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What on earth is an English Coach?

Updated: Oct 17, 2023

As some readers will know, I'm starting a Certificate in Coaching program through the University of Cambridge this year and one of the first tasks we've been set is to answer the question, "What is coaching?"

This is a classic week-one-of-a-coaching-course question (it's come up in every program I've been part of so far) and it's one I get asked fairly regularly as someone who markets myself either as a "language coach" (when I want to be snappy) or a "mindset coach for advanced language learners" (when I want to be more precise).

My uni notes will deal with coaching in its broadest sense but I wanted this blog post to address what I think coaching can mean within the English Language Teaching context and, additionally, to offer some advice on whether you should be looking for an English Teacher or an English Coach.

So, who can call themselves a coach?

In short - anyone who wants to! It's not a protected term, and you don't need to have passed any course or gained any qualification to use it.

There are differing opinions on whether this is a good thing or not.

I'm sure my opinion will shift as I move from un-certified to certified this year (there's nothing so tempting as pulling the ladder up after yourself 🙄) but my current standpoint is that this is generally fine. I think I prefer a system that includes talented people trying to offer something different without requiring them to qualify, even if it comes at the cost of some charlatans. But my opinion on this swings around a lot and I'm more than happy to invite disagreement on that front.

So let's run through the different sorts of coaches I have seen in ELT:

1) The coach who is actually just a teacher

This group is a little annoying, I'll be honest. They seem, from everything they present about their work, to be offering nothing that would distinguish them from their teacher colleagues. There seems to simply be a view (and I suspect there's some truth in it) that being a "coach" is easier to market than being a "teacher" and that learners are more willing to pay higher fees for coaching.

Where these people might differ from school-based teachers is in offering a tailor-made program designed to meet the needs of the individual student. But this is what the vast majority of private teachers do in any case, so I don't count this as a persuasive justification for the term "coach".

2) The coach who is doing "Teaching PLUS"

"Teaching PLUS" is my term (that I made up just now) for what many excellent educators are doing nowadays whereby they still tick many of the standard teaching boxes - exam preparation, vocabulary presentation, pronunciation correction etc. - but also make space for the emotional side of language learning.

These individuals ensure they include discussions on confidence and negative self-talk, and help their students gain an awareness of why they might struggle in certain contexts and may offer them alternative tools, such as breathing techniques or grounding exercises, to help them make progress in these areas.

I personally think these people are legitimately coaching their students (although I accept there are others who would disagree) and I would love to see more of ELT move in this direction.

3) The Neurolanguage Coach

This seems - from my experience - to make up the majority of language coaches who shout about being coaches (rather than those who stick it in their bios and then continue as usual). These are people who have completed a specific coaching certification program, put together, as I understand it, by Rachel Paling in 2008.

I know very little about Neurolanguage Coaching and know that many readers will be much more knowledgeable, so I'm reluctant to try to describe it myself. From the website, the certification course seems to weave together general coaching principles and the ICF coaching competencies, neuroscience, emotional intelligence and "language coaching principles" to train their certified coaches to deliver what they often refer to as "brain-friendly" language learning experiences.

Its graduates seem to really love it and find their new tools really powerful. I personally find the proprietary ® symbol everywhere on their website a little off-putting. That said, when I was searching for certification courses, I avoided all courses that seemed to promote one method over any other so I'm clearly just a cynical-minded soul.

4) The Life Coach masquerading as a Language Coach

I sit proudly in this category!

I titled this section quite facetiously because I came across a LinkedIn article just yesterday that expressly said that language coaching HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH LIFE COACHING and I wanted to disagree!

As I said above, if I'm being precise about my (current) style of coaching, I'd label myself as a "mindset coach for advanced language learners". That's because, while my client base is (currently!) individuals who have identified their English as "a problem" or even "the problem", what we work on is usually much, much broader than that.

I'm interested in asking questions like:

  • In what contexts, specifically, do you struggle with your English? What features distinguish these contexts from others where you have little or no problem?

  • What is your definition of "good enough" English? Do you hold others in your position to the same standard?

  • What evidence do you have that other people are judging you on your English? What other skills or qualities might they be focussing on instead?

  • Tell me more about the thoughts and feelings you experience when you're in your Tuesday meetings. Where is the discomfort loudest, before, during or after the meeting? What tools do you have to turn the discomfort from a 7/10 to a 4/10?

  • What else is going on in your life that's contributing to your sense of overwhelm? In what ways might you be underestimating the difficulty of living 24/7 in English?

And these questions very quickly turn into other topics: family being thousands of miles away; a boss ignoring their complaints; a new job, new country, new partner, and new school for their child all happening in the space of six months!

I believe a few things about my clients which undergird the work I do:

  • I believe that they have enough language to do the things they currently struggle to do. More language might be nice, and will almost certainly come with time, but it's certainly not necessary.

  • I believe that they are carrying into their "real lives" unhelpful understandings of what English is and what it's for that stem - in most cases - from an educational system that has taught them to value correctness over communication.

  • I believe that by teaching them new language items, or helping them develop isolated language skills, I would be, at best, wasting their time and, at worst, contributing to their belief that they don't have enough language and will never know enough to achieve their goals.

To be clear, these aren't necessarily true of all advanced language learners, but it is pretty much unanimously true of the advanced language learners who come and work with me. I have a niche and this is it.

I employ a number of core coaching competencies in my work: I use Socratic questioning to help my clients explore the topic for themselves; I am non-directive most of the time, believing that my clients are better able than I to find the right solutions to their problems; and I spend at least 90% of my sessions listening as best I can. I also often - although not exclusively - use the well-established T-GROW coaching model to structure my sessions.

(As an aside, I also work with language teachers using a similar coaching model although with different aims and contexts to the language learners I'm describing above, and I plan on working more with both teachers and schools in the future... but that muddies the waters of this blog post so let's ignore that for now!)

So, how do you choose a language coach (or teacher)?

As we've seen, the term "coach" can mean a lot... or it can mean nothing at all. So, I would always recommend setting up a call with a potential teacher or coach and discussing their methodology with them. If they're any good, they shouldn't find this too difficult! These calls are also important for getting a sense of who they are and whether you'd enjoy working with them.

As for what kind of methodology you're looking for, well, hopefully, this blog post has given you some fresh ideas as to what's available out there. Long gone are the days when you were limited to the professionals who happened to be in your local area. You can connect with teachers and coaches from all over the world and there will definitely be someone out there who is just the right person with just the right skills and just the right approach for you.

Some things I ask my potential clients to consider before getting in touch with me:

  • Do you have some evidence to suggest you have a solid level of the language? (e.g. a C1 exam certificate, working successfully in a job for a while, holding down a relationship or long-term friendship in English) If not, it's likely you'd benefit from more traditional teaching for a while, although maybe seek out one of those hybrid-teacher-coaches I described above.

  • Do you feel frustrated and stuck? Perhaps the things that have worked in the past are no longer working and you're not at all keen to go back language classes - you've done that before and you're not doing it again.

  • Do you have a fair amount of emotional stress around English? Would you typically describe your problems in terms of feeling "nervous" or "anxious" or "I freeze when I have to speak." This might be a sign that addressing the emotional side of your experience may be of benefit.

  • Are you comfortable with not being "taught"? While some of the work we do might be on unpacking the idea that you "don't need more language" and you certainly don't need to arrive at coaching with that belief fully "fixed", you should still be open to this non-directive approach. Otherwise, we'll get annoyed with each other very quickly!

Is coaching the future of ELT?

If scrolling through LinkedIn is anything to go by, I'm tempted to say yes! There seems to be a proliferation of coaches sharing their approaches and methodologies.

But then I hop back over to Instagram and am bombarded by a depressing amount of idiom-of-the-day posts and remember that a whole load of teachers out there still haven't explored teaching methodologies, let alone started to take steps into coaching.

(And of course, just because I stumbled upon language coaching fairly recently, doesn't mean others haven't been doing this work for decades - for many, coaching has been the "present" of ELT for the majority of their careers.)

I do think ELT has a lot to learn from coaching (perhaps the topic of a future blog post) and it is my hope that we start seeing a more holistic appreciation of the language-learning experience in quote-unquote "normal teaching".

What do you think?

  • Is coaching the future of ELT?

  • Do you see a clear distinction between coaching and teaching?

  • Would you seek out a language coach or will you stick with teachers?

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