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Differences Between Teaching and Counseling – And Why It Matters

The activities and responsibilities of teaching and counseling are central parts of the healthcare professional’s role, but they are very different.

We tend to clump words, activities or events together as if they were the same or at least similar. Remember that old song? “Love and marriage … go together like a horse and carriage.” You might have heard “teaching and counseling” in the same sentence, too. But there are distinct differences between teaching and counseling.

You might say, “Marie! Don’t you think this distinction is a little too academic?” No, I don’t. Unless we are clear on which approach to use, we might end up using the wrong one.

Where you start, how the information is given, who is in charge, your role, and the setting are major differences between teaching and counseling.

What is the goal?

Teaching is about establishing a goal, then giving information and possibly advice about a course of action. Ideally, the teacher conducts a needs assessment and identifies a specific learning gap, or problem, and establishes a clear learning goal that bridges the learning gap.

Counseling is goal-oriented, but in a different way. Neither the counselor nor the client has an exact agenda or agreed-upon goal. In some or many cases, the “goal” of the conversation is not identified until after the client reaches it.

Differences between teaching and counseling are especially notable as related to the goal.

Where is the starting point?

The teacher begins at one mostly-obvious starting point. Together, client and teacher move to a pre-determined destination. Ideally, the starting point is at the place of the learning gap.

The counselor, however, often helps the client to go from a nebulous starting point to a more comfortable, more functional place. The client may come to the session confused, frustrated, or overwhelmed. The counselor may be unaware of the client’s unspoken need.

Often, the client is aware of a problem but is unable to articulate the crux of the issue or need. The goal of the counseling is to get a client to come to their own decision. (Here, I’ve given some do’s and don’ts for simple counseling techniques.)

Differences between teaching and counseling can be noted from the starting line to the finish line.

Differences between teaching and counseling affect format

Although teaching styles differ, teaching follows a relatively clear structure. Using the identified starting point, the teacher offers information to help the client get from Point A to Point B. The teacher develops content to support the learning goal, and uses content that is similar from one person or group to another person or group with the same learning need. The teacher tends to emphasize the “best” information. Supporting materials (visual aids, etc.) have been located ahead of time.

Counseling usually includes presenting fairly unstructured information to help the client see the benefits, the risks, and the alternatives through a more precise lens. Materials to support content may or may not be used, but these are usually not pre-planned. Content differs a little or a lot from one person or group to another.

Differences between teaching and counseling can be noted in the structure — or lack thereof — as well as the format and the presentation in general.

Role of the client

A teacher leads the interaction. As an expert, she gives information, or recommends a course of action. The teacher tries to help the client to achieve a skill (for example, how to change a diaper) or tries to persuade the client to do or avoid a particular action (for example, eat a healthy diet.)

The counselor encourages the client to do most of the talking while the counselor listens. The counselor does not make a decision for the client, and most certainly, the counselor does not give advice. Sometimes, the client changes her mind on the course of action, and a counselor’s responsibility is to support and assist through this process. There are also things to avoid when counseling.

The roles are very different between teaching and counseling. A teacher’s main job is to talk and instruct while a client listens. A counselor’s main job is to listen, guide and empower the client..

In short, differences between teaching and counseling focus on the words direction or facilitation. Teaching focuses on giving directing an action; counseling focuses on facilitating decisions or next actions.

Setting is frequently different

Teaching is done in a group or on a one-on-one basis. Counseling is done on a one-to-one basis, or perhaps between a counselor and a couple.

The activities and responsibilities of teaching and counseling are central parts of the healthcare professional’s role, but they are very different.

Differences between teaching and counseling

Here, I’ve tried to lay out the main differences. As soon as you start thinking about whether you’re trying to teach or counsel, I think you’ll find it easier to do the one you’re intending to do.

 Meanwhile, tell me: do you find yourself doing one when you should be doing the other? 

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  1. Roberta

    This article was very helpful! It definitely brought clarity to me; and I think having the questions at the end will challenge me as well as help me to stay focused. Thank you!

    • Marie Biancuzzo

      Roberta, thank you for your feedback. I really struggled to write this post. Although I knew they were different, I found it hard to articulate the differences between teaching and counseling. Teaching has always come easily to me. Counseling? Uh, not so much! Nowadays, however, I find myself teaching people how to counsel! Yikes! I think the key here is, as you say, having clarity; being able to stop ourselves when we are doing one, when we should be doing the other. Thanks again.

  2. Gayathri

    Well said, thank you Marie for putting things in perspective! I think teaching as a teacher/lecturer versus counselor as a listener/facilitator.

  3. Ronke

    Thank you for the clarity of teaching and counselling. Can you also tell me the difference between coaching and consulting and counselling . Do they interface and are any of the approaches more suitable when assisting someone with trauma

    • Marie Biancuzzo

      Thank you for this most interesting question. Using the points used in my original post, I’d say that once again it’s about the goal, the starting point, the format, the role of the client, and perhaps even the setting. I’d need a few days to think about this, but having done teaching, counseling, and coaching, here are my immediate thoughts. The goal of coaching is determined—and hopefully well-articulated—by the client. The goal usually pertains to achieving some professional recognition. The starting point is also determined by the client. The format as highly flexible. It’s likely that the client(s) being coached have likely already acquired basic skills which need to be improved upon. And, like teaching, coaching may occur in an individual setting, or perhaps in a small group. Thank you for this very intriguing question; I’ll be happy to think more about this.

    • Marie Biancuzzo

      Okay, maybe in this post, I went a little too heavy on the differences. Sounds like you’re looking for the similarities. I’d say the biggest similarity is that both give information. You can’t teach and you can’t counsel unless you have a ton of information in your own back pocket. But the counselor and the teacher position themselves differently, as I said in the post. Another similarity is that both the counselor and the teacher are in a “helper” or “guide” role; they are both trying to help the other person to move from a state of where they are to where they want to be. Getting them “un-stuck”, so to speak. Hope that helps!

    • Marie Biancuzzo

      Here, I concentrated on the differences. You’re asking about the similarities. I’d say that a major similarity is that in either the teaching role or the counseling role, you need to have a breadth of knowledge, and help the client to “own” the next actions.

  4. Janet

    Thanks for clarification. My question is especially in marriages some couples can not come for counseling out of different reasons , can you counsel them through teaching in meetings or gatherings.

    • Marie Biancuzzo

      Good question. I don’t know, but I have a friend who is an excellent marriage/family therapist, and she has recorded some videos. I don’t know what the content is, but my guess would be that she presents topics you can actually teach. Meaning, I think you can teach concepts (for example, active listening, giving “I” messages, etc.) that people could then later apply to real life. It’s not the same as counseling, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.

  5. Kelly

    This has been a great article. I am starting out as a counselling student. I am also working as a nurse educator. ( I have been nursing for 28yrs and teaching for 10) I find a lot of similarity with nursing and teaching as they are both directive and instructional and there is a clear goal. However I am struggling with my counselling studies at the moment with not knowing the initial goal and where we are heading in the conversation. You have hit the nail on the head as to why I am feeling that counselling doesn’t come as “natural” as I would have suspected it to be!

    • Marie Biancuzzo

      Kelly, thank you for such a positive response. I spent a few hours writing this post. Not because I needed to publish that day, but because I felt I had to wrestle with it until I could understand it all in my own head. I’ve had at least two graduate level courses in counseling, but as a nurse, I often struggle with whether I’m “teaching” or “counseling” and the professors never addressed that. And, I might add, I’ve now become a certified business coach. I often feel like I’m straddling with my feet in three camps: Teaching, counseling, coaching! They are all different. I’d consider myself an expert educator, I’m always inclined to do the “teaching” because that’s my biggest strength. But teaching isn’t always appropriate. We need to meet the client where they’re at. But one thing is for sure. If we don’t understand the difference between the roles, we’ll never meet the needs of those we serve.

  6. Nadine

    Hi, this article is particularly relevant to me. I’m struggling to decide be an English teacher or a counsellor. I’m very good at teaching and tutoring, but have never tried out counselling and know it’s not my true passion. However, teaching is very stressful as I’ve heard, and the system is corrupt. It also doesn’t pay too well, and I want to be a mother, so I’m not sure if it’ll be compatible with my lifestyle. Could you give me advice?

    • Marie Biancuzzo

      Oh, Nadine! Such a loaded question! I’ve done a bunch of this myself. I’ve taught in different universities, I’ve done tutoring, and I’ve done (and am doing) coaching. I would not say that coaching is the same as counseling. (That’s could probably be a different post!) But I’m wondering if you might benefit from signing up with a life coach. I am NOT a life coach or a career, I’m a business coach. But there are plenty of life coaches and career coaches out there who might be able to help you sort out what makes sense for you. I think we get too hung up on what we want to “do” and the whole “money” aspect. I’d suggest you think about all of that in a broader context. Here’s my post on the Ikigai system. Like most of my posts, it’s a 3-minute read. Also suggest you take a look at Simon Sinek book I suggest in that post. If you get that stuff straight, I think you’ll see the “do” and the “money” will come naturally.

  7. Vi Renee

    Great article! I am challenged because I am a teacher by nature and completing my masters in pastoral counseling. I am
    also a natural encourager and find myself doing all 3 when counseling my clients. It causes me to wonder if I am being as effective as I should be as a counselor when I always seem to find teaching and encouraging moments during my sessions.

    • Marie Biancuzzo

      Vi, I hear ya, because that “doing it all” was one of my issues! (I often joke that I don’t write the blog for my readers, I write to get myself straightened out!) Seriously, though, I became much more “focused” in my interactions when I started to understand the difference. I also began to understand myself better in another regard, too. I’m a clinical nurse specialist, and pretty much, from day 1, I’ve learned to “fix it.” But often, the “fix” is not really to fix it, but to help the client fix it for themselves. It also happens that I’m an expert teacher, and I’ve spent a lot of time learning instructional design, so I want to head to “teaching” and I leap to “teaching”. But self-awareness was key. I do believe that the “goal” is the part that we need to become most aware of. In teaching, the goal is derived from the learning gap, and hence the “teacher” establishes the goal at the outset. With counseling, neither the “counselor” or the client knows the goal. The “goal” of counseling often does not reveal itself until is has been achieved. Thank you for your comment!

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