The student movement is a powerful force for social justice and societal change. As a member of the student union staff, you long for an active and engaged campaigning community who are carving out the future of policy and discourse. Because when students forge the path forwards, the rest of society catches up to build a better world.
In between those star campaigns that make a difference, you probably find yourself sifting through a lot of ‘lets raise awareness’ campaigns that make eyes roll, plans that are a lot of work for not a lot of impact, or overly ambitious projects that never get implemented. You want to take those young activists under your wing and help them to deliver something with impact without doing the work for them – and I’m here to tell you that coaching can help you do just that.
This blog post is going to show you how to implement coaching at six stages of your campaigning process, plus you’ll have the opportunity to grab your copy of my campaign coaching prompts.
When students knock on your door with plans, its easy to be in the habit of handholding them through all of the steps of their campaign – telling them what processes to follow, advising them based on previous campaigns and nudging them to complete their campaign tasks.
Coaching is a way of communicating with students that shifts your role from giving advice or instruction into helping to facilitate your students’ thinking. That means that you ask them supportive but challenging questions to allow them to set goals, generate ideas, plan, risk assess and evaluate their campaign for themselves. Asking them what they think and what they plan to do firmly hands the reins over to your students.
Now, there may still be times when you need to take on the ‘telling’ role – “here is the form we need you to fill out to register your event.” But the beauty of adopting a more coaching approach is that the core ideas and actions come directly from your students – meaning that the campaign is entirely student led.
You can read some further benefits of coaching for student campaigns in this blog.
Because coaching is all about asking great questions, listening and giving your students ownership of their ideas, you can bust out your coaching skills at any point in the campaign process to help your students to flourish. Let’s take a look at how the 6 stages of campaigning work better with coaching weaved in:
You probably get students walk through your door with lots on their mind to talk through. It may be a complaint they want to address, an idea for a project or event, a general concern or even just a bit of thinking out loud. You might find that little voice in your head screaming that “This would be a great campaign” – but telling a student they should get active might spook them. Coaching is a great way to gently explore what’s on your students’ mind and nurture the seeds of great campaign ideas.
I love using coaching in that first conversation to help give the conversation some structure and set clear expectations. A cracking question from the STOKERS model is “We have [x] minutes to chat about this, what would you like to get out of our conversation?” This focuses your student on a goal or outcome rather than just a venting session and it helps them to identify your role in the conversation – are they looking to you for union policies on how to get started, to put them in touch with other campaigners, to soundboard their ideas? Coaching questions help both you and the student to clarify what the conversation is about and start to unpick their aims.
“I will definitely utilise the STOKERS GROW and STAR methods when coaching students for campaigns. This training also gave me coaching techniques and how to ask questions instead of telling.” – Elise Bateman, Student voice and influence manager, Hull Student Union
I’ll bet there’s been at least one time where you’ve found yourself in the icky situation of hearing a campaign idea and feeling like you had to be the bad guy:
Your campaign radar is being set off for a reason, but you don’t just want to burst your student’s bubble. So let’s bring in some coaching to help students set some campaign goals they can really smash.
A major part of coaching is listening with your full attention and even giving students a short summary or paraphrase of what they have told you. This is like holding up a mirror so that they can check their own thinking. I’ve seen students ‘hear back’ their plans and realise they want to change things.
“Ah, perhaps hosting this event in two weeks time is a little unrealistic.”
“Hmm, now that I think about it, a petition might not be enough.”
If simply reflecting back to your student isn’t enough to tweak those goals, then you can ask some coaching questions to really dig around.
When a campaign goal is a bit flat you can ask questions around the impact they are trying to make, what the next step would be or what changes they would want to see in order to make a difference to their stakeholders. These kinds of explorations may help them to stretch their initial goal or plan a follow up campaign ready to take things to the next level later on.
When a campaign goal feels too big it can be helpful to ask questions about students’ time, resources, and when they will aim to deliver each part of the process. This can be a useful reality check to help students dial things back to something more manageable – or they may surprise you with a good amount of capacity to deliver something big.
The bottom line you are trying to get to with your students is “Why?” What do you want to change, what impact do you want to have and why does this matter? When you can help students to understand this deeply then their goals will take a much better shape.
“After this session I’ll be able to think about what I’m asking students to get the best out of them.” – Hannah Clarke, VP Activities, Lincoln Student Union
How many times have you found yourself rolling your eyes or wanting to shake up a student who suggests the same old forms of activism. Yes, there’s a time and place for a petition. But you’ve been around the block a few times and worry that the same old methods just won’t have the impact that this campaign deserves.
Now that your students have a clear picture of the change they want to make, they may need a gentle reminder that there are many ways to go about it. Coaching can help students to tap into their creativity to generate a wider range of ideas :
“If the goal is to achieve [x], what are all of the possibilities for getting there?”
Coaching opens up blue skies thinking so you may end up with chalk art murals, community pantries, diss tracks and other novel forms of action that draw attention and engage people in making change.
There are lots of fun ways you can use coaching to brainstorm ideas, sort them, step into different perspectives and even assess the pros and cons of each to make sure that what your students decide is right for them.
I remember a scenario where students suggested a sit-in at the archchancellor’s office in order to get them to change university policy. Asking things like “how do you want your stakeholders to feel, what do you want them to do, what kind of action will most encourage this outcome?” got the students thinking – yes, a sit in grabs attention, but if we want the archchancellor to listen and negotiate with us as equals, then maybe we don’t want to irritate him [not as a first resort anyway].
Coaching students through their ideas process means that you don’t need to reel off suggestions or give your opinion – you help them to step into the lead and get them to evaluate their own ideas.
“The main thing I am taking away is how to use the GROW model in campaign coaching. I will be more able to support students in their projects and campaigns without my own judgements.” – Rita Ajayi, Student voice and influence coordinator, Hull Student Union
Do you ever find yourself picking up parts of your students’ campaigns? Oops. Coaching is a great tool for making sure that a campaign is well planned and that your student is the one delivering it!
If you want to supportively set boundaries and make sure that your student takes responsibility for their campaign, then make sure to use second person pronouns in your questioning. If you ask in a more generic way, they may expect you to do the work:
“What are the steps in this campaign? When should they be done by?” might sound like you are asking the student for a to do list that you can go away and work on.
“What are the steps in your campaign? When will you complete them?” makes it very clear that it is up to the student to implement them.
At the planning stage you can use coaching to identify gaps in your students plans and supportively encourage them to address them. You may help them to explore:
Taking time to coach students through their planning phase helps them to feel more confident to go off and deliver on their own, knowing that their ideas are solid.
“In my coaching session, I discussed and identified how I manage my time better, trust my team, set clear objectives and delegate tasks to my team. I found the conversation fruitful in defining my own strategy for leading any task or project.” – Rashi Maithul, Erasmus Student
Students start their campaigns bursting with energy and ready to change the world. But once they hit those first few snags things can start to fizzle out. As their trusted guide, you can harness the power of coaching to check in with them, give them reassurance and keep energy levels up.
You may want to logistically check in – how are they doing against their timeline, budget? This can open up explorations of whether they need to make changes to their plans.
It is also handy to do a pastoral check in. Many students are emotionally invested in their campaigning activities and balancing this with their studies so you may coach students around how they are feeling, what support they have in place and what they are doing to maintain a healthy balance.
If you are passionate about students’ personal development you may even want to coach them about their growth throughout this process. What skills are they developing? What changes have they seen in themselves? How is this feeding into their studies / employability? Occasionally asking these kinds of questions throughout the campaign process helps your students to see their campaigning as a core part of the university experience and better articulate the benefits it is having on their development. (and may even encourage students to send their peers your way for some development)
A common challenge in a fast-paced academic year is how to make sure things don’t just stop dead. When a campaign activity is over, it can be tempting to ignore the final stage of ‘closing’ or evaluating the campaign. The big box has been ticked right, so why not just get on with the many other things that need juggling?
Investing a little bit of time in evaluation is important and coaching can be a helpful way to make sure this step is not missed. You could plan an end of campaign meeting with your students to help them:
This final bit of coaching gives you and your student a healthy space to debrief the campaign and make sure it comes to a constructive end rather than hanging in mid air.
Now you’ve seen the power that coaching can have at every stage of the campaign process:
It’s time to put your coaching approach into action so that you can step back and see your students doing great things on their own.
Want to help your students deliver impactful campaigns but not sure how to coach them? Download these campaign coaching prompts to help you make the leap from telling to asking.