Coaching is central to current thinking about leadership within the education environment. But what exactly is coaching and how does it apply specifically to schools and to head teachers in particular when it comes to leadership?
Paul Lefebvre (in Downey, 2001) illustrates the coaching process when he points out that: “In the sixteenth century, the English language defined coach as a carriage, a vehicle for conveying valued people from where they are to where they want to be.”
It is the second highlighted element of the sentence which is where professional coaching comes into its own, as within the education sector schools are realising the value of professional coaching in Continuing Professional Development (CPD) for staff.
A study – One-to-One Leadership: Coaching in schools – conducted by Darren Holmes, then a Head Teacher at a Hartlepool Primary School, examined the Leadership Programme for Serving Headteachers (LPSH) which highlighted many coaching qualities found within existing head teacher roles.
Mr Holmes looked at the extent to which these skills were consciously developed and used by head teachers in schools and what conditions were needed for this style of leadership to make an impact?
His study drew on interviews with 10 head teachers who had identified the coaching style of leadership as being relevant to them and showed how they had made coaching work for their schools.
In addition, it examined the way in which the head teachers took it upon themselves to act as coach to their colleagues in schools and how they facilitated a coaching approach within the school. It aimed to answer three key questions:
- what does coaching in schools look like?
- how is a coaching approach to professional development used by head teachers?
- what factors affect its likely success as a leadership tool?
All those involved in the study identified times when they used the coaching style to achieve the results they wanted. In addition, all seemed to fall into a style which can be identified as ‘coaching’ when it was used to supplement more familiar behaviours. This style had its greatest effect when there were isolated issues in a school which needed to be addressed with small groups of colleagues.
One head teacher referred to an instance where a role of subject leader was undeveloped and so she drew on her prior experience in that role to work on a one-to-one basis with a colleague who was driving improvements in numeracy.
She worked alongside this colleague during a short period of time and added her skills to their existing on-going efforts: “This was ultimately very successful. I found myself asking lots of questions rather than just saying what I thought needed to happen. It seemed to work well for us both,” according to the head teacher.
Although there was no conscious, planned and systematic process, most head teachers surveyed were positive about their coaching experiences and were making it work for their schools. All reported performance gains as a direct result of one-to-one leadership of colleagues.
Some of the elements which turned up time and time again included the following:
Shared values between coach and learner: Head teachers interviewed were clear about their own values and the values they held to be important for the organisations they lead. Shared values appeared to be most powerful when they were explicitly communicated and when the values were consensual between partners.
A common understanding of the direction of the school: Where head teachers identified that their coaching had been successful, they were almost universal in their recognition that there had been a common understanding of school direction between coach and learner. Interestingly this seemed to have a bearing on the selection of those involved in coaching partnerships (however loosely defined).
This idea that head teachers tend to select like-minded colleagues as the focus of coaching activities arose time and again in the course of the study. “When someone wants to move forward in the direction you think you want to go I try to support that. Sometimes working, or coaching if you like, with someone is hard work. I’m not going to put in all that effort unless I have a good idea I’m going to get something back,” said one head teacher.
A common language of learning between partners: One or two phrases communicated a great deal because the colleagues shared a common language related to their work. This language had evolved over time from the many and varied professional conversations that had occurred. This common language seems to enable colleagues to engage with one another in a coaching context in an effective way.
Very clear and well understood operational guidelines: One head was clear that having clear routines, systems and procedures for most aspects of school life was: “. . . liberating. We have well-rehearsed ways of dealing with things that everybody understands.”
This liberation from thinking about the routine aspects enabled her to think more clearly and deeply about other issues which were more developmental. She was able to spend more time leading and less time on more routine management issues that were often dealt with by others according to established custom, practice and policy.
The study also drew the conclusion that, while there may not be any systematic structure in place which makes all head teachers use leadership coaching, the professional ethos, culture and values of the role itself could be a reason for why so many did.
Those using one-to-one leadership coaching were all very visible within their school environment, willing to talk and listen to staff with an “open door” policy and a firm alignment with their colleagues rather than acting “above” them.
Coaching as a head teacher
The head teachers interviewed in this enquiry were universally action orientated. They saw spending time with their people on a one-to-one basis as a vital investment in furthering the development of their schools. They often spent significant amounts of time on this one-to-one activity.
In conclusion, the survey found Coaching can be a potent tool for transforming schools. For maximum impact, however, schools would need to take a strategic view of coaching. The greatest impact seems likely to arise when school leaders:
- invest in the ecology of their school – ensure the growing conditions are right for effective coaching partnerships to flourish,
- have developed a clear view of their competencies as coaches and added specific coaching skills to their professional armoury,
- have the engendered trust and responsibility in the people being coached,
- select those initially involved with some care,
- are clear about the intended results and focus of coaching partnerships,
- use coaching as a tool in the transformation process, aligned to the overall aims and values of the school.
Sales Improvement Services specialise within the education sector, particularly working with head teachers and senior staff to support and develop a working coaching culture within their schools.
If you would like to discover more about how coaching can help support your staff and school, why not read our latest case study discussing how Sir William Borlase’s Grammar School currently use coaching to complement their CPD programme?