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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.

Professional Development Opinion

4 Essential Elements Needed Right Now to Engage in Leadership Coaching

By Peter DeWitt — August 02, 2021 6 min read
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Whether we are teachers or school building leaders, having a coach can help us improve our practices. That certainly isn’t a groundbreaking statement, but it does seem to be a lesson many educators are beginning to learn.

Although instructional coaching has been a popular practice over the past decade or more, school leadership coaching seems to just be gaining speed. Back in 2016, I wrote a blog asking that if instructional coaching is so powerful, why aren’t more leaders being coached, too. The response was pretty remarkable, with many leaders contacting me through email or social media to say they want to be coached but it’s not always an option. To be clear, leadership coaching has been around for a long time, but it’s only now that it’s taking on more relevance and popularity.


When I was interviewing for my first building principal position, I interviewed in front of a panel of 17 people, many of whom were teachers, a few parents, my superintendent, and the person who would be my predecessor. I ultimately got the job, and then, over the months that followed, could count on teachers, other administrative colleagues, my superintendent, and predecessor to help provide the feedback and guidance I needed to be successful.

The truth is, I was very fortunate, because not every school building leader or teacher gets the support that I received when I was a new leader. And as the years go on, the role seems to be getting more complex, which isn’t just due to COVID-19.

The complexity of the role

There are accountability and compliance measures, which many of us have always seen, but the carrot and stick of how schools are funded and what they need to do to get that funding remains to be complicated. Additionally, it seems like more than ever before, there is political divisiveness that is blocking the way teachers and leaders can talk about issues such as race and equity, which is a necessary conversation in our educational circles.

It used to be that finding a balance between instructional leadership and management was the issue, but now it’s divisive politics and the need to clarify misinformation that is currently taking up the time of school leaders. Over the past few years, it has weighed so heavily on those who lead that they are considering leaving their position.

In fact, 42 percent of principals surveyed indicated they were considering leaving their position (NASSP. EPI). Among the most common reasons they cite are:

· Working Conditions

· Compensation and Financial Obligations

· High-Stakes Accountability Systems and Evaluation Practices

· Lack of Decisionmaking Authority

· Inadequate Access to Professional Learning Opportunities (NASSP. EPI. 2021).

Where does coaching fit in?

Many times, leaders are given the keys to the building and left to their own devices. This makes it difficult to focus on the instructional leadership necessary to make sure that their walk-throughs, learning walks, and formal observations are done in a collaborative way with teachers that provides the professional learning they need as teachers and leaders. Coaching can help leaders find a balance between management and instructional leadership.

However, it can also tap into at least 4 of the 5 issues outlined in the joint NASSP and EPI study. What I mean by this is that working with a coach can help leaders negotiate their way through accountability and evaluation practices in a more positive way and assist those leaders in improving the working conditions for themselves and others. Through coaching, if done correctly, it provides leaders with a voice in their improvement process and can ultimately be the professional learning they need to be successful.

In order to provide an impactful coaching experience, there are a few important elements to consider.

4 important elements to the coaching process

Over the past five years, I have engaged in a great deal of leadership coaching. Sometimes it’s with one building leader and other times it’s group coaching where I engage in relationships with school leadership teams. Given the experience, I created an on-demand coaching course through Thinkific and have begun to see that it’s not just former building leaders who engage in coaching. In the course, I have those who are in formal leadership coaching positions, which is fairly new for districts, but also have regional superintendents and district directors who want to engage in coaching the building principals within their school districts.

Through the coaching work I do and creating and engaging in the course, I found four really important elements to consider while kicking off any coaching relationship. As with any list, there are often many, many more elements to consider, but this is offered as a good start. Those elements are:

What is coaching – There are numerous definitions of coaching. To me, coaching is a form of professional learning and development where a coach, who often has experience in the role of those they are coaching, develops and engages in a cycle of inquiry that simultaneously focuses on student and adult learning.

Coaches often think their job is to help others improve, but it’s also about being intentional in how they as a coach improve their practices as well. It’s important to develop this understanding of coaching at the beginning of the coaching relationship because, in my experience, many people want to engage in coaching but do not actually understand what coaching is and what it entails.

Coaching can be done with a hybrid approach – During COVID, many of us found that we could not meet in person. In my coaching relationships, all of them went to remote, and we engaged in remote walk-throughs (read more about that here). The truth is, in the next year I will be engaging in in-person coaching with groups during some months and using remote methods with those groups in other months. Coaches should consider how they can utilize a hybrid approach in their own coaching relationships.

Coaching is individual and group – Many times coaches feel as though all of their coaching is supposed to be done on an individual basis. The reality is that there is nothing further from the truth. We know that building collective teacher efficacy and collective leader efficacy is about developing a shared conviction among a team. Although individual coaching is beneficial, coaches shouldn’t be shortsighted about the idea of engaging in group coaching, too.

Coaching is about what you don’t know, as much as it’s about what you know – Too often, people are asked to coach because of their experience or expertise. That can often cloud their judgment to look at coaching as a one-way street where they have all of the power. The truth is, at least for me, coaching is as much about what I don’t know because it means that I’m not always going into coaching as the teacher… I’m going in as a learner as well, and that is vitally important. It helps keep us curious, which means it also puts us in the position of always looking at how to improve.

In the end

Leadership is complicated and complex, but it doesn’t have to be as complicated and complex as we think. Coaching can help leaders negotiate their way through the complexity of workload, accountability, and divisive conversations at the same time they help leaders find a balance between instructional leadership and management.

Additionally, a must is that coaches must be intentional about how they coach—and what coaching means for them as well. It’s not a one-way street where the coach holds all of the power and dictates how they move forward. Coaching is about lowering our status as a coach and raising the status of those we coach and understanding that we can learn as much about ourselves as we hope those we coach learn about themselves during the process.

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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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