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Transformation Translated: A Look Inside The Oaxaca Learning Center Community Coaching Project

By Meghan Ondrish  June 25, 2014

TOLC GroupLeadership that Works’ faculty member and Director of Coaching for Transformation, Richard Michaels, has recently taken the Coaching for Community Transformation across cultures and borders, to The Oaxaca Learning Center (TOLC) in Oaxaca, Mexico.

With a new language, culture and learning environment, Richard is stepping into new territory with his own coaching and teaching skills and is excited about different approaches to bringing the fundamentals of coaching to this community. This year, Richard was joined by Maria Rogers Pascal and Rebecca Aced-Molina, Spanish speaking graduates of Coaching for Transformation.

With Phase One—a series of intensive coaching skills training and mentoring spanning the first four months of 2014—successfully completed, Richard, Maria and Rebecca are focusing on Phase Two. Richard recently shared what’s been done and what lies ahead.

How did you come to get involved with The Oaxaca Learning Center?

In 2009, my wife Tracy and I spent time in Oaxaca. I was very moved by it; the culture, the warmth of the people, the art and gorgeous weather. I immediately became friends with Gary Titus, the founder of the Learning Center. As I talked about my work as a coach and trainer, Gary saw the potential that bringing coaching to the Learning Center could have on its staff, the people they serve, the fulfillment of its mission and impact on the community at large.

Was this your first time doing community coaching?

I’ve worked with groups for many years but those groups are usually public groups in the US and Canada. And I’ve worked with individuals from different cultures, but not groups. So this was the first time that I worked with a group from a distinctly different cultural background than my own, and whose first language was also different from my own.

What was that like?

I had planned a four and half hour workshop to give a pilot group a taste of coaching. I was excited and then just days before, was struck by the thought, “is this actually going to fly?” Even with an able translator, I questioned, “How well is this going to translate?” I got a little freaked out.

I then went with Tracy, who was teaching English, and watched her work with a group of young residents of Oaxaca. Her relaxed and personal approach and tips for me were helpful. I modified my plan, simplified it and once again got back on track.

To start, we did basic coaching exercises, using questions to draw answers from people’s own inquiry, rather than supplying them with our solutions. They responded very positively and learned rapidly, even though this was a major departure from their normal way of teaching.

As we began, one of the tutors said, “but that’s what I do when I teach. I teach people what I know and how things are to be done. That’s my job. I can’t see asking them to figure out their own answers.” Four hours later, Betsaida had a big grin on her face and said she was going to start using the techniques to help the students find their own answers. She said, “It will make learning much more alive.”

These young adults were a very close group and displayed great fun in their interactions. So it was a big surprise to me when they shared afterwards that they’ve never talked to each other at quite the depth before as they had in the coaching. They were excited about the deepening of their friendship, communication and sense of community.

Fast forward two years from that first four hours to four months of coach training last January. After the first day, word spread fast and Gary and others were excited about the reports they heard from the group. Commitment to our proposals for additional training in Community Coaching for Transformation and Coaching for Transformation rapidly grew.

How was this experience different for you as a coach?

The culture was new for me. This had me, Lily Hollister, our course manual translator, and Eduardo Delfino, a recent Coaching for Transformation graduate, all looking at the material and thinking in terms of how to communicate this simply. We also made sure to pay close attention to approaches in the US we don’t even give a second thought to, but culturally may be different and not directly translatable.

Another difference for me is that I mostly teach public groups—the people that come don’t know each other when they walk into the classroom. This group worked together and came in already in relationship. That increased the importance of creating safety with regards to confidentiality and rank, so the learning environment was open and inviting for everyone.

What are some of the outcomes that stand out the most to you so far?

A conversation with Sonia goes right to the point. Near the completion of Phase One I asked, “what difference has this made for you?” She shared that she felt more empathy for people and that she experiences less stress at work. Sonia said she had become less reactive in managing projects and with people. She is more collaborative, more curious and working with people in a way that has a lot more ease and relaxation. Simple words but a profound change.

In a way, this experience was like throwing a match into hay, because as a culture, and as a group, they are warmer and more community-minded than many of us in our high speed lives. Although their feelings came through with great vitality, they don’t publically process their emotions, especially challenging ones, as we in the US who are influenced by psychological, counseling and coaching models do. Where we put our feet into this water, they felt their way into it and rapidly picked up on the value it had in deepening understanding, closeness and in addressing issues.

The feedback of the organizers and students of TOLC, their sincerity, curiosity and caring went the longest way in putting us on the same page. The work that Maria and Rebecca did individually and in small groups was invaluable. What we ended up with was a good fit and a lot of learning for all. This all left me with a heightened sense of gratitude and deep human connection across borders and differences.

What’s next?

The group is ready to take coaching to a new level and we believe that each participant shows the capacity to master the skills of coaching. We want to explore their individual goals for pursuing coaching, how they see themselves applying it in The Oaxaca Learning Center and in the longer term in their careers wherever that takes them.

In Phase Two, participants will review and deepen existing skills and learn new ones. The focus will be on application of coaching skills within the context of their individual roles. Whereas part of the teaching in Phase One was done translating English into Spanish, Phase Two will be taught in Spanish.

In a recent meeting, Jaasiel, President of TOLC was asked what changes he saw in the organization as a result of Phase One of Coaching for Community Transformation. He replied “the group is more enthusiastic, solving problems more effectively and using the coaching methodology with students. In meetings people are more respectful in how we talk, have less conflict and more calm.” Gary, the founder of TOLC stated, “the coaching approach is providing a path that enhances everything we do moving forward bringing new projects on board and moving out in wider circles of the educational services we provide.”

Maria, Rebecca and I are excited about designing the Phase Two curriculum to address overall skill development and the application of coaching to the specific needs of the center’s organizational leadership and of its teachers and tutors. The plan will include a system for the continued development and vitality of the coaching approach in The Oaxaca Learning Center so it will be passed on to new staff and helps to successfully meet the opportunities and challenges of the future.

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