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  • Writer's pictureAndy Hind

Increasing leadership capital through structured coaching conversations

Looking to improve the quality of teaching in every classroom?

Use instructional coaching or, maybe, performance coaching, depending on the individual, their mindset, their skillset and their attitude towards professional growth and development. Coaching has become wildly popular in the last several years, as a process for developing teachers and increasing human capital across a school.

But what about coaching for leaders—including Head Teachers, Senior Leaders, Teacher Leaders, and other school leaders?

Coaching leaders is inherently more complex than coaching teachers because the practices of highly-effective leadership are not always as clearly defined as classroom practices or pedagogical techniques for high-impact teaching.

If schools are considering using coaching as a processes for increasing the leadership capital, careful thought must be given to creating a shared understanding of the chosen leadership coaching process (of which there are many), a crystal-clear vision for how leadership coaching will look, once successfully embedded, and a thorough strategy for how success with this vision will be achieved. All of the above should be communicated clearly to secure buy-in from all leaders.

A Structured Approach

The five strategies described below can support schools in considering the essential steps for embedding successful leadership coaching, whilst leveraging what in-school coaches may already know about teacher coaching. These strategies can also support identified school leadership coaches in applying these already known coaching practices and processes to leadership coaching. Leadership coaching, and the chosen structured process, should focus on 1) defining the bar, 2) collecting evidence, 3) developing action steps, 4) encouraging practice, and 5) following up.

Here’s what these strategies look like in practice.

1. Defining the Bar

Collectively, the leaders within a school must start by asking ‘What, for us, does excellence in leadership actually look like?’.

As always...Clarity precedes competence.

Does every leader in your school understand the essential differences between being a leader and engaging in leadership? This must be the starting point and a place where the leadership conversations begin. Being a leader is a role whereas engaging in leadership is a process. Being a successful leader requires the demonstration of a key set of competencies…to a high level of competence. Engaging in successful leadership requires the skilful participation in a key set of practices…to a high level of effectiveness

Every leader must have a shared knowledge and understanding around the agreed key characteristics, attributes or behaviours of a successful leader. Equally, there needs to be that same shared knowledge and understanding around the agreed practices of successful leadership. So...when approaching leadership coaching, within a school, the leaders may want to consider the following questions:

  • Are we looking to coach around the general competencies and qualities of a leader, the essential practices of effective leadership or both?

  • Are there any specific competencies or practices that are more role dependent? If so, what are those specifics and for which specific leadership responsibility? For example, are there specific leadership practices that are more relevant to senior leadership than to teacher leadership?

  • Within the context of our own school, are there certain competencies and practices that are more critical than others?

  • What are the most essential qualities for our school leaders to uphold?

  • What are the most critical actions for our school leaders to take?

  • What evidence do or leadership coaches need to gather to show competency in specific areas?

  • Where do we see the school leadership role going in the next two to five years?

What got us to here might not get us to there.

Answering these questions allows schools to establish clarity around what effective leadership means in their own context. Their answers can also drive professional learning for all leaders, strengthen interview processes, improve performance management/appraisal approaches and help create leadership evaluative tools. Most importantly, for the identified school leadership coaches, these answers will drive the scope and depth of their work. As contexts shift, such as the implementation of a new strategic plan or changes in learning formats, these attributes of effective school leadership should be continually re-examined.

2. Collecting Evidence

Now, this is where things get a little more complex for leadership coaching. Both teacher and leadership coaching conversations must be grounded in information collected through observation, reviewing planning and strategies, interviewing others or analysing specific and appropriate data. Such information provides concrete evidence to help the specific coaching process. But collecting evidence for teachers and collecting evidence for leaders might involve different steps.

What appropriate evidence needs to be collected to support successful leadership coaching?

We can only collect appropriate evidence if we have a clear definition of the purpose of leadership.

Leadership is a relationship that leads to improvement.

Ultimately, the primary role of a leader is the continual improvement in the performance of those they lead.

For the leaders in your school, is this an acceptable definition of leadership and of the primary role of a leader?

If not...what is your school's shared definition?

If this is an acceptable and agreed definition and core purpose of leadership, what evidence is need to support the coaching process?

How should this evidence be collected?

By whom?

Perhaps there is a need to collect information from a leadership self-analysis tool, based around the agreed practices, or a 360° Evaluation. It might be that observations of a phase leader facilitating a team meeting are required or a closer analysis of how a teacher leader carries out a deep-dive into their subject responsibility. Observing a leader facilitating their own coaching conversation with a member of their team or asking a leader to talk through their short-term vision and strategy for continual improvement might be worthwhile approaches towards gathering essential evidence.

What about data? Is there any actual data that can be collected? Can we measure leadership progress in the same way that we measure pupil progress?

Finally…If every leader, in your school, chooses to engage in leadership coaching, who will be responsible for collecting evidence for the Head Teacher's coaching process? Who will be the Head Teacher’s leadership coach? Will the Head Teacher have their own internal leadership coach, an external coach or will the School Improvement Partner suffice?

3. Developing Action Steps

In essence, action steps are the “objectives” of coaching conversations—think “teacher will be able to….” For teachers, this usually means building concrete and practicable skills that impact pupil learning. The most effective teacher-focused action steps meet the following criteria for success:

  • Highest Leverage: The action step will greatly impact pupil learning.

  • Narrow: The action step can be learned within a few weeks.

  • Specific: The action step is clearly defined, including smaller stages in the process of becoming proficient in the step.

  • Transferable: The action step can be translated across classes, sections, units, etc.

For leaders, these criteria share terminology but are applied differently. Unfortunately, leaders juggle so many due dates, checklists, reports, and other tasks that conversations with a leadership coach often boil down solely to prioritisation. For some leaders, this type of support is exactly what they need, and they leave a coaching conversation with a clearer and prioritised list of actions to take. But while useful in the short term, these types of actions do not help build leadership capital over time. Therefore, leadership coaches should consider the following criteria for effective leadership-facing action steps:

  • Highest Leverage: The action step would mean the most for pupil learning at the individual classroom, team, or school levels by focusing on increasing the human capital of the adults.

  • Narrow: Leaders can become more proficient with the specific leadership practice, within a few weeks, but must have regular opportunities to engage with this identified practice.

  • Connected to Evidence: The action step should be grounded in evidence for their specific team, subject area or whole school and context, rather than based on more general assumptions.

  • Transferable: The step can translate outside of a specific situation, or the leader can glean key reflections from the step going forward.

For leaders, an ineffective action step might be: “Support Mr Williamson with the writing of his professional growth plan for next term.” In contrast, an effective action step might be: “Support Mr Williamson in crafting appropriate professional learning goals that are: 1) connected to the teacher evaluation tool you are using, 2) most critical to the classroom based upon evidence collected, and 3) time-bound and realistic.” The first presents a discrete task to complete one time; the second explains the skills underlying professional development tasks in the present and future.

In other words, leadership coaches can think about action steps as instructive and practical. Next time this leader has to write a professional development plan, they will be able to recall skills they practiced, review their specific example from Mr. Williamson, and replicate the task again without a coach’s help.

4. Encouraging Practice

Every coaching conversation–for teachers and leaders–should include an element of practice driven by the previously established action steps. Teachers practice action steps during coaching sessions and in their classroom (or in their planning for in-classroom instruction). Leaders, however, can practice in a number of contexts: in staff meetings or team meetings, during professional development sessions, in classroom observations, during coaching conversations, and in professional learning communities. Leadership coaches must identify the most authentic place where a leader can demonstrate the practice being developed in the coaching session. Leadership coaches can then make a plan for how to observe and give feedback.

5. Following Up

Coaches are not only building leaders’ technical skills; they are working actively to create reflective individuals who are developing as people. Follow-up should allow individuals to acknowledge their progress and reflect on what they have learned about themselves in the process. Consider once again the case of Mr. Williamson’s professional development plan. Together, the coach and leader could examine Mr. Williamson’s PD plan, and the coach could describe what makes an effective PD plan generally. The leader could then write a PDP that is connected to evaluation tools, evidence, and measurable goals, making the coaching conversation even more transferable.

Accelerating Growth

Teacher and leadership coaching present many similarities–and some subtle but critical differences. Leadership coaching should begin with a clearly defined bar of excellence. This bar drives our action steps, which are developed by collecting thoughtful evidence. Most importantly, these action steps are practiced and followed up on so that skills and practices become transferable.

School leadership coaches have the ability to make a significant impact on increasing leadership capital and, therefore, moving entire schools, teams, or classrooms forward. By applying what they know about teacher coaching to leadership coaching, leadership coaches can more easily tap into an existing skillset to accelerate leadership growth.

At Enhancing Learning Ltd, we have significant experience of supporting schools in embedding an authentic and successful coaching culture. If you would like further information on how we can support your school, please contact us.

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