Can school administrators also be coaches? The short answer is “yes” but with certain caveats. Our job as leaders is to develop our people, and coaching is a big part of that. And yet we also have the role of evaluator. How do we reconcile the two tasks of coaching and evaluating?
There are two major considerations when answering this question.
- How can I be transparent about which role I’m in when talking to my staff?
- How do I know when to switch hats from leader and evaluator to coach?
People come into your office and say, “I need to talk to you.” The key to knowing which hat to wear in a situation comes from using the most important coaching skill: listening. Only by deeply listening to the person’s issue will you know whether you need to give information from the leader’s perspective, give a directive or restate a school or district policy, or know if this is an opportunity to coach and help someone grow.
At Constructive Learning Design, we have developed five pillars of coaching as a leader:
- Knowing Your People
- Creating Psychological Safety
- Having Meaningful Conversations
- Giving and Receiving Effective Feedback
- Developing Structures for Coaching Success
When these five pillars are in place, the benefits impact the entire school community with higher retention rates, better attendance, fewer discipline issues, and higher overall achievement.
1. Know Your People
This goes beyond having personal conversations with your staff members. Those conversations are important in building relationships of trust and respect, but as leaders, we also need a deeper understanding of how people operate. Building our skills in emotional intelligence and understanding brain research about human motivation will help leaders make decisions on how to handle specific situations. After all, we are in the “people” business.
Understanding people starts with basic human needs. We all have needs beyond survival needs of food, shelter, and clothing. According to Anthony Robbins, we have psychological needs of belonging, certainty, variety, significance, growth, and contribution. These impact every decision we make. When we can create work environments that meet most, if not all, of these basic needs, we are more likely to have people who are happy, productive, successful, and who want to stay.
2. Create Psychological Safety
Creating psychological safety means building “an environment where there is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes,” according to the Center for Creative Leadership. Research shows that organizations that lack psychological safety are less likely to be successful. When we allow people to feel safe to speak up, present new ideas, and challenge the status quo, we are opening up possibilities for innovation and creative problem solving. And we need that in schools now more than ever as we face new challenges.
When we allow people to feel safe to speak up, present new ideas, and challenge the status quo, we are opening up possibilities for innovation and creative problem solving.
As leaders, we set the tone in our buildings. We have the power to create structures that can build psychological safety for our staff and students. The first step is to set the intention. It’s important to clearly convey the message to those in our charge that this is the type of environment we want. We must let it be known that it’s ok to present ideas, to ask questions, and to take risks. Then we must follow through with our actions so that when ideas are presented or policies are questioned, those voices are heard, valued, and acted upon.
3. Have Meaningful Conversations
Unfortunately, this is happening less and less in the hectic work environments of schools. Change happens through conversations. We might think we don’t have time for deep conversations anymore, but I would argue that we can’t afford not to have them, for they are the cornerstone of relationship growth. And our relationships are the foundation of our ability to collaborate and work toward common goals.
There are two key components to meaningful conversations. The first is listening. People know when we are truly listening. We aren’t fooling anyone when we multitask while someone is trying to talk to us. We all know how it feels when someone is looking at their screen (big or small) and you desperately want their full attention. Or even when text or email notifications are dinging during a conversation. It’s very distracting. Turn off your technology and look people in the eye. Pay attention to what they are saying, how they are saying it, and also what they are not saying. And don’t forget: you get just as much information from body language as you do from the actual words.
Turn off your technology and look people in the eye. Pay attention to what they are saying, how they are saying it, and also what they are not saying. And don’t forget: you get just as much information from body language as you do from the actual words.
The second component to meaningful conversation is asking questions. It is so easy to jump to judgment. Someone suddenly makes a left turn in front of you without signaling. Instead of reacting with anger or judgment, get curious. Maybe they just got a call that a loved one is in the hospital. Maybe they are late for a job interview they desperately need. Try to notice the judgments that float through your mind as you listen to others and change those judgments to curiosities. You’ll be amazed at the information you uncover and how deeply you can connect with someone.
4. Give and RECEIVE Feedback
Giving and receiving effective feedback is essential to our ability to coach as a leader. Many leaders feel it is their job to give feedback in the form of criticism (what needs to be fixed) and evaluation (here is where you are compared to the standards). But feedback comes in many forms and we must learn the different types of feedback and know when to use them.
Feedback is a two-way street. It is just as important to ask for feedback from those we support, so we can know if our leadership style is working and how we can continue to grow. It can be scary to ask for feedback, but feedback is just information. We can question it. We can act on it. We can ignore it. And usually, after we’ve had time to process, difficult feedback can become the information that pushes us to be better. The important thing to remember is that having conversations around expectations can go a long way in making those feedback discussions more comfortable and more productive. If you haven’t already, do yourself a favor and read Thanks for the Feedback by Stone and Heen.
5. Develop Structures for Coaching Success
When coaching is part of the culture, everyone benefits. Sometimes you are the coach and sometimes you are being coached. Either way, you are learning and growing. But not all school cultures value coaching.
Coaching as a school leader doesn’t mean it is your job to coach everyone. You don’t have the time or capacity to do that. However it is your responsibility to create structures where coaching can happen. Whether you have instructional coaches in your building or not, creating schedules that include meaningful collaboration time for teachers leads to more coaching opportunities. Teachers can be great at coaching each other when peer coaching is taught, valued, and encouraged.Coaching skills such as listening, asking questions, giving and receiving effective feedback are valuable tools in all working relationships. And guess what? They are great for students as well.
Teachers can be great at coaching each other when peer coaching is taught, valued, and encouraged.Coaching skills such as listening, asking questions, giving and receiving effective feedback are valuable tools in all working relationships. And guess what? They are great for students as well.
You can also model structures for productivity in your staff meetings and leadership team meetings by always having a clear agenda and beginning and ending on time. Protocols such as Attributes of a Learning Community by the School Reform Initiative can be helpful in creating structures for collaboration and can help your school teams develop norms for meaningful, productive meetings. Meeting and discussion protocols create a level playing field and ensure professionalism as we work and grow together. School teams can also continuously measure the health of their team with tools like the Healthy Team Checklist by Glass of Learning. Checklists such as this can help us create safe spaces where issues like trust can be addressed and resolved in a healthy way.
Finally, clear structures need to be in place for giving and receiving feedback. When feedback is no longer dreaded or feared, but regarded as “just the way we get better,” there is a huge opportunity for fast growth from high functioning teams. Feedback can be talked about often, shared in positive ways, and practiced as part of the school culture. The more you do something, the more comfortable you become. This is true for feedback. A school leader can create structures for giving and receiving feedback at every level. Effective feedback helps students, teachers, and administrators achieve more. And when each group also has the opportunity to give feedback to those who support them, a positive circle of feedback is formed.
Coaching Skills Support Great Leadership
Coaching skills are increasingly becoming part of the repertoire of great leadership. By developing your ability to listen to understand, ask questions, give and receive feedback, communicate with transparency and build trust, you are fostering stronger relationships that will lead to higher morale and resilience among staff and students. Once these skills are developed, you can pause in each conversation or meeting to ask yourself, “Do I need to be a leader, an evaluator, or a coach at this moment?” Once you know, you can communicate that clearly so expectations are explicit and your response is what is required to either make a decision or give a person or team the opportunity to grow.