You got into the student movement because you love seeing young people advocate for change and making the world a better place. But sometimes you get into the academic year and realise that you are doing a bit too much of the leg work on your ‘student led’ campaigns. You are conflicted balancing that fine line between helping your students and making sure that they take ownership of their campaigns. You deserve to have the best of both worlds. In this blog, you will see how adopting a coaching style makes you an effective helper whilst also empowering your student campaigners to step up as leaders.
At its core, coaching is a collaborative and reflective conversation which helps your student to do their very best thinking. Your role as a coach is to use your expertise in active listening to help create a psychologically safe, non-judgemental and purposeful space for the student to explore a topic of their choice:
When you know what your conversation is about you then coach your student with challenging questions to help them gain understanding, new perspectives, be accountable and create an action plan going forwards. A coach does not give advice or tell people what to do. The magic of coaching is that you empower your student to generate their own action plan and take personal responsibility for implementing it.
If you really want to simplify coaching, think of it as the difference between telling your student what to do and asking them what they think they could do.
Telling is far quicker and sometimes absolutely necessary – “Your event needs a risk assessment.”
However, if you have the time and confidence, injecting a coaching approach with your students has a whole host of benefits for you, the student and your campaign movement.
Think about how many students come knocking on the SU door with complaints and concerns. Plenty, right? Sometimes these are quick procedural fixes for your advice service or complaints team. But sometimes these tap into wider injustices or issues that are the perfect starting point for a student led campaign.
The reflective and conversational nature of coaching makes it an excellent vehicle for taking students from a place of worry to one of engaged activism. When SU staff are equipped with coaching skills they can:
You don’t need to aim for your conversation to create community organisers. Adopting a coaching style will reveal to both you and your student whether activism is right for them.
I am reminded of a conversation I had with Diana – a student who just wanted to vent on a range of concerns that were generating anxiety for her. Through our conversation she recognised that many of her peers shared similar concerns and that talking together in a group and working collectively to propose solutions could help them all to feel more optimistic about the situation. Starting a campaign was a natural evolution that came from the conversation – and was totally led by her.
“My coaching experience motivated me to take action. Talking with Gemma helped me to realize that there are things I can do and that I am in a privileged position that would allow me to use my leadership to create an impact. It reinforced my desire to become a leader.” – Diana Lizarazo Pereira, Student
There are times when SU staff run campaigns for students – cost of living crisis springs to mind. You use your best judgement about the problems students are facing to propose solutions and you dig out those tried and tested campaigning methods – which is great.
Things feel very different when you are coaching students to design their own campaign. Straight away their understanding of the problem is more authentic because they have the lived experience to bring to the table. This allows you draw out a good definition of the issues and, therefore, the goals that students want to achieve for themselves.
“How might you design a campaign to achieve those goals?” … and watch them go crazy.
Let’s face it – if you have a hive mind of young people who want to achieve something, you are probably going to get some pretty innovative suggestions alongside those tried and tested methods. I’m guessing it was the student movement who invented the flash mob.
A wonderful thing about coaching is that by helping students name where they are now and where they want to get to, they get the freedom to chart out the path in a way that works for them. You may need to coach them along the way about risks and rewards, feasibility, resourcing and desired impact. But I guarantee you that if the ideas come from them, they are likely to be more aligned with student interests and will resonate more with student stakeholders to give the campaign traction.
Lots of time and energy can be lost in the campaigning process:
You and your staff deserve to have that time and energy back so that you can do what you do best.
Shifting to a coaching approach rather than giving instructions will take a little bit of extra time at the beginning, but save you tonnes of time in the long run. Imagine using coaching in these ways:
“The workshop showed me how to ask certain questions and let the student understand on their own without me telling them – I can use questions to put more onus on the student.” – Ryan Ward, Democratic and inclusion coordinator at Hull Students Union
The idea may be great, but a campaign can crumble if the overall plan has holes in it.
There are tonnes of handy planning resources out there – SMART goals, SWOT analysis, PESTLE. Many of these acronyms are a bunch of coaching questions that prompt your students to think about different aspects of their campaign and plan effectively.
Asking your students broad questions about their campaign can help them to tighten up their plans and achieve better outcomes.
You can access some more handy questions in this blog.
“I now understand what is useful about coaching compared to teaching / mentoring. I will be able to ask less leading questions and to empower students to lead sessions.” – Grace Smith, Sabbatical Officer at Lincoln SU
In my experience, there’s a whole chunk of students who don’t set out to be leaders. They just saw a problem that they cared about and they wanted to get something done.
Coaching allows you to gently hand over the reigns to students so that they take on responsibility themselves without explicitly using the word ‘leadership’ to spook them.
In addition to doing the actual campaign activities, your students have developed a range of leadership skills throughout the campaign process which they may not have intended. Towards the end of the campaign process is a great time to coach students to reflect on how they have developed as a person – because they may now realise that leadership is for them and be willing to take on something a little more ambitious. (Looking for officer nominations anyone?)
Even if your students don’t take their leadership further, I guarantee you that being coached leads to a really effective mindset of independent learning which will be essential for their work and studies.
There are some styles of education where students are simply told what to do – here’s everything you need to know to pass the exam, revise this, regurgitate that etc. This stifles independent thinking and creates a more passive style of student.
In a coaching approach, you have invited the student to think for themselves through your supportive yet challenging questions. What this does is exercises your students’ thinking and reflection muscles. You may notice that when you first coach a student it takes them a long time to generate their own ideas and plans or to articulate what they are thinking. The more they are coached, the more they can tap into their critical thinking and self expression. Over time, they may even be able to pause and coach themselves.
This means that you can feel all warm and fuzzy knowing that you are sending well equipped learners and thinkers out into the world.
You’re tired of falling into that helper role and doing the chasing in your student’s campaigns. Coaching is perfect way to support your students whilst empowering them to be their own leaders.
Adopting a coaching approach allows you to:
Be part of a union with more active, powerful and impactful campaigns.