Teacher vs. Coach:  Making a Real Connection

Deborah Jones, Ph.D.

I’ve spent a good portion of my life in classrooms and teaching settings.  It took me nine years start to finish to get my Ph.D. in psychology.  And I loved most of it!  Those last few years were a bit tough, but overall, I really enjoyed my role as a student.  It suited my personality and interests to be a passive open vessel for knowledge.  I could sit back and just let the information pour in, and it was fantastic.  Throughout that journey though, there were a handful of professors who were more than teachers to me.  They became mentors and even friends.  Anne Crimmings and Marion Cohn were two standout psychology professors when I was an undergrad.  I’d like to think they saw something in me, possibly my determination and persistence, and went out of their way to offer help and encouragement.  Their guidance and belief in my ability to succeed supported me through very hard and scary times of change in my life.  More than anything, they helped me by being good role models for what I hoped to become as a person and as a psychologist.  

Once I became an actual professor I spent lots of time spouting information at packed classrooms.  Some of my classes had 500 students registered!  I could pontificate at them all day, but I didn’t really have a chance to know any of them.  They were like cattle, herded in and out.  I lectured, they took notes and exams, and I gave them grades.  They were a nameless faceless neverending mob.  I absolutely hated it.  It was a one way communication and it felt like a dead end.  

Luckily I was able to move full time to a smaller branch campus and into classrooms where 30-40 students was the norm.  Often I saw the same student in 4-5 of my classes over the course of several years.  I got to know some of them quite well.  My teaching style changed from being simply an information delivery system to a much more interactive back and forth conversation.  Every so often I would write letters of recommendation for students interested in graduate school.  They would tell me that I inspired them; mostly after I brought my dogs into class for demonstrations!  But hey, I’ll bask in the reflected glory of my dogs.


Zen being the best teaching assistant ever!

All the time I was teaching college students I was also teaching dog training.  I discovered quickly that spouting knowledge at someone with a wild and crazy adolescent dog at the end of the leash was not very helpful, no matter how solid the information.  My scientifically impeccable explanations of classical conditioning did not help the person frustrated beyond belief with their dog’s destructive behaviors.  In addition to giving solid information in an understandable way, there needed to be something more in this 3 way relationship of owner, dog, and me.  There needed to be a real human connection.  The owner needed to feel like I was on her side, that I would be there for support, and that I truly believed they would be successful in reaching their goals.  

As many animals lovers will tell you, I’m naturally good with animals, not so much with people.  But the people are the gateway to helping the animals.  Finding a way to develop authentic connections with the owners was really the only way to truly improve the dog’s life.  And to me, this is the heart of the difference between teaching and coaching.  Having that personal connection with the dog owner and making sure they know I’m on their side and believe in their ability to be successful is absolutely necessary, in addition to having helpful information and training ideas.  It’s the same difference I found between the packed but fairly lifeless classroom and the interactive and much more exciting one.  

It’s been over four years since I started teaching online classes at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.  During that time my approach to teaching has evolved more and more towards a coaching model.  Even after all these years of teaching experience, I’m amazed at how much more satisfying it is to become a true partner in the training process along with the owner and the dog.  It’s about so much more than sharing information and knowledge.  It’s about truly investing myself in the challenges and successes that my students face.  I’m honored when they trust me to be part of the process.  

If you’re looking for dog training instructors who can coach as well as teach then check us out at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.  This is the finest group of colleagues I could ever imagine.  Each and every one of them is not only extremely knowledgeable, but also kind and compassionate.  Take a look at our upcoming schedule!  Browse through our course descriptions and take a look at the video trailers and sample lectures to get a feel for each instructor’s style.  You won’t be disappointed in what we offer.


Thanks to Amy Cook for suggesting the topic.