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Be a coach, not a teacher

(MoneyWatch) I've been enjoying Sal Khan's new book, "The One World Schoolhouse." Khan, founder of Khan Academy, an online repository of video lectures and tutoring, has grand ideas about how to improve education. His core conceits include that learning should be perfectly adapted to the learner, meeting him right where he is. Khan also believes that when work is optimally challenging, you get in a state of flow, a state that corresponds with an authentic sort of happiness.

I've underscored several lines in the book, but one interesting one, from the perspective of leadership, is this: "Have you ever noticed that some kids tend to loathe and detest their teachers but worship and adore their coaches?"

As Khan notes, this seems absurd. Teachers and coaches both want to help their charges, and "both ask students to push themselves to do difficult things -- not infrequently, things that kids claim they really hate to do, such as deriving equations or running wind sprints."

Part of the difference may be that children have to go to school, whereas they generally don't have to play a sport. But a bigger reason may be that, as Khan notes, "coaches are specifically and explicitly on the student's side." The focus is on helping the child get better, bringing out her best so she can win.

To many children, by contrast, a teacher is the representative of "a system where assessments are used to label people rather than to help them master concepts that will be relevant in succeeding in a very competitive world."

For a teacher to become a coach, it must be clear that an exam isn't about labeling and humiliating you; it's about figuring out what you don't know so you can practice it, get better and ultimately use that knowledge to succeed. This is the sort of leadership behavior that drives loyalty.

If you're delivering performance reviews this week, ask yourself this question: Am I behaving like a teacher or a coach? Is the point to label members of your team -- your A players, B players and the C players who may be on their way out? Or is the point to figure out what your team members need to work on, and then figure out a way that you can work with them -- as their ally -- to shore up their weaknesses, practice repeatedly and ultimately to win?

Firing people is sometimes necessary. But in the long run, it's more satisfying -- and economical -- to turn good players into great players. That's what a coach does.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Denis Dervisevic
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