As a school leader coach, I work one-on-one with principals to help them build crucial new job skills. Typically, that means traveling to different schools and working with principals in person.
Because of Covid, however, my colleagues and I coached virtually for a full year, and despite my adamant opposition to virtual coaching prior to the pandemic, we learned valuable lessons about how to make it effective.
Time Spent on What Matters Most
When my colleagues and I started coaching virtually, we immediately noticed that we spent more time working directly with principals without adding extra hours to the workweek. First, we were able to schedule meetings back-to-back because virtual coaching avoids the extra time involved with traveling between schools, checking in and out of offices, finding parking, or waiting behind the student drop-off line. Because we didn’t have to travel, we were also able to accommodate tricky scheduling demands by meeting with principals in tight time slots of 25 minutes here and 30 minutes there.
Virtual coaching also made it easy to reschedule. Principles are regularly pulled away at the last minute for emergencies and pressing student issues—especially with the added pressures of contact tracing and Covid safety. Since we weren’t concerned about geographic constraints (i.e., scheduling school visits that are geographically close to one another), we could reschedule a missed coaching meeting the same day or later the same week. Virtual coaching gave us far more flexibility to shift to the principal’s time needs and ultimately meant we spent more time with each leader.
Virtual Planning and Practice
I help principals plan everything from data responses and staff meetings to daylong professional development. During the pandemic, I quickly learned that the phone and a shared Google Doc were all we needed to effectively prepare. Without the need to worry about keeping a mask pulled up tight or paying attention to the interpersonal dynamics of being in the same room, leaders could focus on the work in front of them.
Phone calls also worked great for rehearsals. My colleagues and I help leaders prepare for crucial conversations and tough feedback by rehearsing the execution. Leaders seemed more excited about practicing virtually since they could focus on the words during practice before having to get their body language right, too.
In fact, working virtually pushed me to work more proactively. Instead of relying on observing a meeting first and then offering feedback, I was able to support the principal in the planning stage.
Relationships Work Virtually
When we were forced to switch to virtual support, I was worried about the impact on relationships. But my colleagues and I quickly realized that we could form close, trusting bonds despite never having met the client in person. Our end-of-year evaluations indicated that principals felt the same.
To support relationship building, we made time for principals to share more widely than the initial narrow focus of a particular coaching call. Sometimes, we asked them to start a coaching conversation by sharing the high and low of their day. Other times, I included questions that acknowledged what I might not be seeing, like “Is there anything else you want to make sure that I know?” “Is there anything I’m missing about this?” “Is there anything else you want to flag for me?” Leader coaches build relationships—virtually or in person—by being a steady, regular source of honest feedback and partnership.
We also checked in candidly about sustainability. For many school leaders, the pandemic brought extra job pressure and immense stress in addition to family and childcare concerns.
When most schools were teaching virtually, it was easy to hop into virtual classrooms to co-observe with principals. But even with many schools back in person, there’s still a lot we can see virtually. Just this week I observed a school leader facilitating professional development. The leader propped up a computer, and I watched the entire training through Google Meet.
Other times, leaders have asked me to listen in on the phone during a leadership team meeting or even video into a teacher coaching session. Many schools are still holding virtual faculty and department meetings even though student-facing work is in person.
Virtual coaching sessions make it easy to loop in others to share expertise or practice a similar skill. There are times when my colleagues and I bring principals together for something they’re all working on—shared expectations on walk-throughs or curriculum implementation, for example. People can join just for the time they’re needed or only for the applicable segments. In-person collaboration would require significantly more coordination and time.
It’s hard to predict the full impact of Covid on schools, including the way we support teachers and school leaders. But at least for now, we’ve learned some valuable lessons about virtual coaching that may help us expand who we can support and how we can help them.