A Field Guide to Avoiding Toxic Teachers/Coaches


We’ve spent a fair amount of time in this space talking about what makes up a great teacher or coach. Today, let’s talk about the opposite. The bad ones. The ones who quietly steal your time and energy and prevent you from progressing as well as you could. The ones you want to avoid.

Confession: I know about toxic teachers/coaches, because, at various times in my life, I’ve been one. Both in the classroom (in graduate school, no less) and on the sports field (with my Little League team), I’ve been in charge of the learning process, and I have proceeded to do what I’ve since realized was a pretty terrible job. (I’ll spare you the details, but let’s just say that whenever I run into someone from one of my first classes/teams, I usually begin by apologizing.)

So with that in mind, I’d like to offer this brief, completely unscientific list of traits for which to watch.

1) The Courteous Waiter: This is the kind of person who puts all their efforts and attention into keeping you comfortable and happy. They don’t push you to the edges of your ability, but rather keep you in the comfort zone, glossing over any moments of difficulty in favor of a “we’ll worry about that later” approach. This kind of person is usually quite likable (think of that really cool teacher you had in high school) and because of that likability, you never learn much (again, think of that really cool teacher you had in high school).

2) The Charismatic Speaker: This is the kind of person who spends all their time talking. Lecturing. Weaving shimmering webs of ideas into the air. They’re often quite eloquent and charismatic; listening to them can be great fun. Which is precisely the problem — because in the end, passively listening to someone talk is a really inefficient way to learn. We learn by doing, exploring, discovering for ourselves. By asking questions, interacting, engaging with ideas. (Another reason why Socratic method works so well.)

3) The Remote Ruler: This person spends their time high above the playing field, designing strategies and methods, and rarely descend to interact with the people they’re leading. Some good examples of this type of teacher is found in the leadership of bigger organizations, like the NFL and Wall Street, both places where a culture of remoteness can easily take hold. This person often seems quite powerful, but they often end up failing because they overlook the most fundamental source of power: the personal emotional connections to the people they’re leading.

Finding the right teacher, coach, or mentor is sort of like test-driving a car. And just as with a car, it pays to lift up the hood. Go for a test drive. Find one who connects with you, who challenges you, and who pushes you past what you thought you could do. You’ll go farther.

PS — speaking of good teachers, I’m reading a couple really good books right now: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami (great on the link between endurance and creativity), and Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, which is great on the relationship between impulsive and rational thinking.

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5 Responses to “A Field Guide to Avoiding Toxic Teachers/Coaches”

  1. My favorite teacher was Vince Staten. I took his feature writing class when he was a columnist for a newspaper in Louisville, Kentucky. Our task for the semester was to sell an article to a magazine. What a novel idea, I kept thinking–a class where the point was to get a job.

    Vince gave me an A- on my first assignment–a piece about telemarketing–and lots of constructive criticism. “The lead is, I’m sure, appropriate for the audience,” he wrote in part, “but it still is kind of dull.”

    He called me at work the next morning to ask if I’d help with a book he’d just sold to a publisher. What a thrill! I learned so much about being a writer by working with him. He was fun, he was honest, and most of all he was making a living doing what I wanted to do.

    The best teachers, I think, are excited about their work…and share their enthusiasm.

  2. djcoyle says:

    Hey Maureen, Thanks for sharing that. Reminded me of some of my writing teachers. Nothing like having a fake deadline to create a bit of urgency. I think I sweated more for those than for anything since.

  3. liz garnett says:

    The funny thing is, each of the types of behaviour you list are useful in small quantities – they only become a problem if they dominate a coach’s behavioural repertoire. It’s not a bad thing to be nice to people – especially if they are beating themselves up about their performance – but it’s a problem if you choose being nice as a replacement for challenge. Likewise, a spot of inspirational eloquence can be useful in the process you refer to as ignition – again it’s only a problem when over-used. Even taking time away from the team to think about strategy can be useful in its place.

    And I think this is why these three types of behaviour are so dangerous – they allow you to delude yourself you’re doing a good job. You think: X can play a role in effective coaching, I’m doing X, therefore I’m being effective.

  4. Jim Grove says:

    I love your reference to the Courteous Waiter – I cringe when I think of the “cool guys” who have taught a couple of my children. The kids learn nothing and they develop an entirely false sense that they have accomplished something by the end of term. I taught remedial English composition classes at community college to kids who were distraught after failing their proficiency exams, after having cruised through high school with cool English teachers who gave them straight A’s for everything they did. These poor kids couldn’t even write an intelligible sentence. College was a rude awakening for them.

  5. Philip Simmonds says:

    In my experience the bad coach is a necessary evil in the development of elite athletes, the athlete knows the coach is poor and reacts and starts to own there development, particularily from age 9- 12.Bad coaches are usually short term and when they get a good coach they take a qauntumn leap.

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