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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

Does Your Coach Have Credibility?

By Peter DeWitt — April 30, 2017 6 min read
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Some leaders only focus on what to fix outward and never spend enough time looking inward to see what needs fixing first.

There are many types of coaching. Athletic, instructional or leadership are just a few. Athletic coaching has always been popular given our fascination (one might say obsession) with sports, and instructional coaching is gaining popularity day by day. Schools around the globe are diving into instructional coaching because of the impact it can have on learning in the classroom.

Leadership coaching is another story. There are states like Illinois and Alaska that have always offered coaching at the leadership level, and there are regional institutions around the world that are offering it as well. Leadership coaching is not a new concept, and we often see it in the business world. Unfortunately, leadership coaching isn’t happening at the magnitude that coaching is happening at the instructional level. This is strange because the whole premise around coaching is that it helps those on the receiving end improve.

Don’t leaders want to improve?

One of the reasons that leadership coaching isn’t happening at the level instructional coaching happens is due to the idea that leaders feel they are supposed to lead everything from instruction to safety, and having a coach may put them in the position of looking weak. Another reason is that leaders are so busy with mandates, compliance measures and instructional issues that they haven’t the time to work with a coach. Both of those are flawed thinking. Some leaders only focus on what to fix outward and never spend enough time looking inward to see what needs fixing first. Coaching can help that. A coach can help that.

An additional issue holding a leader back from working with a coach is due to credibility. Not the credibility of the leader, but the credibility of the coach and the process. If a coach or the process lacks credibility, regardless of whether we are talking about athletics, instruction or leadership, the whole coaching experience is flawed.

Credibility of the Coach
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, credibility is defined as, “the quality or power of inspiring belief.” Credibility is about being trusted or believed in, and in Hattie’s research it has been shown to have a .90 effect size, which is well over double the hinge point (.40). Credibility is an important factor in the leadership coaching process, because it’s one of the areas that leaders being coached most worried about.

When I wrote 5 Reasons Principals Should Be Coached (Finding Common Ground blog. Education Week) I provided a link to a survey where principals could answer three questions about coaching. One of those questions asked about potential obstacles that principals worried about when working with leadership coaches. Respondents wrote statements about obstacles such as, “Leadership coaches with ulterior motives; intentions to usurp authority or direction from the leader.” We look at those kind of coaches as negotiators (DeWitt. 2016) because they make leaders believe that the coaching experience is about the leader, when in fact, it’s more about what the coach wants.

Another leader commented, “Coaches not understanding our district,” which is highly important. Coaches just can’t walk in, open up a manual, and pull out the lesson plan that they think will work. They need to make sure they understand the leader’s context. Context is vitally important to the coaching process.

Finally, one leader wrote, “A coach who has never spent time in the role of building leader.” Although ulterior motives and context are aspects of credibility, this idea of a coach having spent time in the role is probably the most important. Leaders and teachers want to know that the person coaching them understands the role they are trying to coach. This is a tough one, because a high-quality leadership coach doesn’t necessarily need to have been in the same position as the person they are coaching. This is where the actions of the coach can speak louder than having experience in that specific role of the leader.

If coaches are going to have a successful relationship with building leaders it’s important that they have the credibility to hold the attention of the leader. Coaches create opportunities of credibility when they:

  • Can provide evidence that what they are offering has worked for them and others.
  • Understand the context of the school leader and situation.
  • Shows up on time and remains present (physically and psychologically) the whole time they are there.
  • Listens to the needs of the leader, and helps find resources to meet those needs.
  • Offers effective feedback that is focused on the goal of the leader.
  • Help leaders improve their practice, and provides short-term wins for long-term gains.

Those all help coaches build trust with the leader, and a leader that trusts a coach will take more opportunities to take risks, and step outside of their comfort zones.

The Flip Side
There is another side to the credibility coin however. The flip side is when coaches talk too much about their own experiences and successes and start their sentences with, “When I was a principal I always...” That can start to chip away at the credibility of the coach.

Truth be told, that was an issue I created for myself. In my own experience as a new principal I came from teaching in a high poverty city school. Since I was new to administration, I wanted to build credibility with staff, and help them understand that I came from the “trenches” as well. Every time a teacher would speak of one of their students who came from a tough background, I would chime in about what I did as a teacher because the school I came from had five times the number of students living in poverty than the school where I was principal.

After awhile I started saying it so much that I annoyed myself. I realized that the teachers, who chose me after multiple interviews, understood I had credibility as a teacher, and knew I was trying to build credibility as a leader by always being present in conversations, being on time to meetings with individual teachers, and going into each classroom each morning to say good morning to students. I soon realized that I didn’t have to keep saying, “When I was a teacher, I...” because it began to have the reverse effect on conversations. Those moments find the same fate of our favorite songs. After a while those on the receiving end get tired of hearing the same tune, and will change the channel.

In the End
Coaching can help improve practice, and it doesn’t matter how long the person on the receiving end of the coaching may have been teaching or leading, they can always improve their practice. When we stop believing we can improve our own practices we stop growing, and that will have negative effects on the school climate and community.

However, for any type of coaching to work effectively, the coach has to have credibility. They may not have spent time in the specific role of the person they are coaching, but they can help provide practical steps, resources, and evidence-based practices that focus on the goal that the leader is trying to achieve.

What’s holding you back from working with a coach?

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (2016. Corwin Press/Learning Forward), and the forthcoming School Climate: Leading With Collective Efficacy (Corwin Press/Ontario Principals Council. August 2017). Connect with Peter 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.