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IATEFL 2023 Conference - Ben's Thoughts on Divya Madhavan's Plenary "Lean on Me"

Updated: Apr 24, 2023

After a heartfelt introduction by her close friend and colleague, Divya Madhavan started her talk "Lean on Me: Stories of Coaching, Mentoring and Teacher Resilience". It was a somewhat Ulysses-style walk through of her ideas and, later, the experiences and thoughts of four teachers Divya had interviewed for the purposes of this plenary talk.

Divya started with a statement that coaching and mentoring are "metaphors for leaning on those around us" - essentially metaphors for a metaphor! Still, this is a nice idea. Divya invited us to reflect on what it means to be a teacher who supports and nurtures others.

Coaching and mentoring are two roles a teacher can take. With reference to one of her regular activities with college students, Divya, called herself a "debating coach". She then went on to equate coaching to training and guiding. This interpretation caught my attention as a perspective that I personally, based on experience, disagree with. For me, coaching is a non-directive developmental intervention (as well as a leadership style) characterised by question and answer conversations oriented towards an agreed goal. A pure coaching methodology does not involve direct input, teaching, guidance or directive feedback. Which is actually what Divya demonstrated beautifully in the video clips she shared, of the interviews she conducted with the 4 teachers.

One point she made with which I agree wholeheartedly, is that a coach does not need to be an expert. I noted she (wisely) distanced herself from professional coaches.

On the topic of mentoring, I found we have a common view. Divya's definition of mentoring is closer to my own in that we both believe it relies on advice and expertise. As such, this becomes the more natural relationship teachers have with each other. I like her phrase "stories that resemble our own" as that is exactly what is needed for mentoring in any context to be effective.

Another point Divya touched on, which surprised me in light of criticisms I have often seen leveled at our conference organising body, IATEFL; she highlighted the poor pay and conditions suffered by teachers around the world that is disproportionate to the education levels requirements for the role. A contentious topic, traditionally avoided by our hosts.

Continuing with points Divya raised that resonated with me, - I paraphrase here - subject matter expertise does not equate to teaching or training ability.

Divya went on to state that "going-the-extra-mile gestures are universal in the world of teaching", and she asked the question: who "shows up" for (i.e. supports) teachers in order to build their resilience?

The 4 elements needed to develop resilience, according to Divya:

- Trust (in a teacher's organisation, manager, colleagues)

- Confidence (in oneself and one's teaching ability)

- Courage

- Perseverance

Having laid the ground work, our plenary speaker presented a series of 4 interviews she had conducted with a range of (all women) teachers detailing stories of support.

Reflecting through my own lens, some thoughts come to mind:

1. Despite strong understanding of mentoring (Divya is clearly an experienced and successful teacher educator and department manager), I felt this talk perpetuated many of the common misunderstandings of coaching that plague the industry.

2. Can we really be there for all of our colleagues all of the time? How practical, realistic or pragmatic is this? What are the consequences? We would all love, I am sure, to believe that we would step up when and where necessary, but this is not always possible. When we haven't stepped up, have we failed in some way?

Overall, I have to say this was a lovely, warm and heartfelt talk that, despite some issues of definitions, gave us a good deal of food for thought.

Divya's plenary talk can be viewed here.

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