Building a Coaching Culture

The following comments were delivered to our staff on 28th June 2018, at the end of a Staff Professional Development Day on Coaching for Student Success, facilitated by Christian van Nieuwerburgh

If sports players, business leaders, and medical doctors have coaches, why shouldn’t teachers?

When we think about the qualities of a great coach, longer-serving staff should think about why so many of us wanted to be coached by Rex Ward when he was one of our appointed coaches.

In 2000, Kegan and Lahey wrote a book called, How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work. I find their title inspiring and intriguing. Imagine if just changing the way we talk could improve our working lives.

Coaching comes from a Hungarian word, bus – it means helping people move.

Coaches are people who search for the right questions and then listen carefully to the responses. As teachers we can be well-intentioned fixers and often we need to listen more. Maybe the listening is even more important than the questions. I recently visited Reggio Emilia where they talk about a pedagogy of listening and relationships.

Coaching is individualised, it provides follow up over time, it embraces the complexity of our job, and it builds on what works in small steps. I don’t think teaching is a job that you can ever say you have mastered. Those that think they have are often those most in need of challenge.

Coaching is not about installing a system or training teachers. It respects the science of learning and, more importantly, the artistry of teaching.

We have no shortage of ideas and we have a wealth of world-class experts regularly parading on this stage in front of us. Finding ideas is not our problem. Implementing new ideas is our key challenge. Coaching helps turn ideas into teaching practices that stick.

One of my teachers Bob Kegan suggests that the complexities of modern life are simply too cognitively demanding for most adults today, we are in over our heads, he argues, and we have an immunity to change. He wrote about the need to move beyond an informational stance to a transformational stance which adults as growing and changing people are in much more need of.

“An informational stance leaves the form as is and focuses on changing what people know; it is essentially a training model for personal change. I would contrast this with a transformational stance, which places the form itself at risk for change and focuses on changes in how people know; it is essentially an educational model for personal change.”

Transformation is about changing the very form of the container, making it larger, more able to deal with multiple demands and uncertainty.

So how can we build our coaching culture at Shore?

We have our formal coaches, who I believe are the most important change agents in the school after Dr Wright. I encourage you to take advantage of the wonderful coaching resources we are provided with.

Our Heads of Department provide coaching, most evidently through our annual goal-setting/coaching conversations.

And we also have our informal coaches – you.

We build our coaching culture by everyone seeing themselves as a coach and seeking ways to become better coaches, by everyone expecting to be coached and demanding quality coaching, so that coaching conversations become just another part of who we are and what we do around here.

Help-giving and help-seeking is a sign of a strong learning community. As a Common Room we are very good at giving each other help. Sometimes we are not so good at asking for it when we need it. Coaching increases staff wellbeing.

We know that the extent of trust among adults in schools strongly predicts positive student learning outcomes. Heads of Department might recall reading Amy Edmondson’s Teaming a few years ago and her key point about the importance of psychological safety, modelling that it is OK to make mistakes. Coaching focuses more on supporting teachers than on accountability.

One of the key learnings from educational research over recent years is that it is simply not possible to measure the quality of teaching the way people want to. Measurement is a comfort blanket but most of the measurement is meaningless. Coaching is our way of promoting a culture of trust, instead of an audit and micromanagement culture.

What would happen if we looked beyond coaching as teacher to teacher professional learning and saw the potential in regular coaching conversations with our students? What if Parent/Teacher Progress Meetings became coaching conversations with the students taking the lead? The Latin root of the word “assessment” means to sit beside. Coaching has real pedagogical value.

We could coach students formally in Tutor Groups and we could coach them informally as we are walking through the playground. What would happen if we taught older students to coach younger students? Or supported parents by showing them how to have coaching conversations with their children?

This year I asked my Year 9 class if any of them would like to coach me. A student volunteered and we had our first coaching session this term. He had a short script to guide him and he asked me what I was thinking about in relation to my teaching, what I was finding challenging, what I was really trying to achieve, and then what I had found most useful in his questioning. I found myself bizarrely explaining to him my concern about how effectively or otherwise I had prepared the class for an upcoming test. It was cathartic and insightful for both of us. It was fun too. Is there a place for reverse-style coaching by asking students to play a role in helping us improve?

It is my job to help us improve and I would like us to have the best professional learning culture. Why don’t we all come back next term, determined to be more effective strength-spotters?

My open question to you is, how can we become a more productive setting for the growth of staff talent? My suspicion is that coaching is pretty central to the answer.

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