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Where does all the time go?

A student asked me recently; what do the coaches do when they are not coaching?

From the students’ perspective, it’s a reasonable question. Apart from morning workshops (which are not every day, usually involve a single coach, and last for around 1.5 hours) most of what we do isn’t necessarily visible and we’re actively hands off as we want students to be as self-directed as possible.

From a coaches perspective, it’s an even more reasonable question – because although I may not spend all my time actively coaching, I often feel like I don’t have any time. The last 4 months has flown by – but where has it all gone?

Some of it has certainly gone on education – by which I mean, education for myself. Much of the first couple of weeks was spent brushing up on my technical skills. The prime language we coach at Makers in the first 4 weeks is Ruby. I had never developed in Ruby before I joined so I spent a fair bit of my ‘free’ time doing coding challenges to try and skill up.

I’d also never coached before, which is a whole different skill set. So when I wasn’t doing tech challenges or giving workshops, I was generally hanging out on the 3rd floor where the students work and getting a feel for the kinds of problems they were having. Helping to solve other people’s Datamapper issues is a pretty good way of learning Datamapper, for example.

Helping to solve other people’s issues in general is also a good way of learning what boundaries to cross as a coach. How much should you help? How much should you guide or hint? How much should you just refuse to answer?

When I first started as a coach, there was a certain need for validation; I was in a role I knew little about, I was used to feeling competent and I wanted people to tell me that I was doing a good job. It takes time to train yourself to use strategies which, while they may not make you a ‘favoured’ coach, will make you a more effective one. I still don’t think I’m there yet.

I’d guess that much of my first 6 weeks were probably taken up with this kind of learning. So what about the subsequent 11?

How much coaching do I actually do?

Before I answer that question, let’s consider how much coaching do I actually do. The answer to that question is ‘depends’, but there are themes based on which week of the course the various cohorts are currently studying.

Until recently, I’ve had a tendency to take on a fair number of workshops in odd weeks – these are the Javascript weeks and I naturally felt more confident taking these. During these weeks I’ll probably take the kickoff session on a Monday and 3 workshops and/or group code reviews, which tend to keep me busy until some time between 11 and 12.

We have our collab meeting at 9.30 (which is usually when I arrive) and I will usually want to reflect on the workshop afterwards, or catch up with students, which essentially means in these weeks I’m occupied until lunch 4 mornings out of 5.

Until around 3 weeks ago I would also normally spend 3-4 afternoons on the third floor, simply because there were a limited of number of coaches to cover this. This time is generally unstructured and in theory I can get work done; in practice, as you are constantly open to interruption, it’s hard to be productive. I usually try and get code review done in these periods, but it can be hard to get through more than 1 or 2 submissions in an afternoon due to incoming questions and context switching.

So in odd weeks, I might get 1 unbroken day where I’m not actively coaching, to focus on other education tasks (which I will come to later). I will usually also squeeze in a few hours around the edges but these don’t tend to be ‘quality’ hours (which I will also come to later).

What about even weeks? Again, this changed around 3 weeks ago, but I’ve tended to take on project team observations and the odd workshop. I’ll still have probably 3 days worth of 3rd floor time, but I’ll usually have at least a day and a half of unbroken ‘free’ time and little bits here and there.

Scattered liberally throughout those times are meetings (coach retro, education prioritisation, full team meetings, careers catch ups, etc), one-to-ones with students, one-to-ones with fellow coaches and a whole host of other little interactions that are usually relatively inconsequential but can sometimes hijack your emotional and/or mental state – we care about the students and when a student is experiencing a problem it is hard not to feel emotionally involved in that problem your solve.

And I think that is why I often feel like I have no time. In theory there are all these holes in my diary where I could be doing productive work. But in practice I find these get filled up with a host of mini situations, many of which are quite pleasant and enjoyable, but all of which ultimately pull me out of whatever headspace I might otherwise be hoping to occupy.

Of course, I could try and withdraw from the students a little. But I don’t feel that this is desirable and I think I might enjoy coaching less if I did. I actually spend a fair bit of effort trying to build those relationships – I organise a regular football game, I eat occasional lunches in the common room, I’ll be around for casual table tennis a couple of times a day, and sometimes I’ll just walk round the 3rd floor and poke my nose in to whatever the students are doing.

So in fact, the answer to ‘how much coaching do I actually do’ is ‘more than I thought’ and ‘more than it appears’. But I do still get some time to focus 0n other things. What have I achieved with it?

What I do when I’m not coaching

I’ve taken on a few little projects since I started at Makers. So far I haven’t really finished any of them. Which is obviously a Bad Thing.

Why haven’t I finished them?

Partly down to poor time management. Managing my time to deal with everything I described above has been another learning journey for me. I’m making small improvements all the time – I’ve just moved from treating my tasks as a list to adding tasks as time blocks in my calendar, and that seems to have helped – but it’s still difficult.

But also, partly I haven’t finished these tasks because my learning has outstripped my ability to act on my learning. Between weeks 4 and 10 I made various attempts to improve the Javascript syllabus. I never got anywhere with this because my ideas about education were developing the whole time and by the time I would find time to act on an idea my ideas had changed.

For example, one thing I am close to finishing is an exemplar for our bowling challenge. However, even there I made the mistake of developing it in a way that was pretty alien to most of the students on the course (using constructor functions and AMD modules instead of prototype and CommonJS). I did this because I thought it might be fun to show them a different style and also to show them a style which I think has a number of advantages over use of prototype and/or ES6 classes. I realised by the time I finished the challenge that this had been misguided; so now I have more work to do to make it more accessible.

Other stuff that I’ve taken on has related to how we do code review and how useful it is as a learning tool. We facilitate peer, group and coach code reviews at Makers, but as coaches we worry about how effective these are as learning tools for students. I spent some time interviewing students and also talking to coaches, with the goal of producing a document describing an ‘ideal code review’ process and then identifying the things that we needed to do to make it happen as actionable steps. I was halfway through this when I got given another project that absorbed all of my time.

That other project – a two week trial with some graduates – has given me a whole new set of ideas and reflections, to the point that I spent the majority of the two weeks waking up at 4am with my head buzzing with thoughts about the previous day. It now seems that this project may be part of something which has more long-term strategic value and if I remain embedded in that then the finishing the other bits of work begins to look even harder.

On the plus side, as a team we seem to be recognising that time is difficult to find and we are organising ourselves better around projects. We’ve also made some recent hires which should spread the workload a little more. There are still some core time management skills that I can level up myself, but my hope is that in another 4 months time when somebody asks me ‘what do you do when you are not coaching’ I can point to some concrete results rather than a vague feeling of being out of time.

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