Why dons are all talk

February 4, 2000

One-to-one coaching helps academics to deal with the increasing pressure on their time. Pat Leon meets an energising existential psychotherapist.

An hour with an existential psychotherapist is possibly the last thing an academic would expect as a teaching aid. Yet this is what Philippa Morrison offers from her office overlooking Regent's Park at the London Business School.

It is an attractive proposition. When new staff arrive they are told there is a facility for a one-to-one talk about their work and ideas. The meeting is in strictest confidence with no evaluation attached. Attendance is voluntary and open to all.

It is a simple idea, says Morrison, but a successful one that in 1996 received Pounds 250,000 from the Higher Education Funding Council to develop it over three years. A further Pounds 25,000 is allowing the school's professional development initiative to continue.

"Academics are like mini-industries these days," says Morrison. "They are very busy men and women who offer a portfolio of jobs, which they dip in and out of. They often don't have anyone to talk to about how teaching fits into it all."

Morrison likes to see herself as a coach who is tapping academics' interest in teaching in the context of their whole professional life. "Lecturers are as receptive to individual attention as anyone else. They do not have to be told about teaching. They know if their teaching is bad it is a drain on energy and they need energy for their research, their writing and everything else they are doing."

Motivation is the key. All the practical concern about whether the overhead projector or the Powerpoint presentation is working is of little importance when an academic is motivated to teach, she says.

The origins of Morrison's coaching model lie in her seven years' experience teaching at Pimlico, an inner-London comprehensive. She was interested in how the learning experience was thwarted as much by poor teaching as by big classes and a rigid curriculum. She went on to study psychology, specialising in existential psychotherapy, which looks at all aspects of the individual and the way they relate to the world about them.

However, Morrison says: "I was never in love with the context of psychology or psychotherapy. It was problem-based. I wanted people to benefit from more detailed attention when they did not have problems. You can get energy from that type of attention."

For the past eight years Morrison has worked on an independent contract and built up the school's teacher development programme. She recognises that cynics might say that coaching has become a bandwagon on which a lot of charlatans ride. "LBS took a risk when they appointed me. They could afford to take that risk, other universities may not want to," she says.

When she started, the school ran an annual four-day workshop crammed with information for new academics and others needing remedial help. The workshop was unpopular, not least because staff had to give up holiday to attend.

"What I discovered was that people had an interest in talking about teaching in general, but when they were talking about their own teaching, they were very interested."

The workshop was dropped and one-to-one coaching started. Morrison had an initial consultation with new staff, observed their teaching and met them a few days later to give them time to reflect on it. The issues raised varied from the design of the course, class structure, classroom skills or even outside matters that were affecting the teaching.

One of the rules is that there is no housestyle for teaching. "Teaching is a profession that appeals to individuality," she says.

The idea is that one-to-one talks become an integral part of work and career development, rather than remedial. It is based on building the academics' confidence in their teaching ability by encouraging them to be self-critical in an informal, non-threatening environment.

Morrison's role is independent of the professional administration. New junior staff are as likely also to have a mentor who will usually be a senior colleague in their department.

Universities have already put lots of money into staff development. The demand for a more professional approach to teaching and the establishment of the Institute for Learning and Teaching means the time is ripe to consider new approaches.

"I suppose you could say we are the sexy end of staff development," Morrison says. "But we are dealing with the battered end of academic life. I passionately believe that individual coaching can have a true influencing role."

Coaching collaborations

Oxford University

The London Business School's professional development initiative has worked with Oxford University's staff development unit on introducing a yearlong programme of individual attention.

London School

of Economics

As part of the "coaching coaches" aspect of the HEFCE project, Morrison has coached Liz Barnett, a staff developer at the LSE, where the one-to-one approach is used differently. Barnett observes lecturers and then gives them feedback.

Royal College

of Music

Morrison has worked on a one-to-one basis with the heads of department.

The International Teachers' Programme

The London Business School model has become part of the International Teachers' Programme for management educators. The programme

for participants involves:

Focus on the individual

Two short residential modules, which have replaced the

annual intensive course

Teaching observation

Teaching projects

Teaching videoed and brought to residential school for peer review

Individual coaching at residential school.

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