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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

5 Reasons Principals Should Be Coached

By Peter DeWitt — October 23, 2016 6 min read
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If you’re a principal, would you work with a coach?

The premise around coaching has always been that coaches help teachers become better at their practice. Some of those teachers may need growth in a few areas like classroom management and student engagement. Other times those teachers may excel in many areas, like Michael Jordan excelled in basketball and Wayne Gretsky did in hockey (I’m showing my age with those two examples), and they need strategies to help them go from asking students questions to inspiring students to do the asking.

One of the other beliefs about coaching is that it’s good for all teachers, and no one should be ashamed to work with a coach. Many principals believe that all of their teachers should engage in a coaching relationship with an instructional coach. The focus is always on growth.

We’re supposed to have a growth mindset, right? We always ask our students to have one.

If it’s so important for teachers to work with a coach, then why aren’t more principals working with a coach to improve their leadership practices? Since posting this blog a few days ago (If Coaching Is So Important, Why Aren’t More Principals Being Coached?), I have heard form some districts, organizations and leaders who are being coached, which is awesome (read the comments on the bottom of that blog to see the organizations who are coaching leaders). It gives hope that principals are learners as well as leaders.

However, many leaders believe that coaching is only good for teachers. Why? Why is it good for one group in a school but not for the people responsible for running the school? Is it because principals know everything they need to know already? That can’t be true, because education is about lifelong learning, so we don’t know everything we always need to know.

What the Research Says
Research by experts like Jim Knight (I’m an instructional coaching trainer for Knight), show that coaching is one of the most impactful forms of professional development because it’s individualized and based on a goal chosen by a teacher or co-constructed with the coach if the teacher needs help choosing a goal. Knight’s research showed that when teachers (and most likely principals too) attend a normal sit-and-get professional development session they lose up to 90% of what they learned.

It makes sense, right? We attend PD and see some great speaker that we’ve always wanted to see, but we never take the time...or aren’t allowed the time...to truly see how what the speaker suggests fits into our practice (That’s why full day workshops can be more beneficial because the presenter should be helping attendees how it all fits together). We get back to our classrooms after seeing the dynamic speaker, and we put our learning to the side of our desk...and don’t use most of it because real life gets in the way and we revert to old habits.

What we can learn from Knight’s research is that working with a coach can help us retain up to 90% of what we learned. It’s easy to figure out why. When the teacher, or in this case the principal, chooses the goal they are more likely to do the work to reach the goal. If the principal doesn’t know what goal to go after, the coach can help them co-construct one.

Additionally, a coach helps the principal go through the learning process by sharing resources with them and talking through those resources. Then, the coach observes the principal in action and provides feedback focused on that goal the principal chose.

Feedback is Key
Feedback is the key in any relationship. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about principal to teacher, teacher to teacher, coach to teacher, etc. According to Hattie (I work with John as a Visible Learning trainer), feedback can have around a .75 effect size. The reason why it’s effect size is almost double Hattie’s hinge point of .40 which provides a year’s worth of growth for a year’s input, is that the feedback given is focused on the goal chosen.

What doesn’t happen in most feedback conversations though is the discussion of success criteria. Success criteria is simply the discussion about what success looks like, and it is crucial to providing effective feedback (Hattie).

For example, if a leader and coach choose the goal of having more impactful teacher observation post conversations, the success criteria would involve such examples of watching an expert video showing a successful post conversation or the coach and leader would engage in a role playing activity to get a better understanding of how a successful conversation should go. They might even video tape it and watch it together to critique each others role in the dialogue.

So, in the cycle the coach and leader would choose the goal, provide success criteria of what the goal should look like, and then provide feedback on the goal to get it closer to the success criteria they set. And yes, I know what you’re thinking. If we provide the success criteria at the beginning, why does the learner need the coach or teacher anymore? They still need that outside expert because, just because they know what success looks like, doesn’t mean they know how to put it into action. For example, I may know what a successful tennis match looks like but it doesn’t mean I’m instantly going to be able to do a powerful serve and volley.

5 Reasons to Consider Coaching
One of the most important aspects to any coaching program is to make sure the right coach is chosen. After the coach is chosen the relationship between the coach and the learner is critical because they need to have a relationship where they believe they can be vulnerable with one another.

There are at least 5 reasons why principals, just like teachers, can benefit from coaching.

Those reasons are:
Everyone needs feedback- Many times superintendents do not have the time to observe their principals in action during those times that are most important (i.e. Teacher observations, faculty meetings, etc.). Principals need to give feedback but they also need to get it to so they can improve on their practice. According to Otto Scharmer, we all have a blind spot that we lead from. Coaches can help principals understand their blind spot by observing them during those most important times.

Learning - The whole premise behind coaching is that the coach and participant learn with each other and learn from each other. When principals engage in learning, and model that need to learn to their staff, it can have powerful results.

Time - We often state that we don’t have time to get things done, but we waste the very time we often have on other things when we could be engaging in powerful conversations. Coaches can help principals utilize their time better when it comes to faculty meetings, walkthroughs, PLC’s and teacher observations. Coaches can also help leaders save time by becoming more proactive as opposed to reactive.

Growth - If we believe that coaches can help teachers grow as practioners, we should also believe that coaches can help principals grow as well. This does not just mean as a learner, but in their relationships with staff, students and parents. However, the coaches have to be high quality professionals who have leadership experience and understand research as well as high impact strategies. Those coaches also need to be able to listen to the context that the principal is working in.

Connecting the Dots - Very often leaders suffer from initiative fatigue in the same way that teachers do. It happens because district leaders may quickly chase after the new shiny toy and never fully explain how that new shiny toy fits into their context. Coaches often have the experience of working in many different school districts and can help principals see how they all fit together.

If you’re a principal, would you work with a coach?

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Coach It Further: Using the Art of Coaching to Improve School Leadership (Corwin Press. 2018). Connect with him on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.