Opinion Blog

Peter DeWitt's

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

If You’re Coaching and Not Learning, You’re Not Coaching

By Peter DeWitt — April 14, 2019 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Many people may believe a coach is the one with all of the power, but I believe the conversation between the coach and those being coached has all of the power. What we do in that space of a conversation is vitally important.

Coaching can take on many forms. The typical coaching experience is a coach working with a coachee, in which they meet consistently and work on a co-constructed goal together. Other times, coaching happens through social media, where someone asks us to coach them through situations they may be experiencing, and we have regular meetings through Skype, Zoom, and Voxer. Those situations might focus on how to work with a resistant colleague or finding new ways to collaborate with families or students. I have had the opportunity to meet many social-media friends that way.

Then there are those one-time conversations, in which people ask us for advice around their position as a principal or their aspirations around jumping into leadership, presenting or writing a book. Some may dispute this and say it’s not coaching, and I would have agreed with them a few years ago, but there are times that one conversation can be a coaching conversation because of the impact it provides to the person being coached.

When looking at coaching definitions, many of those definitions state that coaching is between two people, but I worry that those definitions are shortsighted. Many times coaching work can involve groups and not just individuals. Some of that is due to time constraints. In my collaborative-leadership work, I find that I have to coach instructional-leadership teams (ILT) or professional learning communities (PLC). Group coaching can lead to collective efficacy, which we know has a powerful impact on student learning.

If You’re Coaching and Not Learning, You’re Not Coaching
Over the last two years, I have had the opportunity to coach middle and high school leaders in California. What first began as a pretty cool job opportunity quickly turned into friendships and an incredible learning experience that has led to researching specific areas of leadership to a much deeper level.

The biggest impact leadership coaching has had on me is what I have learned while doing it. Regardless of whether I have been a teacher, building leader, or consultant, I go into every situation with an eagerness to learn, but coaching has been a bit different because it feels more immediate, more personal. Many people may believe a coach is the one with all of the power, but I believe the conversation between the coach and those being coached has all of the power. What we do in that space of a conversation is vitally important.

This idea of learning while coaching is not new. In Jim Knight’s Instructional Coaching model, he refers to this as reciprocal learning, which is one of his partnership principles. The coach and the one being coached should learn from one another. However, in the work I have had the opportunity to do, there are four areas where the learning was a bit more profound than I expected.

Four areas that had an impact on my learning are:

Not everyone wants to be coached—This, in itself, is not surprising news. What I mean here is that I was given the impression that the leaders I would work with couldn’t wait to work with me, and then I met them and realized that was not true. Where the learning came in for me was that the coach sometimes has to do a great deal of work to prove their credibility while trying to engage the person being coached. Leaders are particularly difficult in this area because they take the position with the pressure to be the one with all of the answers. Accepting the help of a coach can be difficult.

Experience in the position being coached is not always necessary—I was very worried about coaching people who were in positions that I never held. However, what I soon learned is that there is no way a coach can ever hold every experience of the leaders they will coach. Whether it be secondary, middle, or primary or urban, suburban, or rural. Instead of looking for differences, we need to look for commonalities. Student engagement, getting adults (including the building leader) to work together to build collective efficacy, high-impact teaching strategies, and family engagement are frequent topics regardless of level of leadership and the zip code where this all takes place. Too often we let our differences create a barrier, and we need to engage in good conversations to understand context to break those barriers down. Coaches can’t just show up and expect to jump into coaching. They need to do their pre-engagement work beforehand to have a real impact.

Not everyone knows how ... or is allowed to be an instructional leader—Too often leaders feel the pressures to be instructional leaders but are not given the time or insight into how to do it. There is so much research out there but not enough of a focus on where to begin. Leaders need a starting point because oftentimes they are bogged down with real-life situations (i.e., student drug overdose, gang violence, union issues, adults who do not get along, family engagement, etc.) that prevent them from getting into classrooms often enough to build credibility as instructional leaders. This is the place where leadership coaching really needs to focus.

I have biases that I need to address—Many of the leaders I work with wanted me to do walk-throughs with them because they work hard every day to be instructional leaders. What I soon found out is that there were things I looked for in classrooms (i.e., cooperative learning, colorful classrooms with student work, etc.) that I believed exemplified high-quality classrooms and there were things that I looked for (i.e., lecture, kids sitting quietly at their desks, etc.) that I believed were a sign of poor classrooms. Then, I sat back for an extra few minutes (thank you leaders!) in each classroom and found that just because a classroom looked cooperative didn’t mean kids were learning and just because a class was very quiet at first didn’t mean the students weren’t engaged in reflective learning. I did not realize I had these deep-seated biases. I found that doing frequent walk-throughs with other people, and talking to students and teachers, is a must in understanding what’s going on in the classrooms. And we need not let our biases get in the way of truly seeing what’s happening.

In the End
Coaching is often thought of as a one-on-one conversation between a teacher and coach, but the reality is that coaching can take on many forms, and it needs to be considered as an effective means of personalized professional development for leaders as well. Building leaders are often told to be instructional leaders, but are not often provided with the time or the insight in how to do it. Coaching is a way to help meet that need.

However, coaching isn’t just about the leader learning. Coaching has to involve the coach learning, too. If the coach isn’t learning at the same time the leader is, then it isn’t coaching that’s happening.

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.

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.

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP