Education Opinion

Strong Leadership Lies in Strong Coaching

By Elena Aguilar — September 25, 2018 7 min read
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By Lori Cohen, Guest Blogger

It’s your first month as a school leader. The time has arrived for you to put your vision and preparation into practice but you don’t know where to begin. Feel familiar? You’re not alone.

The first months of school leadership are exciting but can be overwhelming. In my own process, I shifted from being a teacher and instructional coach to supervising all the teachers in the school. The transition felt mammoth. Relying on good mindfulness training and reminding myself I possessed the tools to do this work, I reconnected with The Art of Coaching and started there. While I’ve learned a lot in my short tenure as a leader, my greatest lessons have come from my coaching background; they’re ones I continue to rely on three years into the role. If you’re a new leader, or still early in your leadership journey, consider the following advice as you enter the first months in this role.

I’ll focus on three core lessons I’ve learned from coaching and how those lessons can be translated into effective leadership practice:

  1. Frontload relationships: It’s people, not projects that matter most
  2. Gaps are your friend; stances are your ally: Using the Mind the Gap framework and coaching stances, you can engage in meaningful work with those you serve
  3. The power is in the planning: Whether building schedules, designing meeting agendas and professional development, or preparing for hard conversations, planning can make all the difference for sustainable and leadership.

Lesson 1: Frontload relationships

Good leadership is about people, not projects. Much of a leader’s time is tied up in initiatives and oversight: overseeing programs, developing vision, managing people. Regardless of how busy or engrossed you may be in a complicated school conundrum -- perhaps scheduling or curriculum -- it’s the people who matter most.

What would it mean if the first month or two of school was filled with thirty-minute dialogues with each adult, learning their core values and beliefs, understanding adult learning styles, and asking about ways leaders can know and be supportive of challenges that arise? As Elena Aguilar writes in The Art of Coaching (2013), “We are reminded that everyone is on a journey, and we must accept people wherever they are at this moment.” Chapter Five is about developing trust, and the questions for a new client are good openers for supervisors as well as coaches. In my first months as a leader, I reached out to all the teachers for a thirty-minute conversation, sending them some questions to consider in advance. While time-consuming, having teachers tell me their aspirations, how they like to receive feedback and what keeps them at our school site gave me specific ideas on how to work with each person, which fostered stronger connections and set a foundation of trust that I built on throughout the year.

“Ten Steps to Building Trust” in The Art of Coaching is an additional how-to guide for engaging with the people you oversee; in The Art of Coaching Teams, Chapter Three describes an array of trust-building approaches. As I think about my leadership style and vision, I rely on these tools to guide my work, like commandments for myself. The following points in particular are helpful for leaders as they frontload the relationships with people in their organizations:

  • Go into meetings with positive feelings about those you serve.
  • Listen, ask questions, and connect--show that you care about the people working with you.
  • Validate strengths and assets and find opportunities to build upon these strengths.
  • Acknowledge power by identifying potential differences between you and those you supervise, particularly if you have identifying markers that align with the dominant culture,e.g. whiteness, cisgender male, heterosexual.
  • Ask permission to give feedback. Doing so empowers your direct reports and gives them openings into potentially tricky conversations and power dynamics.
  • Keep commitments. If you make a promise, fulfill it. As Aguilar reminds readers, “It’s much better to underpromise and overdeliver than the reverse.”

In email messages, dialogues, team and school meetings, these trust-building commandments serve as a checklist. I strive to engage these tools in all the ways I serve adults; it helps teachers model these same habits for their students.

Lesson 2: Gaps are your friend; stances are your ally

My first Art of Coaching workshop introduced me to assessing learning needs using the Mind the Gap framework. A copy of this framework has sat on my desk ever since and is invaluable in both my leadership and coaching roles. Whether working with teachers resistant to curricular changes, striving to understand the roots of a new teacher’s overwhelm, or working with someone eager for growth but unsure where to start, the Mind the Gap framework helps leaders determine if the needs are rooted in skill, will, knowledge, capacity, cultural competence, or emotional intelligence.

Once leaders assess learning needs, they can better determine the stances to take and questions to ask. While a power structure exists between leaders and their subordinates, coaching stances can communicate service and support even when managing people. The combination of assessing adult learners’ needs and taking appropriate coaching stances allows leaders to skillfully attend to all those they serve, work with those who are more resistant, increase trust, and offer opportunities to meet as adults in service of their growth.

In a recent conversation with a teacher, we identified the many changes in our school’s schedule (new classes, additional courseload, additional students, working with a bigger team) that were creating a capacity gap for her. She typically was a “willing-to-do-anything” type of teacher, but the volume of change was forcing her to pause and reflect on time management, When I shared the Mind the Gap framework, she said, “Yes, that’s it. I love what I do but all this new stuff makes me feel overwhelmed, like I just don’t have enough time!” From that point forward, we discussed strategies she could implement that enable a sustainable workload. Due to her overwhelm, I approached my questions from the stances of compassion and catharsis. Both these tools I have used in coaching; the teacher left our meeting feeling just as validated in this context as she did when I worked in my previous role. We planned for her to hold off on some tasks until later in the year, establishing benchmarks, timelines and check-ins.

Lesson 3: The power is in the planning

Whether mapping one’s calendar, setting meeting agendas, developing professional learning, conducting goals conversations or engaging in difficult dialogues, the power is in the planning -- pre-work that allows engagement between adults to be rooted in values, outcomes, learning together and an effective workflow. Classroom teachers understand the impact of good lesson design, pacing and planning; coaches understand the impact a work plan has on their collaboration with teachers and leaders. Similarly, leaders can transfer these skills into their practice and derive all the same benefits. The Art of Coaching Teams explores all these areas more deeply. Some items of note from this book and The Art of Coaching include the following:

  • Plan your calendar for meaningful work. It’s easy to get lost in the day-to-day demands of schooling and unless you make time to balance all aspects of the work, opportunities for relationship-building, self care, professional projects or learning walks may be lost. While this is a sample calendar for a site-based coach, the time allocation is transferable to leaders as well.
  • Plan professional development and meetings with skill and care. I rarely go into a professional development session or a meeting without an agenda; to enhance the experience, this checklist offers important reminders when balancing the tactical, affective, environmental and adaptive learning opportunities in any meeting setting.
  • Plan for hard conversations: This sample tool or this one help leaders consider the purpose, pre-work, intentions and outcomes for a challenging exchange. This process acknowledges that leaders have emotions which are worth processing during the planning phase so leaders can cultivate emotional resilience alongside the hard work of leading a school.

As I look back at my calendar, my agendas for professional development and my notes in advance of hard conversations, they mirror my coaching practice, allow me to feel grounded and less overwhelmed in my role, and give me the tools to support teachers skillfully, even among a range of competing demands. Effective leadership is a corollary to coaching; when a school includes both instructional coaches and strong leaders, adults feel more supported in their work, increasing their ability to help students thrive.

Lori Cohen is an experienced school leader, instructional coach, classroom teacher, and education consultant who has worked in public and independent schools for two decades; she cares deeply about educating for equity and believes coaching serves as the best form of professional development for teachers and leaders. She is also the author of Why Instructional Coaching Matters in Independent Schools, Breaking Down Barriers and Building Relationships, and Mindfulness As a Tool to Dismantle Systems of Oppression--Within Ourselves. You can find her on Twitter @lcctchr

The opinions expressed in The Art of Coaching Teachers 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.