“I came to teaching late” (Roger Rueff, The Hospitality Suite).
No one ever taught me how to teach. I learned by osmosis. I reflected on my favorite teachers from kindergarten through graduate school. Those who came affectionately to mind were ones I knew cared about me as a human being as well as a student.
Later in life, after nearly three decades of teaching in higher education and serving my division as chair, which included professor evaluations, I came to believe that there were essentially two types of professors: ones who taught their discipline to students and ones who taught students their discipline. Those may sound like the same thing, but there are some subtle differences. One prioritizes content over students, while the other prioritizes students.
Colleagues who focused on their disciplines to the neglect of students received lower evaluations from their students, colleagues, and supervisors. Their aim in teaching was to instill knowledge as if the students were empty vessels into which the professor simply poured content. They made declarative statements via lectures throughout class sessions, expecting students to “take it all in” like sponges.
Colleagues who valued students above content stood head and shoulders above their peers in the eyes of their students, colleagues, and supervisors. They taught so students could thrive. They challenged students to take responsibility for their education and worked alongside them in the teaching and learning process as mentors or colleagues. They worked side-by-side with students to interact with the discipline. They asked questions throughout class sessions and expected students to engage with the content.
According to the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments, “Student engagement is the psychological investment a student makes in learning.” 
Early in my teaching career I tilted more toward the professor-centric approach than the student-centric approach. As a communication scholar, I began to practice what I’d taught about interpersonal and small group communication. I embraced the idea of a flipped classroom prior to even hearing about it as a formal process. In my classroom, students had agency. The classroom was not about me—it was about my students. The students and I began to thrive! They took responsibility for their education.
And then came coach training.
As with teaching, I came to coaching late. I was skeptical about the role of coaching at first. As a communication scholar, I thought I knew pretty much all there was to know about human interaction. I discovered that coaching is “partnering with [students] in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. The process of coaching often unlocks previously untapped sources of imagination, productivity and leadership” (International Coaching Federation). Or as Ted Lasso puts it, “It is about helping these young fellas be the best versions of themselves on and off the field.” What might happen if we helped our students to be the best versions of themselves in and outside the classroom?
In a professional coaching relationship, the coachee serves as the expert. Students might not be experts at course content, but if we engage them in codesigning a course, they will participate fully as colleagues in the teaching-learning experience. Students, however, are experts on what, why, and how they learn.
Coaching introduced me to basic assumptions about my clients, taught me to negotiate necessary agreements, account for their comfort and safety needs, and guide them toward flourishing as human beings. Could this work in higher ed classrooms? I had to find out.
I chose to treat students as colleagues in the teaching-learning process. Rather than coach students one-on-one, I coached the class as a system.
How did this work? I began by crafting a few questions for my students using a process known as appreciative inquiry [AI]. “AI is a way to engage groups of people in self-determined change. It focuses on what’s working, rather than what’s not working, and leads to people co-designing their future” (PositivePsychology.com). I initiated a conversation with students that enabled me to gather their answers (data) and identify themes related to classroom work. What would help them succeed in the classroom? What did they need from the professor to thrive in the classroom? What could they contribute to their own success?
Next, I drafted a one-page syllabus (Figure 1) that included my contact information, a course description, student learning outcomes, those same discovery questions (above), recommended texts, a preliminary course schedule, and an abbreviated outline of the course content.
On the first day of class, we reviewed their answers to the appreciative inquiry and discussed how we could be colleagues in this course. I shared the assumptions borrowed heavily from my coach training, namely, that students are naturally creative, resourceful, and whole (as well as relational); unique and valuable; worthy of being championed; capable of solving complex problems; and ready to live at choice. I affirmed that I fundamentally believed those statements about them and asked whether they would commit to believing them about themselves. The statements were read aloud by students in a choral-reading fashion, substituting “I am . . .” for “Students are . . .” (Figure 2).
We then turned our attentions to negotiating an alliance, also known as agreements or what one student called, our Magna Carta for the course. These had to do with confidentiality, authenticity, reliability, exploration, and safety. The acronym spells “CARES” (Figure 3). With respect to confidentiality, we agreed to hold what happened in the classroom in confidence. Authenticity meant we would be present, mindful, focused, and ourselves in the classroom. Non-COVID-related “masks” were off-limits. There would be no pretense. Reliability implied trust. Students were encouraged to be as trustworthy as I committed to be. Trust was not required to be earned, but freely given to one another. When someone, including myself, violated trust, we agreed to treat one another as adults and work to reestablish trust and reliability as quickly as possible. Exploration afforded the freedom to strive and thrive in the classroom. The class would be a judgment-free zone where we would try new things and say new things to reach our full potential as individuals and as a class. We committed to mutual respect and civility toward one another. Finally, safety had to do with creating and maintaining a hospitable environment where students could engage fully without reservation and challenge one another to new heights. Students were encouraged to list specific things they needed to feel safe in the classroom.
With the alliance formalized, we began to construct the course. Students were assigned to familiarize themselves with the course description, student learning outcomes [SLOs], and course content (i.e., table of contents) in the text(s). Each student was to bring five to six class assignment ideas that would assess meeting learning outcomes using the content. The following class period, students recorded all their ideas on a markerboard in the classroom. As a class we analyzed which assignment(s) might accomplish the most (i.e., SLOs) at once. Student suggestions were often more academically rigorous than ones I’d used in the past. The list of assignment ideas was edited to four or five assignments. We then crafted narratives for each assignment and agreed on negotiated logistics (i.e., page length on papers, time constraints for presentations, etc.).
The course assignment(s) draft was finalized. All that remained was to determine a course schedule. I crafted a rough schedule with reading assignments to expose students to the breadth of content for the course. Students prioritized the assignments from easiest to hardest and negotiated dues dates for each assignment. One caveat: students often invariably complain about due dates because professors are unaware of students’ busy schedules and plethora of other classes when creating a course schedule. The fact that they set the schedule in this class shifted accountability away from the professor and onto them.
A little more than a week had passed, and we had a final syllabus complete with assignments and a course schedule in addition to our foundational documents. Students were encouraged to sign a “Declaration of Alliance” (Figure 4) in which they took ownership for the course and committed to each other their best selves.
One to two weeks may seem like a lot of wasted time to many professors. I believe the trade-off in student buy-in and commitment is well worth the investment of time. The life skills learned through communication, negotiation, and commitment paid dividends throughout the semester. Students understood we were “all in this together” and rose to the occasion.
Of note, I’d taught my classes the “old-fashioned way” (flipped but professor-centric) in the past and grew frustrated with the outcomes of certain classes. I was well-respected by students, peers, and administrators for my classroom teaching, but I felt like students were not learning or achieving student learning outcomes as well as they should. Treating my classes as systems and my students as colleagues in the teaching-learning process fundamentally changed how students learned and performed in my courses. For example, a course on persuasion under my previous system resulted in slightly above average growth in understanding and performance. The same course from a coaching perspective resulted in some of the best student work I’d seen—ever! Systems coaching was intriguing to me and reinvigorated my approach to teaching, but it came with a few hurdles, namely my academic affairs office’s frustration that I did not produce a final syllabus until about the second week of class. Administrators initially balked at my delinquency related to syllabi and threatened disciplinary action. Now, they expect the student-crafted course syllabi to be as late as necessary, because of student engagement and outcomes. And the students? They are thriving. In subsequent courses taken with me, they expect a collegial classroom where they take responsibility for their education, excited to build a course that meets their needs and outcomes. They have become scholars and not mere students.
Here are just a few positive comments from students:
- “I took more initiative in this course.”
- “I felt more confident speaking up in class.”
- “I prioritized learning over grades.”
Let me challenge you to integrate coaching concepts into your classes. If you can’t see how to bite it all off at once, take micro steps toward engaging students as colleagues in this adventure of teaching and learning.
Greg Fiebig, PhD, has been advising coaching, consulting, and teaching for years in a variety of settings, including nonprofit and commercial organizations, theatres, churches, and higher education.
 Cooperrider, David and Whitney, Diana (1999). Appreciative Inquiry: A positive revolution in change.
 Kimsey-House, Henry, et al. (2018). Co-Active Coaching: The proven framework for transformative conversations at work and in life. Nicholas Brealey Publishing; and Lark’s Song Certified Coach training. (2021). https://www.larkssong.com/
 Student Success Coaches. (2022). Ball State University.