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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

Why Do Building Leaders Need Coaches?

By Peter DeWitt — April 29, 2018 6 min read
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Building leadership is a complicated and demanding job. On good days, leaders get into classrooms, talk with students about learning, build relationships with staff and families, and foster collective efficacy among staff. And then on all the other days, they find themselves stuck in the middle of district initiatives and teacher concerns, as well as spending their time dealing with parent complaints and student discipline, which gives them little time to get into classrooms.

And then they are tasked with completing teacher observations, and if they have spent too much time in the main office, and not enough time in classrooms building relationships with students and teachers, they will have little credibility to give authentic feedback to the teachers they serve.

The reality is that school leaders cannot do it all well, and research supports it. It begins with efficacy, which if you read this blog often, you have certainly read about before. Bandura (1977) found that efficacy, “Refers to beliefs in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments.

Unfortunately, Bandura also found (2000) that, “When faced with obstacles, setbacks, and failures, those who doubt their capabilities slacken their efforts, give up, or settle for mediocre solutions.”The good news is that there is a positive side of that belief, because Bandura continues by saying, “Those who have a strong beliefin their capabilities redouble their effort to master the challenge.

Tschannen-Moran and Gareis (2004) found that,“Self-efficacy beliefs are context-specific, however, people do not feel equally efficacious for all situations.”This is an important piece for leaders to understand because they cannot possibly feel efficacious in all parts of their leadership. Unfortunately, leaders are at risk of taking on those areas where they have the belief in themselves, and minimizing their time in those areas that they don’t have a strong belief in themselves.

Minimizing your time in weak areas is fine from time to time, but what if the area where a leader lacks self-efficacy is in the teacher observation process (image below)? That is hugely problematic because it may prevent a school from creating a culture of learning and continuous improvement. Those buildings will continue to only have pockets of excellence.

Why Coaching?
We know through the research of experts like Jim Knight, that instructional coaching is a proven method of professional development that has an enormous impact on teaching and learning because coaches cater their approach to the needs of teachers that they are coaching.

Instructional coaches have deep dialogue with teachers to establish an instructional goal, and then help find resources like articles, blogs or videos where teachers can read about or see how their chosen goal may be completed successfully. Additionally, instructional coaches offer co-teaching and modeling opportunities around the chosen goal so teachers can learn vicariously through the experience, which is actually one of the four experiences that raise efficacy (the others are personal performance accomplishment, social persuasion and physiological conditioning).

Why can’t leaders learn from the same experience?

Leaders sometimes struggle with their identity as a leader. They work hard to get their leadership degree and obtain a job, and then are given the keys to the building and have very little professional development that caters to their needs. This all happens during a time when they feel as though they have to know it all. Why do they think they need to know it all? Because in their perspective, anything less would hurt their credibility. And they feel this way in a time when they are facing more demands than ever before.

3 Reasons Leaders Need a Coach
There are many times when I have worked with district content specialists, assistant superintendents, superintendents and teachers. All of these groups have demands that they put on principals, and then cannot understand when those same principals are putting in a lack of effort or are stressed out every time they see someone walk into their office. Many of the demands are necessary, but building leaders have a great deal pulling at them, and sometimes these groups have competing interests which focus on areas where the leader may not feel efficacious.

Leadership coaching offers principals the opportunity to learn with someone from outside of their typical circle of influence on a weekly or monthly basis. In the best cases the relationship becomes a confidential partnership where they focus on a goal or a couple of goals together.

When a leadership coach enters into the principal’s office, it should provide the principal with a chance to breathe deeply. Leadership coaches make themselves available by phone, e-mail, text or communication apps like Voxer.

Coaching should offer leaders time to reflect on their practices, and then work to collect evidence of impact. That evidence of impact will be one of the things that keeps them feeling proactive as opposed to feeling reactive. There are a number of reasons why leadership coaches can be useful to building level leaders, but here are four to start with.

Provides focus- Many leaders have an internal focus, but there are times during the year when they may not understand how to maintain that focus. In some ways, they can’t see the forest through the trees. Coaching can help leaders come back to center and regain that focus.

Raises self-efficacy- Too often our focus around efficacy is on teachers. Although that is important group to think about when we work on efficacy, that of leadership efficacy is equally as important. Leadership coaching can actually be a valuable way to increase the level of efficacy for a leader.

Builds collective efficacy- We live in a time when leaders cannot do it alone. There are too many demands on their plate, and they need the collective effort of their staff to help them. Collective efficacy is about focusing on a problem of practice, taking actions steps and collecting evidence to understand that impact. Leadership coaches can help leaders build trust and credibility with staff, and then build the collective capacity of the staff.

Outside perspective- There are times when leaders are at risk of being myopic because they work day after day in the same environment. Sometimes those leaders feel as if they are the only ones in the world going through whatever challenge they may be facing. The reality is they are not the only ones facing the challenge, and a coach can help them process through that.

In the End
Building leaders get the job and are handed the keys, but many of them are overwhelmed with the amount of duties. This puts them in the position of manager too often, and instructional leader not often enough.

Unfortunately, even if they had spent time as an assistant principal, they may not have always received the proper training they needed because they were given tasks by their supervisor that seemed to be more of a rite of passage than an authentic learning experience. Which is unfortunate, because a principal can be an assistant principal’s best coach.

Exploring the coaching relationship can be one way to help leaders feel less stressed, and create an opportunity for them to regain the focus that brought them into leadership in the first place.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (Corwin Press. 2016), School Climate: Leading with Collective Efficacy (Corwin Press. 2017), and Coach It Further: Using 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.