Head teachers and other school leaders are increasingly turning to coaching as a favoured approach for professional and personal development. This hasn’t been an overnight change – things often aren’t like that in schools! It has gradually emerged over the last 15 years or so. A recent survey by one of the head teacher unions showed that up to 60% of heads have experienced coaching in one form or another. So, let’s look at the what’s, how’s and why’s of school leaders and coaching.
Where do school leaders first experience coaching?
This very much depends on the age of the school leader and how long they have been in education. For those who started their education career in the last decade or so, they may have been involved in coaching since the beginning of their career. Teacher training organisations such as Teach First incorporate coaching into their courses, so that even trainee teachers are having the opportunity to be coached.
Or they may have come across coaching relatively recently. Part of the qualification process for school leaders has a coaching module, where fellow leaders coach each other.
Or they may have come across coaching via their professional networks, their school academy trust or their unions. Some school leaders dip their toe in the water of coaching, by having the occasional session. Others immerse themselves fully – I know one head who has had regular coaching for over 10 years!
Coaching for themselves or for their schools?
Once a school leader embarks on coaching, they are faced with a choice: do they use the coaching to focus on themselves and their leadership, or do they focus on the growth and development of the school. Of course, these two areas overlap, so it is not as stark a choice as it may first appear. A good strategy that leaders often use is 1:1 coaching for themselves and their leadership, and a combination of 1:1 and team coaching to help develop the school. Often school leaders feel guilty for investing in themselves – even though the pressures of the role mean that they deserve plenty of support – so having team coaching to strengthen the school lessons this concern!
Types of issues that school leaders may bring to coaching
As coaches we make great efforts to make sure coachees know that coaching isn’t just for problems, but it is for opportunities too. And school leaders do respond to this well. In the hundreds of hours, I have spent coaching heads, I think there is a fair balance between challenges and opportunities. Typical opportunities that heads like to discuss include further development of their skills, bringing out the best in others, replicating good practice from one part of their role to another. Typical challenges relate to managing complex issues, dealing with awkward bureaucracy, having challenging conversations. With time, energy and focus, heads make progress in all of these areas by using coaching.
School leaders as coaches?
Leaders in education always have their antennae up to find ways to develop their leadership approach. And a common thing for leaders who have experienced good coaching to do is to decide to learn to be a coach themselves. Generally, one of three pathways is taken: learn to be a coach and use it as part of their headship role; take their coaching skills outside of their schools to support fellow school leaders; eventually move from headship to a more permanent coaching and consulting role. I have trained many school leaders to be coaches, and the team who works with me are all current or former school leaders.
School leaders are very suitable to become high quality coaches. They are focused on the other person, are often good listeners and can structure their time well. Sometimes there is some learning to be done to stop offering advice, which is the staple of a school leader, but not a coach!
The benefits that school leaders experience from being coached are clear to see. They have complex issues to deal with, and coaching helps them to see the wood from the trees. They have stressful roles, and coaching helps them to step back and see things in perspective. They have significant decisions to make, and coaching helps them to explore all the options in a pragmatic way. If you are a school leader who hasn’t had coaching, chat to one who has and find out how it can help you.