Education Opinion

School Leaders Need Coaches, Too

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — July 06, 2017 5 min read
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The American public school system is closed for summer vacation. Yes, some will be in summer programs of one kind or another but most students are off for the summer. Some have graduated and are in transitions to a new time in their lives. Teachers, even those working, appreciate the change of pace and can take a family vacation. All those things put off during the year now become the summer list of to do’s. But, what about leaders? What does the summer mean for them?

The work doesn’t stop but the pressure changes. The immediate and the urgent become less constant. The interruptions subside. The conversations can be longer. It is the time to do paperwork and file reports. Sometimes, lunches can be longer and off site. And, it can be a time for reflection and planning, maybe even an administrative retreat. Some of those are simply extended meetings but others really encourage team members to think about issues and direction and engage in thoughtful dialogue and future planning. Often, feedback and evaluations happen as does the active hiring process. But, days are longer and evenings less full of events that pull leaders back to school so there is more family time.

Athletes, Cheerleaders, Dancers, & Musicians Get Coaching. What About Leaders?

We think about our own families. The 12 year old girl, going into middle school, is elated that she was chosen for the cheerleading squad. Is it an inconvenience that she needs to go to cheerleading camp for a week of coaching and practice? No, she can’t wait. The little boys are consumed with little league and soccer camp. They want us to be at all the games. One teenage girl is in summer theater and another is at ballet camp. There are coaches in all their lives.

Too often, however, leaders do not have the advantage that so many students do. Especially in public schools, where funding is with public dollars, the idea that leaders need coaching is foreign. Even in private schools, where tuition is the source of funding, a belief exists that the leaders should know how to lead regardless of the changing dynamic of the organization or issue on the horizon. Being coached seems to indicate a weakness. But, for students we think of it as development. It adds value to skill sets and to team work and leading and to personal management of winning, losing and growing. But here is why independent coaching and feedback is essential in education, public and private. Professional athletes never lose that sense of value for a coach but, somehow, leaders do. As importantly, those who hire leaders don’t value coaching for them either.

Leaders remain without a neutral outsider with whom they can talk confidentially... a safe space to explore the identity questions that are at the forefront of internal and external conflicts inherent in their roles (Aguilar. pp. 32-33).

Unlike leading a business, educational leaders have daily encounters with educational professionals, with boards of education, community leaders and parents, with children, changing standards, curriculum, budgetary concerns and timelines. The assumption that educational leaders do not need coaching reduces the capacity of the learning environment. Not responsible for the development of a widget or a product, the quality of the environment in which children are developed as critical thinkers, communicators, collaborators, and innovators must be always emerging. Yet how many leaders are, themselves, described as critical thinkers, communicators, collaborators, and innovators? All of us need to be that and none of us is ever fully developed in these areas, are we? Some schools have embraced instructional coaching, but leadership coaching is less about skill and more a job of what Agular called the “three Bs - behaviors, beliefs, and being” (p. 35). When reflecting on and examining your behavior, beliefs and being, one needs the benefit of a safe and confidential relationship. Rarely, can a supervisor be that kind of coach.

Evaluation vs. Coaching

When a central office leader is responsible for evaluating building principals, there most likely is an agreed upon guide or rubric and process that is followed. Goals are set for the year. Likely “check in” times are set for during the year for progress monitoring, but the final ‘grade’ as to whether goals were met or not will be an end of year or summer activity. Then, what is offered? Perhaps the supervision the principal receives through the evaluation process is actually a place for reflection and growth. At its best, it should be. But, when conversations and revelations result in a “grade” and maybe role or assignment decisions, openness and honesty is challenging and limited.

Coaching is a Judgment Free Zone

Confidentiality is one of the most essential facets of any coaching relationship. The ability to keep information shared between the coach and the coached forms the basis for trust and, without trust, the relationship will not be as effective as it might otherwise be and the resulting growth will be less. Coaching needs to be a judgment free zone. No matter how many colleagues educational leaders may have, their job can be a lonely place.

Coaching and Trust

Coaching, itself, is a skill that involves more than confidentiality and trust building. Effective coaches are not advice givers. They are skilled, empathetic, trusted listeners who know how to ask the kind of questions that call for the other to be reflective and find answers within. This type of relationship can support the growth required in the supervision model, especially if it remains separate but connected. Finding a coach and developing a coaching environment that includes leaders is a worthy summertime investment. Consider finding a colleague in your district or in another or seek out a respected retiree or college professor. Consider making a commitment to learn about effective coaching relationships. Discuss how each of you might benefit. Commit to confidentiality. Become committed listeners. Learn the power of good questions. Grow together. None of this can happen without that most important ingredient, trust.

Begin a Coaching Relationship

The time and space summer offers may be the best time to think about this. Who would be best to invite into your growth process, who can you trust, who do you respect, and what do you want to get out of this relationship and process? The more the leader grows, the more teachers and children will also. A stagnant leader does not inspire others to grow. Our work requires all of us to be ever in the growth process. It is exciting and it keeps us at our best.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Aguilar, E. (2013) The Art of Effective Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation. San Francisco: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

Illustration courtesy of Pixabay

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.