online learning environment, greater student autonomy means there is a greater need for self-direction on the part of the student. This naturally and decidedly shifts the role of the online teacher to the “guide” role. 

Embracing this reality can actually give you more opportunity to affect the achievement of your students than in a more traditional setting. With the emphasis on social-emotional learning (SEL) recently, we can wonder how to best engage with those concepts with our students. Thinking of yourself as a guide and coach gives you an avenue for that: you now have a voice to speak into the attitude and behaviours that result in success. What are those? They are the same traits that good coaches focus on: effort, habit-building, and resilience. 

Whatever is standing in the way of our learners achieving their potential, be it lack of personal responsibility or systematic injustice, one thing is clear: a great online teacher functioning as an effective coach can make all the difference.

Effort is what matters. Improvement is the win. You got this!

It’s our mission as StudyForge to resource you to be a more effective online teacher. Our products are designed to give you the insights you need to be a better coach, and to free up the time you need to invest in your learners on the social-emotional and planes. Whereas most tools give feedback on improvement, the StudyForge platform measures effort and gives you the ability to have conversations about effort, habit-building, and resilience. In addition, when you connect with us to receive updates, we will be sharing ideas, tips, links and other helpful resources to support you as you work to realize the potential of the students you serve. If someone forwarded you this article, go here to sign up for the latest from the StudyForge team!

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