Coaching: Awkward silences, listening and light bulb moments

Joe Mulholland

Joe Mulholland is an experienced curriculum specialist with a demonstrated history of working successfully for over 24 years in the Scottish College sector. Joe has held various leadership positions and is skilled in Lecturing, Curriculum Design and Leadership & Development.

At the time of his professional learning and of writing, Joe was working at City of Glasgow College as an Associate Dean.

For his professional learning, Joe took part in a coaching programme facilitated by GTC Scotland. He developed knowledge and experience to help improve his approach to developing positive working relationships with colleagues by using coaching techniques. He also found himself moving from learner to tutor, as he and colleagues delivered the same coaching course with colleagues from Scotland’s colleges.


Why did you decide to engage in this professional learning?

In 2018 leaders at my then college (West College Scotland) were offered a place on a GTC Scotland facilitated course, the Professional Advocate course: a non-directive coaching course. I jumped at the chance to try something different.

I was looking for a strategy that would enable me to have difficult conversations that would make others more aware of their actions and responsibilities while providing an understanding of my role.

I have been in Scottish Colleges for over 24 years and in various leadership positions. Colleges are full of social constructs and this can make leading curriculum areas a difficult business. You can face challenging situations from students and staff on a daily basis while at the same time being held responsible for your areas of responsibility by senior college staff.

The TQFE certificate does little to guide lecturers on behaviours or coping strategies. Similarly, Curriculum Leaders have no job manual or magical problem-solving book to help with complex, individualised social interactions. This can be highly stressful for both lecturers and leaders and impact work/life balance.

I had been doing my Curriculum and Quality Leader role for almost 15 years and it had lost its challenge. The funding I brought in was significant as were the success rates of all my students. I enjoyed good relationships with employers and other external partners, but I was a bit fed up with the role as it had become predictable and no longer tested me.

"The coaching course was a revelation for me.. I immediately recognised that the best leaders I had experienced had used this technique on me and memories of conversations with long silences came flooding back."

I am someone who likes change and trying new things. In 2018 I was finishing a Masters in Education and feeling great about it. I volunteered for various college initiatives that helped freshen up my work. In October, I joined the coaching course not knowing what to expect. I was told it would mean one-day attendance per month for four months and working with a co-coach in between sessions.

There was a strong emphasis on not missing sessions and the course description felt solid and well put together. I felt both apprehensive and excited about attending and I had no idea what coaching was about. My definition or idea of coaching had been something other people did with me at football training from a boy up to my late thirties.

What form did your professional learning take?

I travelled through to Edinburgh for the first day of the course and was impressed with the setup at GTC Scotland. I was directed to a teaching area that was bright and airy and ideal for learning.

I felt a bit out of place at first as everyone was sitting in a horseshoe with no desks. There were 19 participants and only two men, it had all the look of a support group and I began to wonder what I had let myself in for.

I needn’t have worried, there were three tutors, Jacqueline Morley, Vikki Robertson and Neil Horne who hosted the sessions brilliantly.

Jac began by telling us that she realised that we had probably been on countless Continuous Professional Development courses, but if we engaged properly, this would be professional development that could be life-changing and make a tangible difference to how we work and think.

We were told that we would be partnered after lunch with someone in the room and that they would become our co-coach. We would be expected to engage with them to practice coaching externally to the sessions. We were also told that one purpose of the course would be to explore how we would disseminate our learning once we had finished the course.

The coaching course was a revelation for me and when we covered and used the GROW model I immediately recognised that the best leaders I had experienced had used this technique on me and memories of conversations with long silences came flooding back.

The way it was delivered suited me perfectly. There was no writing and the whole course was delivered with a great balance between fun and serious learning. Social interaction was the aim and we were expected to use the various strategies and discussions on each other so that we worked with everyone in the room.

"Before going on the coaching course I would have conversations with staff and one of two things were typical. I would either end up in conflict with staff because I was suggesting the solutions to problems or I would end up doing tasks as it was quicker and easier. This second outcome becomes terrible for your life/work balance."

The course content is full of strategies that enable leaders to help staff get the best out of themselves without the leader’s direction. For lecturers, those same strategies can be used for getting the best out of the students that they lead.

Those receiving non-directive coaching are empowered to take control of their situations by finding solutions to issues that they have discovered themselves and without having to have the answer suggested to them. This is huge for anyone who is leading.

Before going on the coaching course I would have conversations with staff and one of two things were typical. I would either end up in conflict with staff because I was suggesting the solutions to problems or I would end up doing tasks as it was quicker and easier. This second outcome becomes terrible for your life/work balance.

How did your professional learning link with the Professional Standards for Lecturers in Scotland’s Colleges?

Continual professional improvement is a core value of the Professional Standards, and the coaching journey I am on has undoubtedly led to improvement in my practice. The techniques have allowed me to help embed sustainability in innovation, learning and teaching, and effectiveness when working with colleagues.

During Covid, colleges have had to re-invent how we practice and this will last for a significant period. Using coaching in staff communications and discussions has undoubtedly helped develop professional knowledge and understanding.

It is important to me that staff lead change and have the freedom and space to experiment with a new way of working. This space for exploration has to be facilitated with a safe zone free from top-down direction, criticism or a fear of failure. The use of a coaching strategy has been instrumental in creating this culture of exploration that has the student experience at the forefront.

Professional Standards for Lecturers in Scotland’s Colleges in action

1.3 Continuous professional development

1.3.1 Reflects critically on, and evaluates professional values, practice and contribution to student success.
1.3.2 Collaborates with students, colleagues and external partners, including employers, to deliver excellence in learning.
1.3.3 Participates actively in continuous career long development of professional knowledge, understanding and practice.
1.3.4 Embraces change and emerging practices and development.

Read the Professional Standards for Lecturers in Scotland’s Colleges

What was the impact of your learning?

For effective and inclusive practice, I consider a coaching strategy to be vital for teacher/leader development to enable us to get the best out of not only ourselves but also the learners, staff and partners that we lead and engage with.

When the coaching is carried out properly the joy that is felt by the coach and respondent is incredible and makes for a much happier work environment.

Through coaching strategies, my curriculum teams are now in a much better place and team members are empowered to take responsibility for parts of our provision. Coaching is now my default strategy for dealing with problems in what is a very hectic and ever-changing job role. It is a pleasure to let people have the power to change their circumstances and bring benefits to themselves and students through ideas that they have come up with themselves.

Due to my job role, there is an unequal relationship between myself and lecturers and I may be told what people think I want to hear or bring personal agendas to the table. Similarly, there is an unequal relationship with those above me who may not be comfortable discussing certain areas of college provision or discussing issues in college operations.

I use a non-directive coaching strategy in discussions to help combat the unequal relationship that I cannot get away from. If done properly, this should allow respondent exploration in interviews free from my influence.

Which next steps do you plan to take?

The next steps of my coaching journey saw me try to continue delivering coaching courses with GTC Scotland. Together with my co-coach Laura Watson (Dundee & Angus College) and another member of our cohort Caroline Cullen (West College Scotland), we decided to replicate the coaching course we had participated in and run it with GTC Scotland for Scottish College leaders and practitioners.

The learning became much deeper for us as we became the tutors and began to explore questions we could expect to be asked, and tried to achieve a full understanding of what we had been taught.

I will continue to develop my practice in my work role and will also extend the coaching into my doctorate study for research interviews.