Transactional vs. Transformational: What Kind of Teacher Do You Hope Your Kid Will Have?

My wife took a professional development course last weekend, and one of her classmates (a football coach) brought up one the truly genius models of distinguishing between types of coaching. If you're active in the world of coaching, you may know these terms, but for the rest of us, let's talk about transactional and transformational coaching.


The transactional coach is trying to make a deal. The athlete has a skill, a power, a strength the coach needs to win games, so the coach works hard to get that game-winning something out of the athlete. The work between athlete and coach is about developing a particular skill in the athlete with the goal of wining. If the athlete loses the ability to produce, then the coach no longer needs the athlete, discards the athlete, replaces the athlete, moves on. If the athlete has no ability to produce, that athlete can ride the bench or just get off the team. If the athlete can't help get a W, the athlete is of no use to the transactional coach. For the transactional coach, the athlete is like a vending machine—you put in money (time, attention) and out comes a treat (victory).

The transformational coach has a broader view. The transformational coach is there to transform the entire athlete, or as one site puts it "by giving individual consideration to all aspects of an athlete’s performance—skills and techniques, motivation and behavior, work ethic and sportsmanship—the transformational coach has the ability to positively affect, and to positively produce, the optimal sports performance of the entire team." The transformational coach looks to transform every athlete on the team (even those who cannot help get the W or have no future in athletics) into their best selves, to build up their strengths and overcome their weaknesses, and in the process teach them how to be their best selves not just in the midst of the contest, but in the larger world.

The transactional coach only needs to check the wins-losses numbers. The transformational coach looks at what kind of people the athletes are when they emerge from the program. For that same reason, it's very easy for a transactional coach to measure "success" with a clear, simple metric, while for the transformational coach, it's much harder to reduce "success" to a quick number.

And yet, most parents want their child to have a transformational coach, and most arguments about the value of athletics—how it develops character, teaches life skills, strengthens athletes as people—rest on the presence of a transformational coach.

The terminology was borrowed from the business world, and it transfers nicely to the classroom as well. Most of us went into teaching precisely because we imagined becoming transformational teachers, making a difference in students' lives by helping them become their best selves, helping them transform themselves into more fully whole and human persons.

But advocates of education reform have, intentionally or not, worked to redefine teachers as transactional coaches. We are supposed to be there just to get that good test score out of each kid. We should use test prep, rewards, threats—whatever works to get the student to make the right marks on the Big Standardized Test so that we can have that easily measured, numerically-coded win. Charter schools have the additional freedom to sort students based on which ones can best complete the transaction and which ones need to be benched. And since the transaction is a fairly simple, we have no shortage of ideas about how to have it broken into short, simple competency-based transactions that can be handled by a computer.

Transactional coaching is simple, clear and can provide distinct short-term rewards. It is also narrow, shallow, and ultimately subordinates humanity and the value of individuals to an artificial and ultimately meaningless excuse for a life purpose. Transformational coaching is way to see the pursuit of athletic excellence as a means of pursuing human excellence and giving an athlete the tools to pursue whatever goals they might set for themselves. A transformational approach puts humanity at the center, setting goals that recognize higher values than the simple pursuits in front of us. A transactional approach sets up an artificial goal and holds it up as a god to be worshipped and pursued at the expense of any human beings who stand in the way. Can there be any doubt that education should be transformational?

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