“It’s not just how good you are now, it’s how good you’re going to be that really matters.... If you want to get great at something, get a coach.”
Coaching is the key to transforming a school from a collection of classrooms to a learning organization that thinks and grows together. Coaching has the power to transform a school or district, and as school administrators, we’ve witnessed the extraordinary ways that coaching benefits a learning community. The big question is: How can leaders create a culture of coaching to maximize its impact?
A culture of coaching helps build and cement characteristics such as growth mindset, a focus on continuous improvement, creativity, and risk-taking throughout an organization. Imagine the synergy created among teachers and school leaders as they work to establish goals centered around improving instructional practice—not as a solo act but as a socially constructed collaborative. Collectively, we crave thought partners, individuals who both push our thinking and hold us accountable for progress.
How to Foster a Culture of Coaching
Our parents coach us to eat and walk. Our friends coach us to climb to the top of the jungle gym. Our teachers coach us to read and solve problems. Some mentors serve as coaches and make a living by helping us find our purpose. Coaching makes us stronger, faster, and more focused.
Effective coaching at the school and district level requires that we shape culture, make connections, and build capacity. The scholars Kent Peterson and Terrence Deal found that school and district leaders can do that by cultivating a sense of purpose, norms, rituals and traditions, and storytelling.
Sense of Purpose: It is important to create a clear sense of purpose among team members to avoid frustration during implementation. Coaching itself is not a purpose, but rather a category of professional learning. District and school leaders need to clearly define coaching intentions and outcomes, considering the following questions:
- Why do we have a coaching program?
- What are the goals? What do we hope to gain?
- Who will coach and who will be coached?
- How will we know if we have achieved our goals? What does success look like?
Norms: Norm-setting lays a foundation for communication and allows team members to celebrate progress while engaging in healthy and productive crucial conversations. Co-develop these norms of communication with your team to support your coaching. Address the following questions as a team:
- How frequently and where will coaching occur?
- What will it look like and sound like?
- What forms or protocols will be used to guide the process?
- Will coaching be standardized or personalized—and why?
Rituals and Traditions: School rituals and traditions—awards banquets, perfect attendance certificates, graduation, etc.—generally focus on student accomplishments. While students should always be the touchstone of our work, if we want to move beyond merely covering content in the classroom to building a collective learning organization, these rituals and traditions need to include all members of our learning community. Celebrations breed investment and fuel continued engagement.
These questions can help you build rituals around your culture of coaching:
- How will coaches first connect with their coachee?
- Are there specific relationship-building components that all initial meetings, and even subsequent meetings, should include?
- What markers will demonstrate success, and how will we celebrate them?
Storytelling: Storytelling, particularly that which is external-facing, tends to highlight individual students, but we miss an opportunity as leaders if we don’t tell our school’s story, too. Some of the most successful schools the two of us have collaborated with take pride in crafting and packaging their students’ stories as well as those of their staff members. Harness this opportunity to highlight learning—at all levels of the organization. Ask yourself:
- What components of our coaching program make it a story worth telling?
- How will we share this story with stakeholders and external constituents?
Once leaders have established a strong coaching culture, the next critical component of an effective coaching program is to make strong connections between coach and coachee. People don’t follow people they don’t like, so relationship-building is crucial at all levels of a learning organization. While consistent messages, protocols, and processes build the culture and lay the foundation for an effective program, the work of coaching does not end there. Coaching others is people work, not process work, and connections matter.