There is a lot of debate about how coaching differs from teaching within wider education circles. For us in ELT, it seems to be the “in” thing at the moment. Yet many colleagues are still unclear about what “coaching” is and how it differs from teaching. One blogger wrote: “The biggest difference is that, ultimately, teaching is about the teacher and coaching is about the student.” (Andrew Wicklander).

While this may be a way of differentiating the two professions, it is not actually my overall experience of ELT; most teachers I know are all about their students. I prefer business English trainer and coach Dana Poklepovic’s description of the differences: Basically, teachers transfer knowledge, train skills, provide information; coaches motivate in order to increase performance, help with result attainment and guide towards behaviour changes.  

With this in mind, when we look at our world of English as a foreign language teaching, we can differentiate what we do as either teacher or coach as follows:

I teach grammar rules and new vocabulary to my learners; I teach how particular chunks of language are used in certain contexts; I teach how to give a presentation clearly to an international audience.

When faced with a learner struggling with poor confidence, I coach them to get past what’s holding them back; when my student is faced with a daunting task at work, I coach them through the process of practicing and testing out ways of applying their language learning.

In essence, as teacher I do more telling; as coach I do more asking and listening. Learning to do more of the latter is what I feel has enhanced and enriched my teaching practice. Here are ten ways you can start to integrate coaching principles into your teaching. Each comes directly from the Ten Components of a Thinking Environment®

1 Attention

In coaching, we emphasise the importance of giving full, uninterrupted attention to the coachee, which allows time to think deeply and to dig deeper into what the solution to their question might be. In the same way, as language teachers, we try to give each learner uninterrupted attention. When a student knows that you are genuinely interested in them and curious about what they will say next, both teacher and student are rewarded with a more satisfying lesson.

2 Ease

As a coach, it is essential to be free of rush and urgency in order to allow the coachee to breathe and relax, even when facing difficult issues. When in class, staying relaxed reduces levels of stress in the lesson. Consciously slowdown, relax and take stock of what’s going on in the moment and you will create a better learning environment.

3 Equality

Coach training today involves learning about brain science which supports the notion that all healthy brains are equally capable of thinking, irrespective of experience and knowledge. When given the time and space to do so, our students can think through a question and come to an answer, despite having less language knowledge than the teacher.  The other aspect of equality is about giving equal speaking time to all participants. Think about what approaches you can try to ensure everyone is included in the lesson.

4 Encouragement

When it comes to helping a coachee, move beyond internal competition and self-doubt, the coach is there to encourage the ongoing search for good ideas. Getting stuck in a cycle of comparing success with others helps no one. Similarly, language teachers can proactively encourage learners to keep going despite a lack of vocabulary, grammar knowledge or poor pronunciation. Try some “demand high” type questions, eg: what else can you think of? What other words could be used here?

5 Diversity

One joy of team coaching is the variety and diversity of life experiences coming together in the classroom. For language teachers, welcoming diverse identities and ways of thinking into the classroom is an inherent part of their job. Everyone in the room needs to know that they are safe to express their opinions by reassuring them that their opinions are valid and – barring incorrect facts – won’t be judged.

6 Place

Where possible, a coach arranges to meet in a place that says back to the coachee: ‘You matter’. It is an unspoken form of appreciation. It depends on where we teach, but often it is difficult to create a ‘you matter to me’ environment. It’s a challenge, but try to be creative when it comes to improving the physical setting in order to create a better learning environment. Even if it’s simply picking up the rubbish from the floor.

7 Feelings

As you can imagine, coaches have to deal with all sorts of emotions. They expect it and accept it as perfectly OK. Blocked feelings block the brain; heightened emotions restrict clear thinking. Working as language teachers can also require dealing with a variety of feelings. They need to be acknowledged and any brain-blocking emotions which may be hindering learning recognised. Sometimes, circumstances permitting, it’s enough to simply ask, “What’s on your mind right now?” Then listen, without interruption, to the answer.

8 Information

It’s vital that the coachee has accurate information, but not that the coach shares information to show off how much he/she knows. Teaching is, by its nature, about imparting information. Self-monitor yourself while working and ask “why am I giving this information, for whose benefit is it?” On the other hand, a teacher cannot know everything; exemplify the principle of “equality” (as described above) and ask for information from learners. Nurture a group culture that allows free movement of information from student-to-student and student-to-teacher as much as from teacher-to-student.

9 Incisive question

An incisive question in coaching is one which aims to replace an untrue, limiting assumption (those unhelpful beliefs we hang onto from childhood) with something that is true and liberating. In language teaching the incisive question can be used in this way: start by asking a nervous student “What are you assuming that is stopping you from learning English?” Their response could be “I’m no good at learning languages.” So the incisive question would become: “If you knew that you were good at learning languages, what would you do in class today?”

10 Appreciation

Thinking Environment coaches learn that a ratio of 5:1 appreciative to challenging feedback generates better thinking. Brain science shows that positivity leads to open-mindedness and learn-readiness. Remember: emotions freeze the brain and block thinking. Teachers can enjoy the buzz of seeing a student grow in the face of appreciation. Look for opportunities to thank learners and demonstrate appreciation for their linguistic errors; without the mistakes, how would we know what to teach?


Michelle Hunter is the co-author of “The A-Z of Coaching activity book for teachers’ with Ben Dobbs, published by Academic Study Kit. She also writes her own blog and you can try out her lesson plan here. Many of the principles in this post are inspired by the coach training she did with Barefoot Coaching in the UK and Nancy Kline’s Thinking Environment.