A MOE journey: the power of coaching and mental health awareness

In the four years Mark Bixter has been working for MOE as a lead trainer, here, we talk about his MOE journey.

We discover in this Q&A, how his values have guided his coaching to work with charities Spark Inside, working with prison inmates, Breaking Barriers, set up to help integrate refugees through employment, Young Women’s Trust, with the mission that: ‘No young woman gets left behind’, mental health charity Sanctus and social work charity Frontline.

We talk mental health, the Covid pandemic and Mark’s experiences of how coaching has the power to change ourselves for the better.

Career journey to date

I’ve had a squiggly career and jumped around sectors and roles. I originally trained and worked as an actor for seven years, then following a career development programme with the National Theatre, I moved into theatre producing.

I worked on a variety of events from new writing festivals, to large-scale one-off events and even staged an opera in a warehouse in Peckham. From producing theatre, I then started producing creative projects within the criminal justice sector which eventually led to my next career spending seven years in senior leadership teams within small charities.

This in turn led me to coaching which I originally did part-time alongside working in charities until January 2020, when I moved to a fully freelance life. I now coach four days a week and look after my toddler on the 5th day. I also work as a celebrant delivering wedding ceremonies and baby namings – but that’s another story…

Narrative coaching – how does this help engage clients?

Narrative coaching is an approach to coaching developed by Dr David Drake. In its simplest form, it is a way of working that helps people to understand the narratives or stories that they can tell themselves and that can keep them stuck in certain patterns or cycles of behaviours. Once people understand their stories better, they can choose to tell a different one.

What brought you to MOE?

I was working as Managing Director of the charity Spark Inside who deliver life coaching programmes in prisons. While working there I was introduced to MOE and began my coach training. Originally, I had no intention of becoming a coach. I just wanted to understand coaching better as it was what the charity did, but the course was the start of another chapter …

How has MOE impacted you?

MOE has been instrumental in me leading my current life. During the course, I realised that I wasn’t in the right job and it gave me the courage to step away without any clear idea of what the future held, but knowing the time was right for something different.

MOE is an incredible community and support. I have made lifelong friends and colleagues through MOE and it has been a pleasure to see MOE’s continuing evolution.

In what way has having a theatre background helped you to connect with young people, women, refugees, prison inmates, and charities through your coaching?

Good question! I haven’t ever really thought about this. I think there is possibly something in being an actor that requires you to understand a character, to have empathy with their position and get under the skin of what leads them to behave in the way they do.

There are many parallels here with coaching, if we can understand why people behave in the way they do, we can help them to understand it better themselves and then if they want to choose a different way.

Drawing on your coaching with ‘Spark Inside’ and refuge charity ‘Breaking Barriers’, what drove you to working inside prisons and with refugees?

Coaching can be an elitist profession. There is an assumption that the more senior the person you coach, and the more you can charge, then the better the coaching is.

I fundamentally disagree with this approach. When I began coaching, I was always keen to make it accessible and wanted to coach people who may not otherwise receive it. I was less interested in working with C-suite clients in large corporations.

I was interested in what coaching could offer to everyone. This has been the starting point of my coaching business and has always been the kind of work I like to do. With this in mind I have sought to work with organisations that have values that align with mine.

To this end I have returned to Spark Inside to work as a coach inside prisons. I work with Young Women’s Trust – a feminist charity supporting women furthest from power. I coach with Sanctus supporting staff in organisations with their mental health and also work for Frontline coaching newly qualified social workers.

Drawing on all your coaching experiences, knowledge and wisdom, working with some of the hardest to reach populations, what’s your own values and vision for a brighter future?

I don’t see the people I work with as hard to reach. They are living their lives in their own communities in the way that makes sense to them. They would not describe themselves as hard to reach. The phrase hard to reach says a lot more about the people seeking to reach them than it does the people themselves.

I think this idea sits at the heart of my values and vision. My role is to meet people where they are, understand what is going on in their world, discover what they would like to be different and start moving towards the alternative.

That remains the same whether it’s a young man sat in a prison cell or the director of marketing at a tech start-up. The more people can step into a life that is right for them the brighter the future will be for everyone.

Power of MOE courses – transformational moements

I see this happen on every course with people starting on day one. Unsure of what to expect, what they’re capable of, and then coming out of the other side with greater belief in their ability. With a new perspective on how they see the world and the relationships they hold.

There are little examples of things like people wanting to sign up for a course, but they’ve been too scared and put it off for months. Then they take the plunge and get stuck in.

There are people who have changed their parenting styles and have improved their relationships with their children. There are people who have become more present in their relationships and started listening to their partners in a new way. There are people who have taken the leap and set up new businesses.

Overall, I think my favourite moments are the people who arrive lacking self-belief, but through the learning and practice, see their confidence grow and by the end of the course, are able to recognise their own value. They have a greater sense of who they are in the world and feel better able to confront it.

Tempted to join the trainer pathway?

Delivering the courses continues to teach me about coaching and has helped me become a better coach and understand the principles behind it. I have also made some wonderful connections and friends. I’ve also been employed by participants I’ve trained who have gone on to set up their own businesses, so it’s got me some work!

To anyone thinking of beginning the trainer pathway I’d say just go for it! Short of actually coaching, it is one of the most helpful things to do to learn and grow as a coach. It also develops facilitation skills and confidence, and consolidates your own learning. 

The trainer pathway has been created in such a way to allow you to start small and build up to delivering more difficult sections of the course, so you will never feel like you’re out of your depth.

The first time you join the training team you can simply observe, share your observations and understand the logistics. From there you can start facilitating debriefs following coaching demonstrations, and when you feel ready, delivering demos yourself. There’s lots of support along the way and you don’t need to go faster than you’re ready too. 

I was lucky on my own journey to becoming a lead trainer, in that I had some time off, so was able to join a lot of courses in quick succession. This enabled me to learn quickly and intensively, and to see how different lead trainers ran the course.

However you do the trainer pathway though, whether it takes a few months or a couple of years to become a lead trainer, there’s support all along the way. 

It’s also worth saying that you don’t need to want to be a lead trainer to join the training team. If you enjoy being part of the courses and have time to give, you can continue to support in the way that feels good for you. Wherever you’re at, just give it a go! 

Let’s talk mental health

I think there is an inherent assumption with the term ‘mental health’ that it only exists when it is bad and so conversations around mental health can typically start and end with that lens.

I believe that we all have mental health all the time, every hour of every day. Sometimes our mental health is great and we’re looking for the next challenge or enjoying life connecting with those around us.

At other times, our mental health is not so good, and we can feel frustrated, anxious, sad or a whole range of other stuff. Whatever state we’re in, we have mental health. Our mental health is part of being human. 

Impact of Covid on the wider population? 

Regarding Covid there has definitely been an impact; removing people’s ability to connect with others in a meaningful way has led to many challenges for people ranging from anxiety to isolation, worry and a lack of trust.

However, there is another side to this where Covid has provided the opportunity for people to reassess what is important. To change their lifestyles, jobs, homes and create a new life that is ultimately more suited to them.

Whilst nobody would wish a global pandemic, it has provided a space for people to connect to themselves, so it has been a mixed picture.

In times of what can be to some, very dark times, how can coaching improve mental health and empower others who feel powerless and hopeless, to see there can be another way? 

With such a glut of bad news swirling around it can be incredibly overwhelming and the pressure to feel as though we need to solve all the world’s problems can sometimes be too much.

Every person will be on their own individual journey with this and coaching has a role in helping people take ownership of what they can do rather than a focus on the enormity of what they can’t.

It starts with looking after yourself. As the much-used example of the flight attendant’s speech before take-off says, if the oxygen masks drop down, please put your own on first before going to help others. This can be extrapolated into much bigger issues; take care of your own wellbeing first, only then can you be of best service to others.

Then start to look at what you can do to help and take action; a small gesture is better than no gesture. Maybe it’s donating to a food bank, maybe it’s picking up a prescription for a neighbour who is self-isolating, maybe it’s eating less meat to help the planet, maybe it’s emailing your MP, these small acts multiplied can have big impact. 

What’s your message to others feeling a bit lost right now or if someone is feeling alone, withdrawing, shutting themselves away? 

The first thing is to recognise that feeling lost or having an urge to withdraw is a normal experience and one that everyone will have at some point. Start with self-compassion and don’t judge your experience as good or bad, but try to look at in terms of it being helpful or useful for you. Telling yourself that it’s bad to shut yourself away for a bit doesn’t really help anyone, maybe that is exactly what you need and it is helpful for your self-care, so embrace it and take that time for yourself.

On the other hand, if you shut yourself away but it isn’t helping you and makes you feel worse or more alone, then start to think about what would be helpful for you. Maybe it’s going outside for a long walk and connecting to nature. Maybe it’s spending time with those you trust and love. Stay attuned to how you’re feeling, keep checking in with yourself and ask what is the most helpful or useful thing I can do for myself today and act on that.

Hope for humanity. How can we look out for one another?

Wow that’s a big one! I’d quite like to share a quote from Anton Chekhov where he says:

‘Man will become better when you show him what he is like’

If we can all see ourselves a little better, then we can start to make changes. Awareness is key. Once we are aware of how we show up and how we behave, we can start to do something about it, and we can help others see this too.

We all have the power to change ourselves for the better, to look within and address our own biases and see where our behaviour might be negatively impacting others. Where are we not being inclusive? Where are we not aware of our privilege?

What are those mini assumptions we’re making about people of another sex, race or gender or of refugees or of people in prison? It’s an ongoing process and as humans we will never complete this work, but if we lead with kindness, love and compassion then a better world awaits.


For more information on our Mental Health First Aid Course please click here:

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As a community, we are inspired by the many stories we come across about how MOE has supported and impacted change makers.

We would very much like to invite you share your story with our ever-growing community. We are interested in your changemaker journey and your experience with MOE. As we work to grow our community, it is important to us that we continue to showcase the wonderful people in our community. 

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Contact: Raissa Aude, community engagement director

Email: raissau@moefoundation.com

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