School Leaders Can Benefit from Coaching

Leader Coaching - Jenna with Claudia Cohen

You Do What?

A lot of people, when I tell them I am an Academic Leadership Coach, ask me, “What’s that?” It’s a fair question. In over twenty years as a high school English teacher, I never once heard of a leadership coach nor an academic or instructional coach who worked with school site leaders. Consultants, yes: paid outside professionals coming in to size up a school and provide some “fixes” and then leave. But coaching in schools typically falls into one of two categories: sports coaching or new teacher coaching (often called mentoring). The implicit understanding about coaching, then, is that coaching is for the unskilled, inexperienced novice learner, either student athlete or new teacher. Leaders don’t need coaching; leaders are the ones who should be the most competent, experienced, knowledgeable and skilled, right?

Well, yes and no. We certainly want our school leadership teams to be competent, experienced, knowledgeable, and skilled! Yet, as a school leader, you are intimately aware of the myriad hats you wear on a daily or weekly basis: inspirational leader, staff supporter, conflict negotiator, decision-maker, role model, testing coordinator, professional development presenter, counselor, meeting facilitator, disciplinarian, accountant, compliance officer, curriculum or instructional lead, report writer, data specialist, custodian, nurse, community engager, evaluator, manager, politician…the list is seemingly endless. Is it likely that a single person excels in all of these areas? Of course not. School leaders, just like their teachers and students, are on their own journey of learning; they, too, have areas of expertise and skill, and areas of challenge and development. They, too, have a constantly evolving practice, informed by the circumstances in which they work, the books they read, the people who inspire them, the challenges they face.

James Macgregor Burns, Pulitzer Prize winning historian, stated in his seminal work Leadership (1978), “One of the most universal cravings of our time is a hunger for compelling and creative leadership.” Close to fifty years later, this statement still holds true. Every school leader I know wants to be a purpose-driven, inspirational, creative, and competent decision-maker for their school communities. And every school leader I know spends most of her time dealing with other people’s needs, be they staff, student, parent, or district official. How can leaders, who spend so much time assisting others, carve out even a little time each day or week to work on themselves? Usually, a service-oriented leader doesn’t even see the validity of such a “selfish” need: time to work on me? When?!

Coaching as Professional Practice

My vision of leadership coaching is informed by the mental health community: counselors, therapists, and psychiatrists have their own mental health professional to support them in their practice, to be an empathic other tending expertly to their mental health needs. Such support allows the practitioner to stay purpose- driven, service-oriented, and healthy. Another useful way of thinking about leadership coaching is the oxygen mask metaphor: airlines guide all passengers to put on their own mask before helping someone else put on a mask. The logic is that a person who passes out from lack of oxygen is no good to anyone, so you must tend to your own needs so that you can serve or assist others. Leaders who work with coaches are putting on their own oxygen masks first; they know that if they are not operating at their peak performance, they are of little assistance to anyone else.

Love to learn photo by Tim Mossholder
Photo by Tim Mossholder

What matters most about leadership coaching is the time and opportunity afforded the leader to do the necessary cognitive work required to be a great leader, a compelling and creative leader, a transformational leader: to reflect on what good leadership is and what her leadership beliefs are, to consider what leadership skills she possesses and which skills she needs to develop, and to dialogue with herself through mediative facilitation by a coach in order to create a personal leadership philosophy that she can use as her foundation to create and implement practices that align with her values.

Leaders Need Time and Space to Reflect

Our American culture values productivity to such a large extent that even new leaders are expected to “hit the ground running,” “get up to full speed,” and prove our worth as though we’re high performance engines. It’s an enormous pressure. I felt this pressure years ago when I was hired to lead a high school English department, one that was populated solely with first and second year teachers, and myself, a ten year veteran. I immediately dug into the tasks at hand, the work that needed to get done, I thought, without thinking about my own leadership philosophy, what I valued in good leaders, or the messages I was sending through my leadership behavior and language. What were my communication standards and expectations— for myself and my team? What were my work standards and expectations for myself and my team? How would I handle a conflict? What tone did I want to set for meetings? What were my standards of professionalism, for myself and others, and how was I going to communicate such? How was I going to include everyone, such as the introverts and historically marginalized? Was I even considering any of this? What was the personality make-up of my team, and how was I going to factor that into my planning, organization, and meeting models? How would I seek, incorporate, and give feedback? What was my leadership style, and how did it fit in—or not fit in—with the leadership style of the school’s administrators? What team culture did I want to establish and nourish?

If we want our school leaders to perform at their optimal best, we need to provide them with the tools to do so—not just the budgets, buildings, and bodies, but the most precious tool of all— thought—so they can lead intentionally, expertly, and consistently for their schools to maximize scholar growth and achievement.

Such rumination and planning are integral to successful leadership and collaboration. All too often we put people in leadership positions without having provided them with the opportunity to fully flesh out their values and beliefs about leadership itself. Yes, most (though not all) school leaders have an advanced degree or certification in leadership or school administration, but every program is different, and every school its own institution; there is no standard of leadership, no foundational leadership rubric accepted across public, charter, and private schools as the norm. We see a project or a complex task that needs completing, or a role that needs filling, and we look around to find the most competent person and we put her on the job. We talk about materials and deadlines and products and mission, but we may not talk about culture and values. We might focus on tactics but we might not address their purpose. We are educators, but we do not provide adequate time and space for our top educators to be learners themselves. We may provide on-the-job training, but we do not provide opportunity for reflection and dialogue in order to process that on-the-job learning.

Leadership Coaching Improves Academic Achievement

In February 2021, The Wallace Foundation published a report analyzing how school principals affect student achievement. They concluded that, in terms of the school as a whole,

“the effectiveness of the principal is more important than the effectiveness of a single teacher. … Indeed, it is difficult to envision an investment in K–12 education with a higher ceiling on its potential return than improving school leadership.” 

What does an academic leadership coach do? She engages leaders in reflective thinking of their policies and practices to help them develop and maintain a school culture that aligns with their values and mission to promote growth and achievement for all scholars. Maybe the leader is thinking about the curriculum or pacing of the school’s academic program; maybe the work is around the school’s instructional practices and facilitating effective professional learning experiences; perhaps the leader is getting more intentional about using data to drive instructional decisions. Sometimes the coach acts as a consultant, providing the leader with research, materials, or data that might be necessary as informational underpinnings for school improvement. The individual circumstances change, but the coach’s job remains the same: to mediate the leader’s thinking, holding space for the leader to process aloud her ideas, hunches, questions and concerns that drive the policies and practices she must implement.

Knowledge is like concrete, fluid and flexible before it sets. Knowledge best “sets” through reflection, through the act of thinking back on, analyzing, and making meaning out of our experiences and information. If we want our school leaders to perform at their optimal best, we need to provide them with the tools to do so—not just the budgets, buildings, and bodies, but the most precious tool of all—thought—so they can lead intentionally, expertly, and consistently for their schools to maximize scholar growth and achievement. In short, if we crave “compelling, creative” leadership, and real student achievement, then we must provide our leaders with coaching and the learning space to get them there.