Why you need coaching skills in your anti-racist teaching kit by Gemma Perkins from ‘The Self Leadership Initiative’

I completed my teacher training in 2012 having done a 1 year primary PGCE. One of the things that always struck me was getting to the end of the course and thinking to myself “Hold on a minute, we didn’t learn about coaching.” 

As it happened, I knew a lot about coaching already from my previous 6 years of youth work. What concerned me more was the other 120 people on my course who could well have been in the position of “You don’t know what you don’t know”. 

We did do a masters level assignment on the importance of dialogic teaching which encouraged teachers to make space for children to have conversations with each other. However, this was very research led – reading about the process of dialogue, questioning and giving space is very different to actually practicing it, experiencing it and, most importantly, getting feedback on your own skills of doing it. 

Ways of working in the Classroom

The broad definition of teaching is ‘giving knowledge or skills to others’. This idea of giving implies that the teacher somehow imparts the knowledge or skills in a transmissive way. Often, what actually happens in the classroom is that teachers use a variety of processes that have subtle differences, yet all end up under the banner of ‘teaching’. 

By making a distinction between different processes, we can be more targeted in what we are trying to achieve with students. I’d like to note that no style is good or bad in itself, just useful in different circumstances.  


Showing or telling the steps to be followed. Students copy or carry them out. This can be effective for simple tasks (formatting the work) or where you need more than one person to do something at the same time (mixing chemicals, labelling a map). It lacks autonomy and can become boring or ignore individual differences in progress or ability. Students can also become reliant on you be there to instruct them again and again. 


This is defined as ‘making a process easier for another person’. It is usually used in the context of group discussions or workshop facilitation. The facilitator holds the space, provides prompts and gently encourages people through activities without giving too much direction. This works well in personal sharing scenarios (PSHE, reflections on a piece of literature) or where groups are self managing. It can be very difficult for teachers to step back and ‘hold space’ because of time pressures and learning objectives. Some students may not be used to self managing or having flexible boundaries. 


Using questioning and reflection to help students to develop their own skills and knowledge. This puts most of the power in the hands of the student and raises their self awareness. E.g. “What will your chronological report be about? How will you set it out? Where will you research? Who is your target audience?” By asking the coaching questions, students generate their own action plan and their existing skills and knowledge are stretched. This builds autonomy but can be very time consuming as it is sometimes a 1:1 or small group process. It also requires students to actively participate more than instruction. When students generally don’t know an answer to one of the questions you may have to revert back to instruction or facilitation.

In reality, teachers probably implement a mixture of these approaches without realising: 

Instructing students on a new method of division and then giving them examples to practice… putting them into groups to have a go at a problem solving task whilst they facilitate or provide further instruction to those who are stuck… finishing the session by coaching students through self evaluation of their progress and next steps. 

I could say a lot more on the many facets of coaching than I have outlined here. In reality, to be a qualified ‘coach’ takes a lot of training and supervision and even to learn the principles takes practice and fine tuning. My question or bug bear is… if I was never taught how to actively include coaching techniques in my teaching repertoire… then how many teachers aren’t using coaching in their lessons and what impact is it having? 

The Price of not Coaching

I ran a youth leadership programme for A-Level students a few years ago and I am a firm believer of learning through play. The group did a problem solving game for a good 20 minutes in teams. When they were done I asked them a few coaching questions: “What skills were you using? What do you think the game was about? What did you notice about yourself and others?” 

Perhaps it’s my own background, but I didn’t think these were difficult questions… just reflective. I was met with stunned silence and shrugging shoulders despite everyone having done the game very well. One person finally spoke up and gave a harrowing response “Can’t you just tell us?”

There could have been a few things going on here – peer pressure, feeling shy, not wanting to say ‘the wrong thing’. However, I suspect that they were also not used to being reflective. After an intense GCSE year of being groomed to respond how the exam says and tick the box, the muscle for personal reflection and critical thought was weak. 

I’m also reminded of a keynote speaker I heard. She is a careers coach and works with a lot of graduates who feel totally lost and out of their depth. Her reflection was 

“They’ve spent 18 years of their life being told what to do, how to do it, who to do it with, when to do it (sometimes with bells) and when to complete it by. Is it any wonder that now they have to make their own decisions, they are lost?”

So what’s this got to do with the anti-racism?

I’ve left it a little late in the article to link all this together, so thank you for bearing with me. 

It’s my personal belief that coaching is an essential tool for teaching… full stop. Regardless of the subject matter, the age, the complexity – the more time you can dedicate to coaching the better. So now lets think about racism.

No one is born racist… or sexist, or homophobic or any other form of ism / ist. These things come later in life because of a mixture of personal experiences that create fears and beliefs, active teaching from others or negative messages from cultural surroundings. 

If we consider the student who is more of a vessel, the one who passively does as they are told and follows instructions without much reflection. They are much more likely to take on whatever they have been told – especially by valued peers, family and similar role models. This can be an advantage if there are receiving good messages. They may dutifully behave in positive ways to fellow humans because that is what have been told is right. However, if they are receiving negative messages then these may just as easily be followed. 

A student who is regularly in receipt of coaching will have a much broader inner world and inner thought process. If they are used to being asked “How do you know? What do you feel about that? What are the next steps? How can you make it better? How does this compare to what you already know about the world?” then they will more used to applying critical thinking skills. Those at the early stages of coaching may still rely on a teacher or parent to ask those questions – but students who have been receiving coaching for a while will start to develop their own scripts for internal questioning. 

If they receive negative messages about different groups in society, they will be more able to check in with themselves about whether it is true, helpful, kind and worth acting upon. They may also be more inclined to research the answers to these self generated questions. 

Coaching is a foundation

Coaching in itself is not a tool for anti racism – instead it is a foundation soft skill that when paired with critical thinking, a broad curriculum and a focus on global citizenship can really help students to make sense their own feelings, decisions and place within the world. 

The earlier and more robustly we can practice coaching on students – and get them to coach each other and themselves – the better. It is my belief that this wouldn’t just have an impact on racism, but on a lot of other issues that would benefit from independent critical thinkers. 


Gemma Perkins has a first class degree in psychology and PGCE in Primary Education. Six years ago, she left teaching to start her own business in bespoke soft skills training for schools, universities, corporates and the third sector. Gemma inspires and empowers people of all ages to learn through play and develop their inner leader (or self leader) as the starting point for realising their potential.

The Self Leadership Initiative

Website: www.thesli.co.ukEmail: gemma@thesli.co.uk

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