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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

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

By Peter DeWitt — April 14, 2019 6 min read
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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.

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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.