Coaching as an Important School Improvement Initiative

Marian Grant will be known to many in NSW education, following an extensive career in education as a Teacher, Principal and Director. Now Senior Consultant with Growth Coaching International, Marian is an accredited leadership coach and facilitator. She’s passionate about the capacity coaching has to bring about improved teacher practice, school leadership and management and enriching students’ learning.

In this interview, we ask Marian about how she believes schools, and teachers in particular, can benefit from coaching skills.

Marian, your background is as a Principal and Director. We know you have a keen interest in teacher professional development – how does coaching fit in with that?

As Principal, I would often wonder if sending people to professional learning programs was the best use of our resources. While I had no doubt staff that were enriched, even enthused by the experience, there was often no discernable evidence that the learning had produced improvement in outcomes or sustained improved teacher practice. It was not because staff were unwilling to consider and adopt new learning, on the contrary, staff were professional and open to new ideas. However, in the competing priorities of school life, good intentions got overwhelmed. The same lack of implementation was evident in school-based professional learning. Much nodding and questioning and discussion but no discernable evidence of high level implementation.

This was before I was introduced to coaching as a way to build teacher engagement with new learning. The research shows that professional learning activities supported by coaching increases the likelihood of innovative and sustained action in the classroom. A coaching conversation; that is a 1 on 1 conversation in which the teacher or leader identifies an area of focus for improvement, sets a measurable, time-bound goal in relation to this, it identifies what is already supporting this learning, it develops a range of options to progress and sustain the learning and then it commits to small but significant actions to start moving towards goals. It is deep, powerful and actionable professional learning.

From a system perspective, what is it that makes schools with a coaching culture different, in your opinion?

Schools are complex organisations in which every meaningful action is dependent on effective human interaction. Even though it seems that schools are a succession of hierarchies, all the relationships are co-created: a teacher co-creates the learning environment with each pupil and class, a school leader co-creates the relationship with staff – formal titles only get you so far. If there is no or little evidence that you as leader are competent, good at what you do, manage people well then there is minimal buy-in. Susan Scott in her book Fierce Leadership says that...

“what gets talked about and how it gets talked about determines what will happen. Or won’t happen. We succeed or fail gradually and then suddenly one conversation at a time”

Schools with a coaching culture have consistently high-quality conversations focused on sustained improvement and a climate of respectful and thoughtful teacher practice. Coaching is a non-directive activity. A school with a coaching culture has, as its fundamental premise, that teachers are experts in their context and that they are self-actualizing. Coaching provides the framework for deep thinking and sustained action. It is a respect based interaction.

How have you seen a coaching approach in schools make a difference to students?

At the recent Coaching in Education Conference in Melbourne it was wonderful to hear from school coaching practitioners, the achievements being gained for students. I attended a session in which two vastly different schools – one a large K-12 independent school in NSW and the other a small primary school with 100% Aboriginal student enrolment in WA - were using coaching and a coaching approach.

Coaching has many applications in building the strengths of students – from supporting students to manage the organizational challenges of the HSC or International Baccalaureate, to enabling students set goals and small actions to assist them to successfully re-enter the school community following a suspension. The relationship between students and teachers is heavily weighted towards direction and advice. Coaching provides the student with time and space to engage with their own context and to take ownership of their own actions. Their teacher coach is not so much advising them but sitting beside them to help them find their own way. In a coaching relationship, a student is not a problem to be fixed but a person of capability and insight who can take actions to improve their efforts and outcomes.

What are the key considerations when implementing coaching in schools?

In my view, there are 4 key considerations to implementing coaching in schools:

In school time is a precious commodity. From the moment the first staff member and student walks in through the gates, until the last one leaves, it’s all go, go go. The demands on the time of school leaders is constant. The statement is often “I don’t have time to coach.” If it’s just you who is trained, then you probably don’t have the time. Which takes me to challenge 2.

Strategic Intent
As a leader, if you believe coaching has the capacity to really enhance your organization then it involves more than having yourself and a few others trained in coaching methods. If coaching is the ‘next new shiny thing to do’ it will most likely have a superficial impact. Some deep reflection is needed at the start:

  • What are my best hopes for starting coaching in my school?
  • What will coaching allow us to do that we haven’t been able to do up until now in an effective and sustainable way?
  • What will I be noticing if coaching is being successful?
  • What do I want to be noticing in 12 months’ time and how will that be of benefit to staff and to the students?

This reflection will then require some strategic decision making?

  • How much of the professional learning resources am I prepared to allocate and over how many years?
  • Who on my staff will be trained initially – the “champions”?
  • How will we start?
  • What will our first steps be post training?
  • When will we do this?
  • How will I know I have alignment between what I want to achieve, what we are doing and what we are noticing?

The right people doing the right training
Growth Coaching International has a range of professional training programs. They are practical and most are explicitly developed for schools and their context. The starting point is investing time and resources in your best teachers and leaders in a program such as the Introduction to Leadership Coaching. They will thank you for this investment in them. They will become your champions. Peer Coaching is excellent for pairs of classroom practitioners who are willing to share, willing to learn and trustworthy. Performance Development: Coaching the Australian Teaching Standards is a must for anyone who supports or supervises the work of another practitioner.

Doing It
Training only gets you so far. Practicing the skills consistently and openly and with others who are on the journey with you is vital. Ask to be coached, by a colleague or one of your ‘champions’ and commit to doing this within 7 days of doing the training. In 3 years’ time, you don’t want to hear yourself or your staff saying, “Oh yes, I did coaching a few years ago…where’s the booklet?”