Introducing Bob and Jim: Bob is a High School principal managing a staff of about 25 people, Jim is a Central Office administrator who works closely with principals and teacher leaders. Both are passionate about improving the teaching and learning that takes place within their school system. Both have vastly different approaches to making that happen.
School Administrator as Coach.
Let’s ponder that phrase for a moment. When an administrator focuses on instruction, that person is often referred to as an “instructional leader.” We also know that coaching is one of, if not the most effective forms of professional learning. What happens when a school administrator (meaning a principal, assistant principal, or a member of the central office) in a school system assumes the role of an instructional coach? I’m not talking about someone who actually changes his or her job title, but someone who decides to flex into that role when the time is appropriate. In my role as a school improvement consultant, I’ve noticed that when a school leader engages in coaching behaviors, shift happens!
Here are three reasons why a school leader should re-evaluate their role and assume the “administrator as coach” stance when attempting to shift instructional practice (as told through Bob and Jim’s story):
1. Purposeful growth occurs.
When I met Bob, he told me he had a desire to know everything about instruction so he could support his teachers. He also realized that this was just not possible! I advised Bob to schedule a specific block of time each day so, no matter what, he could visit with teachers and engage in a conversation similar to that of a “coach.” In the past year, he has experienced remarkable growth as an instructional leader. Bob made the conscious choice to conduct walk-through observations, collect data during those observations, and then converse with the teacher a day or so after his visit. When I observe Bob during those follow up visits, his conversations are highly inquiry-based; he asks questions that are data-driven and listens deeply to the answers. Bob is determined to learn from his best teachers and discern what it is they are doing that makes them so. Then, together, they create a goal that is measured by some type of observable change in the students. Now, teachers actually ASK him to visit their classrooms. More importantly, they look forward to those conversations. One teacher told me, “this is the most powerful form of professional development” he has ever experienced.
When an administrator flexes into the role of a coach, growth occurs in oneself as well as in those with whom the administrator is coaching. Consider the role and processes of an instructional coach. The coaching cycle forces both the coach and the recipient of the coaching services to engage in a reflective process steeped in inquiry, discourse and conversation. Judgement and evaluation is suspended as each party learns from the other and they leave the conversation with a deeper understanding of instructional practice.
2. Trusting connections are developed.
Jim is feeling a bit discouraged these days. He really does want the leaders in his school system to focus on high impact instruction, yet his approach is often perceived as directive. Jim’s method of time management places him, unintentionally, in reactive (rather than proactive) situations. As a result, Jim is often distracted and rushed during conversations. When I last observed Jim speaking to one of his leaders who asked him for advice in solving a problem, I noticed he told her what to do instead of asking her to identify what she has been doing that has worked in similar situations. She left the conversation wondering how he wanted her to proceed. Then, she wondered what would happen if she “messed up.” Jim wonders why he finds out about things after they happen and why his leaders don’t come to him for advice.
When a school administrator engages in a supportive conversation with another educator (whether it be a principal or a teacher), both parties become empowered and energized and a strong sense of trust is developed as a result. Coaching conversations focus on a person’s strengths. Amplifying those strengths to overcome challenge is encouraging to someone who is trying on a new strategy. It is also the key in developing a trusting relationship. The level of transparency is elevated as conversations become solution focused. I have observed school leaders and teachers become risk-takers and change their instructional practice just because the administrator leading the conversation acknowledged the educator’s innate abilities and used those strengths to address the educator’s fears and concerns in order to create an implementation plan. Consider the implication on the school’s culture when trust is nurtured and developed, one conversation at a time.
3. Student achievement increases.
The students in Bob’s school demonstrated a 25% increase in proficiency in Language Arts in one year. Bob worked closely with the lead teacher in the department, visited the teachers who were new to that department on a weekly basis, and attended the ELA department’s PLC meetings. Each time I meet with Bob, he reflects on the conversations he has had with his teachers, especially related to the short-term goals they set. When I meet with the teachers during my coaching sessions, they talk about their learners and how they have progressed. Momentum is building within this system, to say the least.
The students’ proficiency levels in Jim’s school system have increased 3-5% in both ELA and Math. This is discouraging to Jim and those within that system.
So, yes, we’re going there. Research indicates that job-embedded, personalized professional learning has a strong impact on student achievement. When an administrator uses an inquiry-based approach with a teacher, instructional practice is strengthened. A teacher is the greatest influence on a student’s ability to achieve. In the same vein, school leaders have the greatest influence on a school’s culture. When an administrator assumes the role of coach, the school’s culture automatically becomes focused on improving instruction as the teachers’ instructional practice improves. We actually honor our students when those within the school’s culture are focused on and expected to deliver high quality instruction.
What about evaluation? (Ha! You thought I was going to say, “What about Bob?”)
Realize this… there is definitely a time when the leadership within the school or system must assume the role of evaluator. This accountability is necessary. School leaders who are most successful in flexing between both roles communicate when they are assuming the role of coach and/or evaluator. Most commonly, I have seen administrators explain to those placed within their charge that their observation is going to be followed up with coaching conversation. I knew of one administrator who wore a handkerchief in his pocket when he was conducting non-evaluative observations. Teachers automatically knew they would soon be contacted for a coaching conversation. Then, when it is time for a formal observation or conversation, the administer states this explicitly, and assumes the role of an evaluator. Those within the organization ease into this approach and within time, the culture depends upon it.
As I have engaged in the rewarding work of improving schools, I can’t say enough just how valuable this approach is to both teachers and administrators. Just as our learners need descriptive feedback in order to make corrections and revisions to their work, teachers need (and crave) the same so they can improve their practice to affect their student’s achievement.
So, how about it? Are you willing to adapt your supervisory practice and give “school administrator as coach” a try? I’m looking forward to your feedback!
Dr. Frances A. Miller,