When Leaders Coach

Shira Leibowitz

If schools were teams, what roles would various school leaders have: Judge? Captain? Manager? Owner? Physical Therapist? Sportscaster? Promoter? Fan? Cheerleader? Groundskeeper? Mascot? Coach?

As school leaders, we often struggle to achieve the ambitious goals we set for the professionals we supervise and support, for ourselves, and ultimately, most significantly, for our students and for the overall quality of our schools. Key to our success is being intentional about the roles and tasks we take on as leaders.

Consider the following continuum. At one end, leaders function as judges, while at the other end, they function as captains or cheerleaders. At the potent midpoint, leaders function as coaches.

At the judge end, leaders can be compared to the silent judges in boxing and gymnastic matches, holding up a number that defines performance. There is no interaction, and no debate. The decision of the judge is final. When in the role of judge, leaders are assessing quality, focusing on high expectations and addressing concerns with performance. At the team captain/cheerleader end, leaders are affable and encouraging, demonstating appreciation and celebrating accomplishment and effort. Both the judge, assessing quality, and the captain/cheerleader, demonstrating appreciation and celebrating accomplishment and effort, are vital leadership roles, foundational to the effective functioning of schools. However, to achieve substantial leaps forward in improving the quality of our schools, leaders will do well by functioning, as much as possible, in the role of coach.

School leaders who focus on coaching emphasize adult and student learning, directing resources of both time and finances to those areas that are most likely to impact the quality of their schools. They visit classrooms and offer nonjudgmental feedback to teachers, and they creatively allocate resources in order to provide high-quality instructional coaching to teachers. They emphasize collaboration, scheduling time for teachers to learn and plan together, and providing teachers training in working collaboratively with a focus on student learning. Never denying their responsibility to evaluate, they transform formal evaluative processes into opportunities for engaged professional reflection and learning. While holding high expectations, leaders who practice coaching are both supportive to their teachers and staff as professionals and concerned about their teachers and staff as individuals. The results can be transformative, unleashing potential in teachers and other professionals, and inspiring cultures of joyous curiosity and celebratory embrace of the possible for each professional and each student.

While immeasurably impactful, there are risks inherent in shifting to a coaching model of leadership when that has not previously been among the primary leadership modalities in a school. Teachers who have received exemplary or even satisfactory evaluations in a model closer to leader as judge may need to be convinced of the value of the high level of effort that must be invested in professional learning within a serious coaching model. Alternatively, teachers who have worked with leaders functioning more like an affable team captain or encouraging cheerleader may find new expectations, even offered with support, as a harsh imposition.

Regardless of the prior leadership model, some if not many teachers and staff members who have not experienced coaching will likely express skepticism about the benefits. They may also be concerned that coaching is being recommended due to lack of satisfaction with their performance, rather than as a gift all professionals deserve. Nonetheleless, with careful pacing, explanation, encouragement and reassurance, school leaders can succeed in gaining buy-in for the transition to a coaching model. Through coaching, they can reach highly ambitious goals by supporting teachers and other professionals to engage in the sometimes disconcerting, yet ultimately invigorating, process of reflective, substantive professional learning, leading to potentially transformative school improvement.

To begin thinking about making the shift to spending more time in the role of coach, consider four steps.

  • Be clear about what “hat” you are wearing.
  • Get out of the office.
  • Focus on teacher learning.
  • Create a culture of coaching.

Be Clear About What “Hat” You Are Wearing

The most typical reservation to this arrangement relates to the profound challenge of being both evaluator and coach. How can one with the ability to make significant decisions about one’s employment be a coach, offering safe and supportive opportunity for professional growth? While it is true that supervisors cannot always remain in a coaching role, and the evaluative aspect will be a component of the professional relationship, there can be an emphasis on coaching, especially for all professionals you are confident you want to retain. Introduce to teachers how you are defining and implementing your role as a coach. Consider sharing that, unless you specifically say you have a concern and are speaking as an evaluator, you will be wearing your coaching hat. Make clear that you will be working to give nonjudgmental, reflective feedback to teachers and designing with them opportunities for their own professional learning.

Get Out Of Your Office

Coaching requires being out and about, in classrooms throughout the school. Shifting your time to spend more of it in classrooms may be easier said than done. There is a gravitational pull in many school cultures beckoning leaders to their offices in order to be accessible whenever a teacher, child or parent needs something. Meetings, some valuable, others expendable, and voluminous amounts of paperwork can also overwhelm. Nonetheless, being a frequent supportive presence in classrooms is essential to a coaching-based leadership model. An important first step is to take control of your calendar, and plan time to be in classrooms. Some school leaders schedule time daily, for example, dedicating two hours per day to be in classrooms. Other school leaders schedule larger chunks of time weekly, yet not every day, dedicating some days primarily to classroom time and other days primarily to office/meeting time. The amount of time you will spend in each particular classroom can vary based on what is occurring in that classroom as you observe. You might spend as little as five minutes, gaining a good sense of learning, or as much as an entire 45-minute or one-hour lesson.

When beginning to visit classrooms, know that no matter how supportive you seek to be, your presence will likely cause anxiety. Be sensitive and respectful. Share a compliment, either verbally or in writing. Then create opportunities for self-reflection. This might be through brief follow-up conversations, written thoughts for teachers to consider, formally scheduled meetings to engage in reflection, or some combination. The goal is for teachers to reflect on their own practice, and to consider ways they might shift or modify learning experiences in order to even more effectively meet the needs of students in their classrooms.

Focus on Teacher Learning

School leaders focused on coaching are committed to creating meaningful opportunities for all professionals to learn and improve. Among the most substantial supports for the impact of this work can be found in the research of John Hattie (Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning), whose investigation of more than 900 meta-analyses represents the largest collection of evidence-based research into what actually works in schools. Hattie finds “learning leadership” to be among the most effective leadership styles in improving school quality. Specific actions of learning leaders, or principal coaches, include providing teachers coaching over an extended time, implementing data teams in which teachers collaboratively analyze student work, focusing on how students learn subject matter content, and enabling teachers to work collaboratively to plan and monitor lessons based on evidence about how students learn.

Create a Culture of Coaching

There are numerous ways of extending the coaching model beyond the role of leaders to the entire school. This can include hiring an instructional coach if possible. It is also potentially valuable to repurpose existing positions in order to offer more coaching to teachers. Is there a master teacher who could have time in her or his schedule allocated for language arts or math coaching? Is there a skilled special education teacher who could offer coaching in differentiating learning? Can a technology teacher serve as an educational technology coach? At times, grants may be available to bring in part-time external coaches.

Another complementary approach to a leadership model emphasizing coaching includes creating time in teacher schedules for collaborative work, along with training in ways of utilizing that time effectively. Helping teachers to look at student work, set goals for students together, and plan and monitor lessons collaboratively is an invaluable component of creating a culture of serious, effective job-embedded professional learning. Some schools extend on this time with opportunities for teachers to observe one another’s teaching. During “learning walks,” teachers visit one another’s classrooms and reflect respectfully on ways that what they have observed could positively impact their own teaching. During “instructional rounds,” teachers visit each other’s classrooms and give the teacher observed supportive, reflective feedback. In “lesson study,” teachers plan a lesson together. One teacher teaches the lessons, while the others observe. The teachers then debrief together and reflect on the lesson. Sometimes they revise the lesson together based on reflections, and another teacher teaches the revised lesson. They then begin the cycle again, planning another lesson together. Within a peer coaching model, teachers observe one another and offer insight. Each of these approaches are aimed at breaking down teacher isolation and nurturing a culture of reflective collaboration integral to a serious culture of coaching.

Next Steps

Returning to the opening list of leadership roles, think about the ways that the roles you hold most frequently impact the learning that takes place in your school. Now, consider what next steps you might take to move toward a coaching-based leadership model, increasing your impact in improving quality of learning, experience and community at your school.

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HaYidion Catalyzing Resources Fall 2018
Catalyzing Resources
Fall 2018