Implementing Coaching: Choices and Considerations
When thinking about expanding coaching in your school there are a number of choices and considerations that have had to be made. These considerations all impact what might be described as the broad coaching framework that will guide coaching implementation in your context. It’s one thing getting your head around a coaching conversation model and being able to have productive coaching conversations on a one-to-one basis but quite a different prospect to think about scaling this up to a whole-school level where, ideally, all staff have access to coaching.
In my recent school experience we grappled with lots of the issues around how to get moving along this path. The diagram below highlights some of the issues on a continuum. These considerations are intertwined and will determine the kind of broad coaching framework that underpins how consistently and sustainably coaching moves forward in your context.
Let’s consider some of these in a little more detail.
Voluntary v Mandatory Coaching
Taking account of the pre-existing ways of working in your school, and how coaching might fit into a suite of professional learning options or development processes, might dictate how you respond to this consideration.
One way forward is to start with volunteers with the aim of building momentum and trust from a ‘coalition of the willing’. Some key questions to consider could be: Do you see coaching as a gift? …or an entitlement? …an investment in people? What if teachers don’t want the gift? …and can everyone be coached?
van Nieuwerburgh (2016, p.233) identifies the principle of democratic voluntary involvement as a necessary underpinning feature of the successful establishment of coaching cultures in a range of professional contexts. The term ‘coaching culture’ suggests a long-term embedding of coaching activity across a school in a sustainable way.
With mandated coaching, there is potentially the problem of passive resistance to the process with many teachers just going through the motions. This won’t necessarily be widespread depending on the pre-existing culture in your school and the level of authentic engagement with staff prior to any mandate.
Knight (2007, pp.36-40) explains what he calls “enrolment” as an important early step in the establishment of coaching partnerships. He proposes five methods of enrolling teachers with the very last one being “administrator referral”. Here he cautions against coaching being seen as punishment for under-performance rather than a support. Coaching can be much more palatable when offered as one (high impact) option among a range of professional learning choices.
Expertise v Everyone
Having been immersed in a comprehensive coaching training program alongside another colleague I feel that, in our context, we really needed this deeper level of expertise to help develop our coaching approach and to keep momentum going as we worked through a pilot project. Whether or not you acquire some coaching credentials perhaps doesn’t matter but I would suggest that you do need to have a strong base of in-house expertise to support the process and to develop others. Importantly, if the license to develop this expertise is given by school leadership, and coaching is publicly endorsed, then buy-in from staff is more likely. Coaching is not just a protocol or system – it can’t be handed to people in a manual and expected to work. Use the phrase “we all coach” with caution! Can we all coach well? Campbell (2016, p.140) stresses the importance of coaching skill development here: "In defining coaching as a form of ‘conversation’ it can be easy to trivialise and underplay the critical importance of effective coaching skill development training. Coaching is a specific kind of conversation, full of intention; subtle and not so subtle shifts in perspective; carefully nuanced language; and acutely refined listening among other things."
Leaders as Coaches
Having school leaders adopt coaching roles can work, but this needs to be done with great caution and clarity of intent. Trust and authenticity are cornerstones of effective coaching. Can we truly have these (and confidentiality) when we know that we are answerable to the person coaching us? Again, the answer to this question will depend on your conception of leadership and your perception of the culture in your school. A coaching style of leadership is entirely possible but is it ‘pure’ coaching?
At this point it is helpful to make the distinction between a coaching cycle – intentionally entered into by two people and undertaken as a defined professional learning activity over an agreed period of time, and a coaching style – where conversations across a range of contexts draw heavily on coaching skills and those involved interact in a way that makes the exchange more respectful and empowering. Adopting a coaching stance can be a challenge for many leaders, and teachers, and takes conscious effort that sometimes challenges our long-held attitudes and habits.
The image below is an attempt to show the overlap between the elements that contribute to an effective coaching ‘cycle’, in the conventional sense, and those elements that come to the fore when one adopts a coaching ‘style’ of conversation in more general circumstances.
Coaching in the Context of Review Processes
We could describe this as “coaching as a supplement” versus “coaching as a treatment”. This consideration is about where coaching fits in pre-existing systems of accountability (if at all). If we have a loose system of annual review or appraisal, the development of a coaching model may act as a catalyst for having a closer look at this process. On the other hand, there may already be a rigorous process in place for staff goal setting and review and coaching may provide another form of learning that teachers bring to this process. Where coaching initiatives have experienced difficulties it is often because the intent of review processes and the coaching process has been blurred and where evaluation and development have been confused.
"The carrot and stick may, on occasion, prod people to meet minimum standards, but only high-trust connections can inspire greatness. Such connections free up teachers to take on new challenges by virtue of the safety net they create."
Tschannen-Moran, B. & Tschannen-Moran, M. (2011, pp. 10-16)
Coaching Contexts and Goals
What is the intent of coaching in your context? How do you maintain a high degree of ‘freedom within form’ if you opt for a narrower range of allowable coaching areas or use coaching to advocate particular strategies? What’s your point of reference or evidence of the current reality used to identify the goal? Do you refer to a teaching and learning framework? What other data do you have that could be utilised by teachers to identify goal areas? Is coaching a vehicle to personalise professional learning and lead to change?
In my own context, we chose to start broad in order to allow teachers to experience the process and to build trust. We coached on any aspect of the teacher’s work. If it was their burning issue and the rationale for addressing it was grounded in a desire to improve the student learning experience in some way, then that’s where we started. Fundamentally, this is about respecting the professionalism of teachers as contextual experts.
The pre-existing culture of collaboration in your school will dictate how you initiate coaching and how fast you can go. Whenever I’ve had discussions with colleagues in other schools about the why and how of coaching in their context, they invariably refer to the contextual conditions that exist(ed) in their school. These are things like the customs, routines, processes, levels of collaboration, leadership, and the nature of discourse about practice in the school. Any and all of these can have a positive or negative influence on how coaching ‘lands’ with staff and on its rate of growth.
The pre-conditions for coaching will be different in every school context. Coaching leaders need to be in tune with these and take them into account when considering their approach. Trust is paramount here. We know that trust is critical to the success of individual coaching relationships but in terms of establishing a broader coaching framework we need to think about the levels of trust across the full range of conversational contexts in our schools.
- Campbell, J. (2016). Coaching in schools. In C. van Nieuwerburgh (Ed.) Coaching in professional contexts. London: Sage.
- Knight, J. (2007). Instructional Coaching: A partnership approach to improving instruction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press
- Tschannen-Moran, B. & Tschannen-Moran, M. (2011). The Coach and the Evaluator. In Educational Leadership, October 2011. Available online: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/oct11/vol69/num02/The-Coach-and-the-Evaluator.aspx [Accessed 18/8/16]
- van Nieuwerburgh, C. (2014). Introduction to Coaching Skills: a practical guide. London: Sage.
- van Nieuwerburgh, C. (2016). Towards a coaching culture. In C. van Nieuwerburgh (Ed.) Coaching in Professional Contexts. London: Sage.