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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.

Professional Development Opinion

Want to Strengthen Leadership Coaching? Try Collaborative Inquiry

Everyone stands to benefit
By Peter DeWitt — June 08, 2023 5 min read
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Leadership coaching has the potential to be a valuable reciprocal learning experience for both the person being coached and the person doing the coaching. Coaching is never just about what the coach brings to the table; it’s about what the coach learns from others while they’re at the table. It’s something I have written about before in this blog “If you’re coaching and not learning, you’re not coaching.” Instructional Coaching researcher Jim Knight has been talking about the reciprocal benefits of coaching for many years, and to truly experience it deepens the relationship between the person doing the coaching and the person being coached.

Over the last few years, I have found my worlds of facilitating multiple-day workshops and that of hybrid coaching—where I’m in the schools every other month and remotely the other months—come crashing into each other. It’s not that I didn’t notice it before, because what I learned while I coached was often useful in workshops and vice versa. However, what I have grown to learn more and more each year is how to be more intentional in coaching and facilitating.

About six months ago, I wrote this blog focusing on the fact that educators attend professional learning sessions, and some don’t even know why they’re there, which is something that comes up in coaching a lot, meaning that the person being coached tells me they are attending a workshop but are not sure why they are going. That’s where coaching can be different … more intentional.

If we, as coaches, can provide job-embedded coaching focusing on the needs of school leaders, perhaps when they do go to workshops, they will look for the topics that will most help them or they may not even have to go to a workshop because coaching can help meet their needs in ways that workshops never will.

That’s where collaborative inquiry enters the equation.

What is Collaborative Inquiry?

Collaborative inquiry is a cyclical process that begins with a problem of practice or an inquiry question focusing on an issue educators want to solve. What I have found is that leaders often want teachers to engage in the process, but leaders don’t engage in the process often enough. Leaders need to engage in actions that will help them grow as much as teachers do, and collaborative inquiry is a way to meet that need.

Casey (2014) writes, “Questions are the root of inquiry; they initiate, sustain and invigorate each aspect of the process. Questions direct investigation, drive creativity, stimulate discussion, and are the bed-rock of reflection” (p. 510).

One document that leaders should always use to help guide them as they consider the inquiry process is that of their school’s academic plan, which is also sometimes called a strategic plan. Too often, the academic plans that leaders create are done in isolation, so their teachers do not know what the plan includes. Sadly, there are leaders who have told me they created their academic plan, but it goes on the proverbial shelf or in the cloud never to be looked at again, which is also something that I wrote about recently (you can find it here).

Academic plans that have been created using data and the input of teachers can help bring a more effective and coherent focus to a school, which is common sense, but due to the rush of day-to-day pressures, academic plans are often completed out of compliance and not seen as the valuable tool that they could be.

Bernhardt (2018) suggests that teachers and leaders work together by exploring four types of data to get a sense of who they are as a school and where they can go next in their focus for those academic plans. Those four types of data are:

  • Demographic data – Describes the system.
  • Perceptions data – How do they do business? It involves surveys about climate and culture.
  • Student learning data – How are the students doing?
  • School processes data – What are their processes, such as PLCs, RTI, and other actions they take.

A Simple Google Doc

In leadership coaching, we can take those academic plans based on those four types of data and drill down to the three main priorities of the leaders and their staff. Often, it’s a focus on literacy, math, or attendance. Using a Google doc, I have leaders fill out their three main priorities, and then, in coaching sessions, we focus on what success would look like if they successfully met those three priorities, which also needs to go in that same Google doc. Defining success criteria for each priority is key, because if we can’t define what success looks like, then how can we move forward with an effective plan?

The next step, which is also completed within the same inquiry Google doc, is that of defining a theory of action, which is a process that has been around for a very long time. Theories of actions are simple statements that are referred to as If/Then. “If” we take this action, “Then” what are we hoping will happen? This is often a place where leaders and coaches can define outcomes.

As leaders go through the inquiry process, the information within those Google docs become vitally important to me as a coach. Based on the focus of the three priorities, I can offer resources and professional learning based on the needs of the school leaders and their teams, which means the professional learning is job-embedded and much more valuable to them than if they just attend random one-day workshops. In fact, due to their learning needs, leaders and their teams will be much more likely to attend one-day workshops that can help supplement the learning that happens during coaching, and that, too, will be more valuable.

The last step is reflection, which is not just about remembering it the way we thought the whole process happened. Reflection is about what we all learned during the cycle and what we changed about our practices when some actions worked and other actions did not. Reflection is also about, as collective teacher-efficacy researcher Jenni Donohoo says, celebrating the successes that the team experienced.

In the End

John Hattie has often said that educators, including leaders, have two main areas of focus. One is to look at how and what we do impacts student learning in positive ways. The other is to consistently evaluate our own impact on student learning. Engaging in cycles of inquiry during coaching can help meet both those needs, and when the process involves a leadership team, it can also help foster collective leader efficacy.

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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