In a recent study conducted by the National Association of Elementary School Principals, school leaders identified five ways they were most likely to receive professional feedback: through school-level opportunities, through district-provided opportunities, by reading journals and books, in face-to-face networking with colleagues, and through attendance at state association conferences.
Missing from that list is coaching, even though 66 percent of principals reported that they participated in coaching and 70 percent of those respondents reported that it had value. This shows that even though school leaders value coaching, it’s not among the most common ways they receive professional development (PD). Coaching is a resource that could be better leveraged.
In looking at teachers’ PD, instructional coaching expert Jim Knight showed that coaching is effective because teachers who choose to be participants who are eager to learn, and that coaching supports retention of information better than traditional “sit and get” PD does. And in Student Achievement Through Staff Development, Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers demonstrated that coaching not only provides growth in knowledge and skills but is more likely to result in the transfer of knowledge and skills to practical use.
If this is true for the coaching and professional learning of teachers, it should also be true for the coaching and professional learning for principals and other instructional leaders.
In What Areas Can Instructional Leaders Be Coached?
Coaches can work with instructional leaders in a variety of areas because leaders’ roles are multifaceted. The key is for the leader and the coach to be specific and target areas that are appropriate.
One of the primary tasks of an instructional leader is to guide and model the work of the professional learning community. Instructional leaders not only lead their own teams but serve as members of teams and support the work of other team leaders. They model and lead effective meetings and collaborative time, and use decision making and data protocols to ensure that all voices are heard.
Instructional leaders also lead the work of curriculum and instruction. They not only support processes and decision making in these areas, but present information and lead professional learning. Instructional leaders also guide capacity-building efforts for their faculty in the areas of curriculum and instruction. Finally, instructional leaders build the capacity of individual staff members by providing coaching and ongoing feedback to improve practice.
An effective coach can support an instructional leader in any of those areas—the key is that the leader must know where they need support.
A Coaching Cycle for Leaders
Traditional coaching cycles are still tried-and-true ways to support professional learning. They don’t require an inordinate amount of time and are job-embedded, meaning that the coach observes the leader in the course of the leader’s regular work. It’s also important to remember that coaching is non-evaluative and confidential, and so a leader can be vulnerable and honest, and a coach can provide honest feedback openly.
An example of coaching: Mr. Marsh was a department head for high school science and needed to support his team in coming to consensus around common standards and assessments. After the team met a few times, Mr. Marsh reached out to his coach to support him in facilitating the team’s meetings.
The coach co-facilitated a meeting with Mr. Marsh, but Mr. Marsh also wanted to learn to be a better facilitator through targeted coaching. The next time Mr. Marsh and his coach met, she asked what areas of facilitation Mr. Marsh wanted to explore. Mr. Marsh had appreciated the ideas of “one process at a time” and “balanced participation,” as well as having a clear closing and reflection, all of which the coach had modeled.
Mr. Marsh asked his coach to observe for those areas, and then went away to craft the agenda for an upcoming meeting, which he facilitated later that week. Right after the meeting, Mr. Marsh and the coach met to reflect on how it had gone. The coach shared what she had noticed, saying, “You did a quick ‘whip-around’ to start, to open the conversation up to all.” She also noticed that he engaged in a Post-it note reflection on a prompt to close the meeting.
She followed up with questions to probe Mr. Marsh’s thinking. Mr. Marsh shared why he thought the choices he had made went well and why they were effective. He also shared that he wanted to learn more strategies to have balanced participation in discussions moving forward so that his meetings didn’t become stale and still met his goals for effective facilitation. Those are points a coach can certainly help with.
When instructional leaders partner with a coach, they leverage a job-embedded professional learning opportunity that is sustainable and doable. Leaders can partner with a coach connected to their responsibilities and by doing so also build a culture of reflection and continuous improvement. Coaching, along with are professional learning strategies, supports instructional leaders in their growth as they become even better at what they do every day to support teachers and student achievement.