Leading a Coaching Culture For Learning: Key Concepts and Strategies for Principals - QSPA

This article first appeared in the term 2/3 2015 edition of Principia, the journal of Queensland Secondary Principals’ Association. Thanks to QSPA for permission to post this article here.

Coaching in education has grown rapidly in education contexts in the last 5 years (van Nieuwerburgh, 2012). It has moved beyond the provision of coaching as a professional learning activity for school leaders to include: coaching training as a leadership development skill; various coaching initiatives designed to enhance teaching practice as well as coaching involving students either by staff or even by fellow students. Educators have embraced coaching in all of these school conversational contexts.

In exploring this question further it seems that there are a number of issues to clarify and develop:

  • What do we mean by coaching culture?
  • Why might this be important and worth pursuing?
  • How might this best come about?
  • What might be the principal’s role in achieving this?

What do we mean by coaching culture?

The concept of organisational ‘culture’ has been around for some time but it has only recently emerged in relation to ‘coaching culture’. Initial definitions of this term have developed in the corporate context by Hawkins who defines coaching culture in this way.

“A coaching culture exists in an organisation when a coaching approach is a key aspect of how the leaders, managers, and staff engage and develop all their people and engage their stakeholders, in ways that create increased individual, team and organisational performance and shared value for all stakeholders.”
(Hawkins, 2012, p. 21.) 

In the education context van Nieuwerburgh and Passmore (2012) have extended the term to ‘coaching culture for learning’ since they argue all school initiatives must have a student learning focus at their centre. They define a coaching culture for learning as one in which coaching…

‘is used consistently by all partners across the school community, to help develop learning, understanding and personal responsibility in others from staff to parents and from students to governors and wider stakeholders’
(p. 159).

In clarifying the conversational contexts where coaching might be ‘… used consistently by all partners across the school community’, the Global Framework for Coaching in Education (van Nieuwerburgh & Campbell, 2015) has been a helpful development. The authors outline four key areas where coaching, both formally and informally, might take place. These key areas can all be entry points or ‘portals’ for coaching in a school context.

Coaching can be part of initiatives related to:

  • Educational Leadership
  • Enhancing Professional Practice, especially teaching practice
  • Student Success and Wellbeing
  • Community, including parent, engagement

It could be argued that when a school is implementing coaching, both formally and informally in these areas, always in ways appropriate to its context, it is on the way towards establishing a coaching culture for learning.

Why might this be important and worth pursuing?

A recent review of the literature (Gormley & van Nieuwerburgh, 2014) highlighted that establishing a coaching culture can take time and require some investment so for these reasons alone it is important to investigate whether the journey towards a coaching culture is worth pursuing. For many schools establishing a coaching culture is being explored for the following kinds of reasons:

  • Alignment: it is important to be on the ‘same page’ about this so that models and tools are consistent and confusion and overlap are avoided
  • Mutual Reinforcement: it is important to create greater consistency and achieve better results if the school ‘system’ supports the initiative
  • Time/cost efficiencies: time and money for professional learning can be optimised when knowledge and skills learned about coaching in one context can be applied to another
  • Impact on student learning outcomes: impact on student learning is likely to be more significant with a consistent and coherent approach to coaching across the school

There is a need for further research in this area but early signs are encouraging. Certainly research is beginning to emerge that supports the value of coaching across the various ‘portals’ of the Global Framework for Coaching in Education.

Educational Leadership

Recent studies are indicating a range of benefits to educational leaders from coaching both from receiving coaching and from incorporating coaching skills and tools within their leadership approach.

Developing skills in coaching can be a significant leadership development initiative in itself. Leonards-Cross (2010) found that when educators learn coaching skills it serves as a significant form of leadership development. In addition to any benefits that flow to those being coached by internal coaches, those experiencing coach training and also those doing the coaching gained significant benefit. This was supported by a study in an Indian corporate context where research conducted by Mukherjee (2012) found that ‘coaching is one of the most effective tools in building leadership capacity within the organisation’ (p. 85).

Additionally, bringing a coaching approach to interactions with staff tends to enhance the instructional leadership dimension of the principal’s role. A study conducted by Stamford University investigated the impact of various ‘instructional leadership’ activities and found that focused coaching style interactions with staff, during classroom walkarounds, had a much greater positive impact on teaching practice than when coaching was not part of these informal observations (Grissom, Loeb & Master, 2013).

In short it appears that experiencing coaching has positive benefits for leaders and that learning coaching skills has benefits not only for those being coached but also for those leaders doing the coaching. “Learning to be a coach or mentor is one of the most effective ways of enabling teachers or leaders to become good and excellent practitioners…” (CUREE, 2005).

Enhancing Professional Practice, especially teaching practice

There is a growing recognition that teacher quality is a critical factor in student success (Hattie, 2009) and coaching has been shown to have a positive impact on instructional practice in the classroom (Cordingley, Bell et al., 2005; Barlow, 2013).

A major finding from a review of more than 200 documents related to research on coaching was that traditional professional development does not lead to teacher change (Cornett and Knight, 2009). In comparison professional learning activities including a coaching component increased implementation, quality of instruction, and sustained use of implemented teaching practices (Knight, 2004).

Coaching focused around teaching practice can take several forms. It can be led by school principals (Fink, Markholt, Copland & Michelson, 2011), by specialist instructional coaches (Knight, 2007) and by teachers coaching each other in peer based arrangements (Foltos, 2013).

Another emerging space in the Professional Practice portal is that of developing the coaching skills of non-teaching staff in schools, both those with line management responsibilities and those with direct contact with students and/or parents.

Student Success and Wellbeing

There is an increasing body of research demonstrating the positive impact of coaching on students. Green, Grant and Rynsaardt (2007) found that personal coaching for students led to “significant increases in levels of cognitive hardiness and hope”.

It was also found that professional coaching for students increased goal commitment, goal attainment, and environmental mastery (Spence and Grant, 2007).

Additionally, Madden, Green, and Grant (2011) found that the use of solution focused coaching supported primary aged children in identifying their own strengths and resources. By encouraging students to visualise a positive future, they improved their engagement in learning as well as their sense of hope and improved wellbeing.

In relation to ‘students coaching students’ there is further evidence that the students being coached reported positive experiences and impact from the coaching. Further, the students who were acting as coaches also felt that they had gained from the experience at an emotional or personal level (Green, Grant and Rynsaardt, 2007; van Nieuwerburgh and Tong, 2013).

Community, including parent engagement

Some coaching programs have also been introduced for parents (Bamford, et al. (2012). At present though these take the form of coaching as a parenting approach rather than specific programs that might be provided to help support coaching approaches within the school. It is fair to say that the research in this ‘portal’ is less developed.

Consequently, the evidence base is emerging to support the benefits of coaching across each of these coaching ‘portals’, building the case for exploring the application of coaching in several conversational contexts and moving towards the creation of a coaching culture.

How might this best come about?

In moving towards the establishment of a coaching culture several critical activities seem to be important. One of the more helpful frameworks for working towards a coaching culture in schools was outlined in a publication developed by the National College for School Leadership in England (Creasy & Paterson, 2005). The authors suggest that the following steps provide a helpful guide towards a coaching culture in a school context. While every school context is different, frameworks of this kind can be useful starting points.

  • To develop a system, first develop yourself: ‘walk the talk’ about coaching
  • Make sense of the whole: provide the rationale and a big picture perspective
  • Create systems: develop policies and processes that support coaching
  • Focus on principles: get clear on the principles and purposes of coaching
  • Equip staff with coaching skills: ensure that staff are trained sufficiently to coach well
  • Review and reward good coaching practice: implement ways to maintain the momentum
  • Use and build external networks: leverage from the skills and experiences of others
  • (Creasy & Paterson, 2005 p.22)

What might be the principals’ role in achieving this?

In many ways the principal’s role in leading a coaching culture is similar to leading any new initiative where the challenges of leading change apply. The following actions provide the kind of leadership of a coaching culture project that can lead to sustainable impact:

  • Compelling Vision: It’s important to build the case, and draw others into creating a clear and detailed preferred future, linking to deeper purpose keeping the benefits to students paramount
  • Resource Allocation: Initial (and ongoing): It’s important to fund the initial skill development and to ensure sufficient resources are available to maintain the momentum over the longer term
  • System adaptations: It’s important to ensure that school processes and polices align with the coaching approach being implemented or the coaching initiative will be subtly undermined
  • Measurement: It’s important to establish ways to monitor and assess the impact of coaching initiatives on staff and above all students so that improvements can be made along the way and so that success can be celebrated!

And above all Model Coaching. “Leaders should model the dialogue and personal approaches that create a culture of high-quality coaching interaction across the school” (Creasy and Paterson 2005, p.5).

Much of the success of broad longer term coaching projects will be influenced by the enthusiasm and conviction of the principal and the emerging story is that this enthusiasm and conviction when applied to developing coaching cultures for learning can make a real difference.


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