How to Prioritise in a Coaching or Teaching Session

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priority

This is a subject I was thinking about in a very particular scenario – giving feedback to competitors after a contest – and gradually realised that the thought-processes involved generalised very well to many other teaching and coaching situations I have found myself in over the years.

There are 4 basic types of factor involved.

The underlying ground on which it all takes place is the formal remit for the situation. This can be very specifically defined (as in a pre-defined curriculum), ruled by implicit conventions (as in festival adjudications), or individually negotiated (as in coaching situations). But it basically frames your agenda: if the curriculum says Schenkerian analysis, you mostly steer clear of stagecraft, whatever other needs or skills there may be.

Within this remit, you are looking for the overlap area between three other factors.

Their Needs

First is the needs of the musicians(s)/learner(s). The context of the interaction tells you a lot about this. Second-year undergraduates have certain profiles of needs that are different from those of adult amateurs, for instance, and as you seen and hear them in action during (and sometimes also before) the encounter, you can figure out quite a lot else about what they could use help with.

But it’s also important to make an explicit effort to identify what they perceive to be their needs. Asking if there’s anything in particular they need help with is a great way of prioritising! The ‘muddiest’ point technique in lecturing is a valuable variant: at the end of the class, ask everyone to write down the thing they found hardest to grasp, and you build addressing that into the next session. Not only do people get a better grasp of the subject this way, they also feel better about the whole process as they know you are on their side.

Your Skills

The second factor is what you are actually able to help them with. If the thing they clearly need most help with is too far outside your expertise, it could do more harm than good to try to address it.

Depending on the relative skills of the participants, this isn’t always the case: if you’ve been appointed appropriately for the occasion, it may well happen that you can help someone with something that’s not your primary expertise. This happened to me a lot in my life as a teacher in HE.

But if there is someone available who is better suited to deal with a particular area, it makes more sense to refer people on to them, and focus your efforts on something that is still of use to the learners and which you are the best person to deal with.

Available Resources

How long have you got? The primary resource variable for teaching and coaching is time – is it actually possible to achieve this before we all leave this afternoon? (Or before the performance, or before the assessment, or whatever the deadline is.) Sometimes you have to leave the most important thing to one side because it will take longer to sort out than you have, and half-doing it will leave them unprepared for what they need to do. Helping people make fundamental changes to what they do, after all, involves dismantling current habits as well as developing new ones.

The are sometimes other resource constraints of course, such as space or equipment. It is hard to work on microphone technique in the absence of the necessary kit.

So the universe of what you might focus on is narrowed down to the overlap of these three factors, within the wider context of the overall remit. That sometimes gives a very clear place to start; other times there is still a degree of choice of where to start. But once you’ve homed in on that place where the needed and the possible overlap, decisions become less crucial. Whatever you do there, it will be useful.

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