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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Can Leadership Coaching Help Leaders Focus on What Matters?

By Peter DeWitt — October 14, 2018 11 min read
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As a leader, have you ever felt insecure? You know, that level of insecurity that makes you wonder if you aren’t cut out for the role? And as soon as your insecurities seem to be getting the best of you, a day comes when you feel as though there is a flow to the work and you’re on top of the world because everything is going well?

I had my share of both good and bad days as a school leader, but what seemed to always make it better is surrounding myself with people I could learn from and talk to about anything. Having a confidant or critical friend is important for our growth as leaders. We need people who can ask the right questions, and give us insight into an issue we are facing because they faced it in their career before us.

We all know that leadership is complex work. It involves being a manager, disciplinarian, instructional, and collaborative leader, which means having the gift to bring diverse people together during difficult circumstances like budget cuts and school consolidations. For leaders to have a real impact on student learning, they need to collaborate with many different stakeholders in order to change the climate and culture of a building to a place where there is deep, authentic collaboration to help us get to the core of our challenges.

Gone should be the times where leaders hand pick people for a stakeholder group who will only agree with everything the leaders say and do. And long gone should be the times where leaders believe that they went to the dark side when they entered into leadership. We simply cannot lead alone, and we must lead collaboratively with people who will challenge our thinking.

Leadership is about being responsive, listening, and following through. It’s about addressing compliance items that come from the state or the district level at the same time we have to focus on student academic and social-emotional learning. The reality is that we know that academic learning cannot always take place without social-emotional learning. Students need an emotional connection to school. More and more students are coming to us suffering from trauma, whicht has an enormous impact on their learning as well as an effect on the adults in the school as well.

Unfortunately, many times leaders are handed the keys to the building and left to their own devices. And that’s where their problems sometimes begin.

Leadership Coaching?
In a small-scale survey of 250 K-12 school principals, 98 percent answered that they would be willing to work with a leadership coach, but a large percentage of those surveyed said that the coach must have credibility. As much as 98 percent of the respondents said they would be willing to work with a coach, but unfortunately not everyone surveyed has access to a coach.

Leadership coaching can be powerful. Given the right dynamic between a coach and a leader, the coaching relationships can help the leader grow. A high quality coach can really help a leader choose the right goal to help improve the moral of the building, the school climate for students and adults, and put a real focus on learning. Unfortunately, we know this is not easy to do because of the drama that can happen in schools. Let’s face it, as much as we all try to focus on the right things, drama happens in schools because the adults do not always play well together.

A coach and leader can work together to negotiate those tricky waters. And that’s where the story of Gavin Young comes in.

The Story of Gavin
Gavin Young is a first-year principal at Naylor Middle School, which is a suburban school district charged with educating 754 students. Sixty-one percent of the student population is Caucasian, 27 percent African-American, 5 percent Latino, 3 percent Asian, and 4 percent who identify as Native American/Indigenous. Eighteen percent of the students qualified for special education. Additionally, the school staff are beginning to see an increase in the students who identify as gay or lesbian, and some who identify as transgender. All of this has an impact on the school climate.

Besides having around 62 teachers, there were 37 support staff, or what some schools refer to as classified staff, in the school. Gavin also has two assistant principals, Beth Lopez and Brad Washington, on his team. Sadly, team would be a loose interpretation of how they functioned. Beth is very supportive of Gavin’s leadership. Although she has been an assistant principal in the district for two years, she knew Gavin over the last decade because she had been a school counselor in Gavin’s former school district.

Brad Washington is another story. Washington has been in the district as an assistant principal for five years, and to make matters more complicated, he interviewed for the job that Gavin now has. The reason he was passed over for the job is that he isn’t exactly a ball of fire. He plays a more passive role in the building, but he went for the job because it had higher pay and more status. Although many of the teachers in the building were not surprised that Brad didn’t get the job, it certainly was a surprise to Brad who assumed he was a shoe-in, and he hasn’t quite warmed up to the idea that he was, in his complaints, “robbed of the job.”

What to do vs. What not to do
Gavin’s previous administrative experience leading up to his head principalship isn’t helpful either. Most of his days as an assistant principal were spent focusing on task completion or tasks that his supervising principal didn’t want to do. He did not get the time to do a lot of relationship building, and when he was seen talking with teachers the principal didn’t like, he was often asked what they were discussing.

Gavin spent most of his time doing discipline and never had the opportunity to visit as many classrooms as he wished, which created a disconnection with staff. He felt as though his principal used him as a gopher, which meant “Go for this,” and “Go for that.” His previous experience could be categorized as more of a case of what not to do rather than what to do in leadership. When Gavin had been doing his leadership degree, some of his closest colleagues told him he “Went to the dark side.” Gavin spent a lot of time debating whether it was really worth it at all because people simply didn’t always do what he asked.

Unfortunately, due to his training and his experiences thus far as a school leader, what not to do is not always as obvious to Gavin. He acts as though he believes leadership is more management than focusing on instructional impact and learning, despite what books and blogs may say. He was good at maintaining schedules and checking the halls for behavior issues, but was nervous about entering classrooms. He lacked the knowledge that there are multiple ways to lead, and his former supervisor was less coach and more dictator, so the coaching mindset didn’t exist. And he now finds himself on a team where one person is supportive, and the other is judging his every move.

Gavin worked hard in his administrative training courses at the university level, but often felt a divide between what he learned in class and what he was asked to do in his role as assistant principal. Because of this, he felt a void. His void disappears occassionally and he takes on the same type of persona that his former leader did when Gavin was an assistant principal.

Did I just Get In Over My Head?
It was when the school year began that he worried he was in over his head, but he was too stubborn to admit it and too insecure to do much about it. What we know about self-efficacy is that it is situation specific, but he was having a hard time finding out where he excelled and where he needed growth. Most times he felt as though he only had areas of growth. However, every day he put his head down and walked into the building, and due to his insecurities, he began demanding compliance through some of his rules and regulations.

Gavin understood that insecurities on the part of the leader was not a new concept, but he began to see that his insecurities were getting in the way of establishing a supportive school climate for students, parents, and teachers. There were times he chalked it up to cultural issues the school district always had, or an unresponsive school superintendent when he went to her with his issues. He felt that all of these issues that were created by his predecessor were getting in the way of his chance to be the leader he wanted to be, so he would just be the leader that he learned from in his previous experience.

Like any new leader, Gavin’s sleeping patterns were affected. He found himself waking up at 2 a.m., and lied awake until 3:30 worrying about things that may or may not ever happen. Unfortunately, when his alarm went off at 5 a.m., Gavin found himself a bit tired to begin his day and it was beginning to affect how he interacted with staff and students. He hoped this was somewhat temporary, but it was beginning to get to him. He found himself spending a great deal of time on the managerial side. Like any new leader he was reactive, and wondered if he would reach the point of becoming proactive.

Maybe You Should Work with a Coach
As hard as Gavin tried to establish relationships with teachers, parents, and students, he was met with an invisible wall. Gavin’s predecessor at Naylor Middle School had not been known for his instructional, nor collaborative, leadership. In actuality, his predecessor was known for having his favorite teachers, which were typically the ones who made his life easy, and he was a bit more of a compliance-based principal when it came to those teachers who questioned his motives or leadership. Due to his insecurities, Gavin found it easier to blame his predecessor than look within and try to change the circumstances created for him.

Although he didn’t always feel he was supported by his superintendent, Dr. Mayan Coppola was there to help. When we are in the depths of despair as a leader, it’s easy to blame everyone around us and not see how they are really trying to help us, even if they give us feedback we don’t always want to hear.

In actuality, Coppola knew that Gavin had a great deal of potential and she believed in him, she just felt that he needed some assistance to understand his strengths and weaknesses. She knew that the building had a lack of cohesiveness because of the previous leadership, and she was worried that without support that lack of cohesiveness would continue. It’s supposed to be all about the students, but too often it’s all about the adults.

Coppola’s goal was to build his leadership capacity, and not enable him. So, Mayan decided that she was going to enlist a coach for Gavin. Being a straight shooter, Coppola told Gavin that she wanted him to reach his full potential, and felt hat coaching was the way to do it. There were some other principals working with a coach in the district, and Coppola felt that it would be a good fit for Gavin too. Coppola had some ground rules. She wanted Gavin and the coach’s relationship to be confidential. All she asked was to be kept abreast of the growth that Gavin and his new coach would be tracking.

Sensing his body language, Coppola gave Gavin a few days to think it over. Truth be told, he wasn’t on board with the idea, and his insecurities about Brad were clouding his perception. He felt that his inexperience was a factor, but he felt that the building had big problems that were a bit too large. Given that his superintendent recommended a coach, he knew that this was more of a “voluntold” situation, but he was hoping it would be a year well spent.

In the End
Leadership is an important topic to discuss, but not every leader is open to being coached. A couple of years ago I wrote a blog called If Coaching is So Powerful Why Aren’t Principals Being Coached, and I was blown away by the response. So many leaders Tweeted, e-mailed, and found me on Facebook to say that they would love to be coached but it isn’t always an opportunity that they are given.

After writing the blog, I began coaching leaders, and then was inspired to write other blogs on leadership coaching which lead to my latest book on leadership coaching. However, it’s not a regular education book. It’s a story with characters, including Gavin, the principal you just read about.

The book works as a case study approach to the complexities of adults working together in a school where they are supposed to focus on students, but sometimes get caught up in their own issues. At the center of the book is Gavin and the coaching relationship that is fostered, and I offer different coaching strategies (i.e. OPEN to Coaching, Coaching cycle), research (i.e. Leadership self-efficacy, International Federation for Coaching, etc.), and insight into the human condition, at the same time I tried to write a good story that you can sit down and read like your favorite fictional book.

If you’re a leader, my hope is that you feel supported in your role and learn strategies to use on the job, which are offered in the book. If you are a leadership coach, I hope it helps clarify your role with leaders, and provides you with new strategies to use with them. If you’re a teacher, I hope it offers insight into the complexities of leadership. And if you don’t work in a school but like a good drama, I hope the book offers insight into what really happens in schools.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books includingCoach It Further: Using the Art of Coaching to Improve School Leadership (Corwin Press. 2018) This blog contains excerpts from the book. Connect with him on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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.