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Peter DeWitt's

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 Should Leaders Start Being Coached?

By Peter DeWitt — November 04, 2018 5 min read
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Many leaders agree that coaching is an important way to grow.

Let’s rewrite that...

Many leaders believe instructional coaching is a great way for their teachers to grow. They understand how instructional coaches will work on a co-constructed goal with teachers, and can easily see how the relationship is beneficial because those leaders often see the impact of instructional coaching when they walk into classrooms to do their “learning walks,” “walk throughs,” or..."rigor walks.”

What’s interesting, is that when the coaching relationship is offered up to leaders, their openness to working with a coach isn’t always immediately evident. And it’s often for the same reasons that teachers aren’t always open to being coached. Some of those reasons may be:


  • Insecurity sets in. They suddenly become insecure that they’re doing something wrong or are no longer good enough for the position
  • They don’t want others to know they are being coached because of the perception that may create...are they now seen as a bad leader?
  • They don’t have time to be coached. They have much more important things to do.
  • What could the coach offer them, that they as the leader, don’t already know?

Why Coaching?
We know that schools are complex places that are charged with taking on many issues...some of which those teachers and leaders in the school may not feel they should be responsible for taking on. Teachers and leaders have to focus on the academic needs of students, so that students are college and career ready (21stcentury skills!).

They also have immense pressure to make sure that they raise high stakes test scores. I remember giving a keynote after a state commissioner opened up the conference. Out of his 35 minute speech he spent 20 minutes talking about how test scores across the state have gone down, and then the last five minutes after some other topics that got lost in translation, saying that he doesn’t want schools to worry about test scores as much as they should care about the social-emotional needs of students. Everyone in the audience picked up on that hidden curriculum he taught during his 35 minute opening.

Which is the point of the second issues facing schools. Leaders and teachers also have to focus on the social-emotional needs of students. In our schools we have students who experience trauma or students with mental health issues. Research shows that adults who work with students experiencing trauma are at high risk of experiencing vicarious trauma, which can lead to burnout in the position.

How many of us have said we wanted to take certain students home with us because of the lives they come from?

And those reasons for coaching are just focusing on student growth areas. Leaders also have to figure out how to work with adults who have extremely diverse thinking, and are supposed to collaborate together. In the US, as well as other countries, the adults are polarized based on political and religious beliefs. All of that plays out in schools, which means leading all of those diverse thinkers in the same direction can be difficult. We talk a great deal about collective efficacy, but that is not very easy to build in a school.

That’s where leadership coaching can come in....

Research And Practice
One of the issues we face in schools is the fact that leaders need help taking what research says works and putting it into practice. Don’t believe me? Let’s use a few examples. In our schools we often hear words like the growth mindset, differentiated instruction or multiple intelligences. Those are three widely used educational philosophies that are used.

Here’s the thing...

Many times they are used wrong. In fact, in the research John Hattie has collected the growth mindset has a .19 effect size. That is well-below the .40 that Hattie (and other researchers) agrees can bring about a year’s worth of growth for a year’s input. It’s easy to talk about the growth mindset, but it’s a whole lot harder to put it into practice...especially when we don’t know we’re doing it wrong in the first place.

In fact, Carol Dweck had to clarify her research around the growth mindset in Education Week last year; Carol Ann Tomlinson had to clarify differentiated instruction in Education Week in 2015, and Howard Gardner had to clarify multiple intelligences in the Washington Post several years ago because many times practioners were not putting those pieces of research in practice in the way that they researchers meant for them to be put into practice.

Let’s use a leadership example...

Instructional Leadership researcher Viviane Robinson sites leadership dimensions necessary for being an instructional leader. Those are:


  • Establishing goals and expectations
  • Resourcing strategically
  • Ensuring quality teaching
  • Leading teacher learning and development
  • Ensuring an orderly and safe environment (2011)

However, when doing surveys to ask leaders what they would want to be coached on in their position, leaders provided four different priorities (DeWitt. 2018). Those priorities are:


  • Community engagement
  • Collective efficacy
  • Political climate
  • Communication

In a recent institute with leaders that I was running, I asked why those participants believe there is a discrepancy between what Robinson researched and what I found in surveys. The answer was that they believed the priorities were a precursor to address before they could get to the dimensions Robinson found in her research. Leadership coaching is about understanding the research, understanding the practical needs of leaders and bringing it all together.

In the End
We hand leaders the keys to the building based on an interview and the degree they received in school leadership, and then we leave them to their own devices. We spend so much time on professional development for teachers, and often forget about our principals. We need to change that.

In fact, Bandura found (2000), When faced with obstacles, setbacks, and failures, those who doubt their capabilities slacken their efforts, give up, or settle for mediocre solutions. Those who have a strong beliefin the capabilities redouble their effort to master the challenge.

It’s a good time for leaders to understand that working with a coach can be as beneficial as when teachers work with instructional coaches. In fact, it’s more important now than ever to consider leadership coaching because the demands on leaders are so much more complicated than ever before. This isn’t about leaders being weak; it’s actually about leaders building their strengths.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including his newest book Coach It Further: Using the Art of Coaching to Improve School Leadership (Corwin Press. 2018). Connect with him on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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.


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