Your Role

What It Means To Be a “Coach”

Public Achievement was initially developed with volunteer “coaches” (undergraduates or community volunteers) who worked with groups of middle and high school students. Teachers generally assisted groups but did not work with them directly. Since then, teachers have taken a more active role, serving as “teacher-coaches” or supplementing the work of volunteer coaches with dedicated PA curricula.

Students chose the term “coach” to underscore that this is a different adult role (as opposed to teacher or leader). While many teachers teach in ways similar to PA coaches, and PA coaches work with young people in ways similar to teachers, it is helpful to draw some basic contrasts. However, keep in mind that the role of the coach is developed through practice, based on the general guidelines below.

Coaches must mediate between two contradictory aspects of Public Achievement. On one hand, this is the team’s project: they choose what issue or problem to address and are responsible for designing and implementing their project. On the other hand, coaches play a distinct role with certain responsibilities with (not for) the team.

  • Team Facilitator – they help the team learn how to work together democratically.
  • Project Manager – they help guide the team through the process of designing and carrying out their project.
  • Experiential Educator – they help the team learn through this process.

One way to think about it is to compare a PA coach to a sports coach. Coaches are there for guidance and encouragement, but are not “on the court.” They make sure that the team does all the necessary preparation work (practice) so that they are ready to execute when they step onto the field. There are a couple of crucial differences, however. 1) The “game plan” in PA is created democratically by the team members and the coach. 2) PA coaches can do some work with the team and often do work “behind the scenes.” 3) In PA, winning is not the ultimate goal, learning the process and having everyone participate are equally important as successfully completing the project.

Roles of a Coach

Here, we offer a brief discussion of three roles that make an effective coach. They are not prescriptions for a coach to follow, but are time-tested suggestions for one to consider as they think about how they will coach their team. Of course, one cannot be or do all of these things at once. But coaches need to be ready to take on different roles in different situations. Remember, teachers/coaches are citizens too, they can give their ideas, assign tasks, and help hold people accountable, the key thing to remember is that they do PA with rather than for their group or class.

1. Team facilitator:
Coaches may work with a variety of different types of teams. Some may be composed of all students in a class, or teachers may coach a number of smaller teams all at once. As the Team Facilitator, coaches need to help their team learn how to work together democratically. This means being attentive to team dynamics and team processes. In the Explore And Discover stage we have included tools for helping groups learn how to work together democratically. Bases on this structure, the hope is that young people will learn to take ownership over their PA sessions. We have found the best way to facilitate team dynamics is through regular evaluation of meetings. By regularly evaluating your meetings, your team will not only become more effective, but more democratic.

2. Project Manager
Even though the team is responsible for designing and implementing the project, the coach helps guide them through this process. While many of us have an idea of how to carry out a project, coaches help the team make sure the project makes a public impact. Public Achievement gives you several important steps as well as tools to make this happen. The coach understands the Six Stages of PA and can help guide the team through these steps (when necessary). Coaches also help their team set realistic goals, make thoughtful decisions, organize their work, and help them be prepared when they act in public. Of course, it is up to the coach (and team) to use their own judgment as to what steps are appropriate for their project.

Again, evaluation is key. In addition to evaluating how the team works together, it is important to assess the quality of your public actions. The public evaluation of the team’s work ensures accountability, clarifies roles, keeps a project moving forward, provides space for critical thinking, and enables people to learn from their successes and failures.

3. Experiential Educator / Learner
An absolutely critical responsibility of the coach is to help their teams learn from their experiences. Public Achievement is not just about the projects, it is also about learning the process of public problem-solving, as well as learning to think and act as a citizen. Coaches should carefully mediate the tension between process and project so that learning and work happen simultaneously.

In PA, learning should be relational. This means that each person is an active participant in teaching and learning, it is not a one-way transfer of knowledge from coach to student. Knowledge is co-created through dialogue as coaches and team members learn with each other and from each other. Coaches might want to follow Bernice Robinson, a teacher in the Citizenship Schools of the Civil Rights Movement, who began each new class by saying, “Now I’m not a school teacher. I’m here to learn with you.”

Much of the learning in PA comes from doing. A key aspect of being a political educator is seizing upon “teachable moments.” These are those unexpected moments that may contain a political lesson or have significance for your team’s work.

The coach also needs to help her or his team make connections between their work (which focuses on solving a specific public problem), the broader issues of public life, and standards of student learning. In short, your team needs to be able to see the relationship between their work and the “big picture.” One simple tactic a coach can use is to make sure that the problems and solutions being worked on are also being discussed in public and political terms (core concepts). For example: talk about the need to build community, tackle racism, and so forth. By placing something small into a larger context, the students will see more purpose in the project.

Reflection is an essential way that we learn through doing. Reflection is similar to evaluation, but the focus is on the meaning of experience for team members, what they learn about themselves and the world through taking action.

Some differences between coaches who are teachers and volunteers:

Teachers as Coaches

  • Know the students better.
  • Are able to spend more time with students, emphasizing the PA process and allowing time for projects to evolve.
  • Are more familiar with the school.
  • Are trained in pedagogy and are more effective with classroom management and instruction.
  • Are better able to seize “teachable” moments, to incorporate PA concepts into daily class work as well as align PA projects with curricular standards.

Volunteer Coaches

  • Are less of an authority figure.
  • Are often seen as closer in age.
  • Bring new backgrounds and perspectives to the experience.