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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

Is Leadership Coaching the Ignored Professional Development?

By Peter DeWitt — August 12, 2018 6 min read
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The job of a building leader is a demanding job, and it seems to be getting even more demanding. Principals are asked to do a great deal, and cannot always find the time to do it. What this means, and what principals and their district supervisors need to understand, is that they cannot do alone.

Unfortunately, this leads to yet another challenge of leadership. In an effort to work with all staff to help ease the burden of the initiatives that are thrust upon the building, leaders are met with a variety of responses, and not all of them are positive. Some teachers and staff jump up and want to help dig in, while others do not believe it is their job to take on responsibilities that seem to be administrative. So, leaders find themselves in a position of working with the teachers who take on so much responsibility as their colleagues retreat back to their classrooms.

This is all very complicated and becomes a burden that takes a heavy toll on school morale. After all, whose job is it to take on initiatives? Why should teachers be responsible for duties as assigned when they already have caseloads of students they are responsible for educating? Add in the seemingly endless numbers of students with social-emotional learning needs, and the constant pressure to show student improvement on state testing, we can understand why so many principals leave the position within five years.

Silver Bullet?
There is really no perfect answer because schools and the leaders who lead them are not created equally. Some leaders flawlessly build collective efficacy and increase teacher voice, while others squash teacher voice and kill morale.

In an effort to find the silver bullet to solve all of our issues, we realize that there isn’t one and keep moving forward, only to find ourselves on social media hoping and praying we come across the elusive silver bullet that we will never find. What leaders need is time for reflection, someone from outside of their circle to provide objective insight, and an understanding that challenges are never going to be accomplished by going it alone.

Additionally, what we know is that in most cases leaders took courses to get a degree in leadership, which did not always fully prepare them for their role. Once they got a job, they were handed the keys to the building, and many times left to their own devices, at the same time more work was piled on them. And yet, despite the challenges there are countless principals who will tell you that they love the job.

What are the Challenges of the Principal?
Recently, the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) released a study that focused on the plight of the elementary school leader, which you can read here. One of the areas of focus was leadership challenges. The report stated that principals believe their greatest challenges are:

  • Improving student performance (18.3%);
  • Improving staff performance (15.8%);
  • Understanding and applying technology (12.8%);
  • Time management (12.4%);
  • Using social media effectively (11.9%) and school improvement planning (11.8%), tied in fifth place.

When we think of challenges, we typically think of how we can overcome them, and that usually involves the countless opportunities of professional development that come across our desk. In the NAESP study, when asked what professional learning opportunities principals would participate in, they answered:

  • Participation in school-level opportunities (highly likely: 67.1%; moderately likely: 26.9%);
  • Participation in district-provided opportunities (highly likely: 64.9%; moderately likely: 30.6%);
  • Reading journals and books (highly likely: 51.8%; moderately likely: 40%);
  • Face-to-face networking with fellow professionals (highly likely: 49.1%; moderately likely: 43.7%);
  • Attendance at state association conferences (highly likely: 45%; moderately likely: 37.8%).

What About Coaching?
Coaching was a small part of the survey. It came under the title of “15 experiences that contribute to leadership development.” When leaders were asked how effective coaching was, only 66% of principals reported participating in coaching. Of that number, a little over 70% of those particular respondents agreed that it had value.

We can do a lot better when it comes to leadership coaching, because it can lead to growth for principals like it does for teachers. For over three years I worked with instructional coaching expert Jim Knight. I trained instructional coaches with Jim’s model, and was profoundly impacted by his research. During that time I kept thinking about the implications for leaders. Not how they can have teachers work with coaches, but how they as leaders may need coaches too. After all, if teachers should be coached in an effort to help them improve, shouldn’t leaders?

I wrote a few blogs on the topic of leadership coaching (which you can read here and here) because I felt that if it were so powerful for teachers, why aren’t more leaders doing it? High quality coaching can help leaders meet any of their challenges.

One of the issues with any type of coaching, and something I found in a small scale study I did with a little over 250 participating principals, was when principals felt coaching was focused on their needs and remained confidential, as opposed to focusing solely on the needs of the district. Leaders, like teachers, need to feel that there is trust when it comes to working with a coach.

Additionally, leadership coaching is only an effective means of professional development when it has the following elements of effective professional development:

  • Over a long period of time
  • Involves external experts
  • Teachers/Leaders are deeply engaged
  • It challenges existing beliefs (Timperely et al. 2007).

In order to effectively coach leaders, all parties must be OPEN to coaching, which takes a growth mindset. OPEN to coaching means that there needs to be:

  • Opportunity- districts need to offer opportunities for leaders to be coached, and help the leader understand, that even in leadership positions, we need to care about professional and personal growth.
  • Purpose- There needs to be a purpose behind coaching. Coaching leaders, like coaching teachers, should not be about forcing district compliance. Coaching should be a reciprocal relationship between a leader and coach where they learn from one another (Knight).
  • Expectation- When a leader and coach enter into a coaching relationship, they need to agree that there is an expectation that both parties are each 100% responsible for their 50%. They have to work on a goal, and do the work to meet that goal.
  • Next Steps- Coaching is about a cycle of learning, and that involves thinking about the next steps involved in the journey. What we learn through coaching in one situation, should be able to transfer to another.

In the End
Leadership is difficult, and the challenges seem to be getting greater, which means that leaders will need to look for assistance from high quality coaches. Those coaches may come from within the district, working with outside leadership coaches, or creating critical friendships with other leaders who understand the plight of a building leader.

Although the study was done by NAESP, we know that these same challenges and concerns can be found in middle school and high school principals as well. If we know these are the challenges leaders face, isn’t it time that our professional development focuses on helping leaders work through these challenges? High quality coaching is one way to do it.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (Corwin Press. 2016) which is also a competency-based course, as well as School Climate: Leading with Collective Efficacy (Corwin Press. 2017), and 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.