In my experience, most youth work professionals are constantly scrutinizing their own work. But how willing are we to allow others to do so? Could coaching be a key to developing satisfaction for professionals in our field?
In a recent report, Dana Fusco explores "the tension between a trial-by-fire approach to training [of youth work professionals] versus the overtraining that can lead to the 'anesthesia of the expert' or the loss of the 'heart.'" She concludes that knowledge and knowing are positioned "not as end products but as processes within the learning journey that require ongoing visitation."
I found an interesting complement to Dana's report in an article in the New Yorker, where surgeon Atul Gawande explores the use of coaches in professional fields, after realizing that while many professional athletes use coaches to help them be the best that they can be, doctors don't. As Gawande discovers, coaching as a concept for amateurs is currently very popular (as even a cursory Google search will confirm), but "coaching aimed at improving the performance of people who are already professionals is less usual."
Many youth-serving organizations are already exploring and employing evaluation and coaching methods to improve the quality of their youth programs. The Youth Program Quality Assessment (YPQA) is one tool that Minnesota 4-H Youth Development, the city of St. Paul's Sprockets initiative, and many other entities are using throughout the state to engage front-line youth workers in a coaching process to improve their practice.
In our sister field of formal education, teachers have been exploring the use of coaching for years. Gawande cites the Kansas Coaching Project, directed by Jim Knight at the University of Kansas, which uses instructional coaches to help teachers implement proven teaching methods. Although more research is needed to determine how and to what extent, so far we know that coaching positively impacts teacher satisfaction, practice, and efficiency, as well as student achievement.
Gawande himself experienced the striking benefits of coaching after inviting a former teacher of his to observe him during surgeries: "I know that I'm learning again. I can't say that every surgeon needs a coach to do his or her best work, but I've discovered that I do."
Coaching for youth development professionals could easily be seen as "another freakin' thing we've got to do," as professional development often does for both formal and nonformal educators. And it is not always easy to muster the courage and humility required to invite someone to observe and critique. Humility may not be the most popular value in mainstream dominant American culture, but it may very well be the value that can turn a good effort into the best one.
As you consider this question, think about how much we stress to youth in our programs that they need to receive and process feedback as they learn. Can we realistically and authentically expect them to do that if we are not willing to do it ourselves?
What do you think of this idea? Would you be willing to invite a "coach" to assess your work as a youth development professional?