Reading Atul Gawande's recent in piece in The New Yorker got me thinking about whether I'm primarily a teacher of writing or a coach. And it got me thinking about which of these labels I prefer. I've been aware of the distinction for some time—ever since I noticed the difference between how my children learn at school and how they learn at sports. The difference is getting muddled, however, as teachers are increasingly expected to function as coaches.
There's a video of Gawande's talk at the New Yorker Festival at Fora TV. Here he talks about the passage from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence through the stages of concious incompetence and conscious competence. Now, in my view, both teachers and coaches facilitate this passage, but they begin and end their involvement at different points.
Part of the teacher's job is to make you conscious of your incompetence.* This is much more necessary than it might sound, and in two senses. It is necessary in the sense that you can't really get around it given the way the classroom situation is set up: attendance is mandatory; the class itself is simply part of a curriculum. The student often shows up without any awareness of their incompetence and often only a vague interest in the subject matter. It is also necessary in the other sense that there are many things we must learn that we will not learn if we are not made aware of our ignorance. These are competences that our culture requires of us, but which we do not immediately possess and don't naturally feel we need. Teachers give us those competences.
But because of the structure of education into courses, the teacher's final task is often the exam, which is to say, a highly conscious moment. The students end their involvement with their teacher acutely aware of what they learned (hopefully not just what they don't know) mainly because they have just been graded. That is, teachers start with the unconscious incompetence of students and try to bring them to the stage of conscious competence.
Coaches, meanwhile, start with (let's call them) aspirants who are normally very conscious of their incompetence. Gawande himself, for example, sought out a coach after eight years of practice as a surgeon because he noticed he was no longer improving. These are people who not only want to get better, they know what they want to get better at. But the coach works with them continuously, so that the skills they learn pass into the unconscious on a running basis. The coach does not subject the aspirant to an exam. That is, coaches start with conscious incompetence and stays with it until it is unconscious.
Another important difference between coaching and teaching, to my mind, is that coaches deal directly with the relevant competence in its performance. Teachers assign homework and check whether or not its been done. The teachers themselves "perform" in front the students with the aim of transfering something to them. But the coach simply watches and suggests alternative and exercises.
I would much prefer to be a writing coach than a writing teacher. Sometimes, however, my job really is to teach writing. That is, I show up in the classroom with the task of showing students what competences they lack. And I leave the students after I've given and graded an exam. Fortunately, there are many writers I work with in a manner that better resembles coaching. I give them things to do. I observe the results and suggests ways of doing it better. And I only get a sense of their competence by watching (or hearing about) their performance. (PhD students for example tell me what their committee thought about their writing. Scholars show me the reviews they got back from the journal.)
I have a feeling that under the many complicated reasons that lay behind my decision not to return to academia (a suitable position recently opened up, which I didn't apply for) this difference between being a teacher and a coach is important. Teachers are bound to teach even students who don't want to learn; one of the most noble things a teacher can do is to "awaken" the interest of a student in a subject that the culture values. Coaches have the luxury of being sought out by people who aspire to a competence, i.e., who are already interested in the relevant art. I respect what teachers do, of course, but I'm not sure it's my thing. Teachers are authorities in one way, coaches in another. Socrates, like all the other sophists, I might argue, was not so much a teacher as a coach. His student, Plato, founded the Academy.
*I mean this in a somewhat different sense than Gawande, I should note. He constructs the contrast between the "teaching model" and the "coaching model" differently. More later, perhaps.