Getting the Most Out of Coaching

Coaching is an increasingly common method used by educational systems to improve performance. Instructional coaching, leadership coaching, and executive coaching consume extraordinary amounts of time and resources, but there is wide variation in the results they achieve. Indeed, there is wide variation in the definition of what the coaching relationship is all about. Here are five guidelines to maximize the return on your investment of time and resources in coaching.


1. Distinguish coaching from evaluation.


Although supervisors mean well when they claim to coach their subordinates, the plain fact is that effective coaching depends upon a client who is willing to be honest about their needs and goals. Once teachers and administrators are hired, there is a presumption that they are competent – they passed their interviews and offered a portfolio of documents that demonstrated their proficiency. It is therefore unlikely that these highly competent professionals will say to the people evaluating them, "I really just don't get this new curriculum," or "I'm clueless about classroom management," "I don't know how to do a master schedule," or "I don't know how to run a meeting." These are the necessary conversations that can happen with a coach, but rarely with an evaluator. Despite the proliferation of complex and burdensome teacher and administrator evaluation systems, I have never seen anyone get "evaluated into success," but I have seen many who were coached into success. If you want to terminate someone, use evaluation. If you want to improve their performance, use coaching.


2. Coach high performers, not just those who are struggling.


In too many districts, coaching is provided exclusively to new or struggling teachers and administrators. This sends the unmistakable signal that coaching is something to be avoided at all costs or, if you are receiving coaching, it's important for your career that you demonstrate that you don't need coaching any more. This is wrong-headed. The highest-performing teachers and administrators want to continue to get better, and they know they can benefit enormously from a coach. These are the people who have years of perfect evaluations and are frankly unchallenged in their current supervisory relationships. A coach, by contrast, can help them to think creatively about new challenges and sources of professional and personal growth. Many low performers, by contrast, simply do not believe that they need to improve and see little value in coaching. The essential question that every coaching client must consider is, "Do I really want to improve my professional practices?" If the answer is in the negative, don't waste money and time on coaching.


3. Effective coaching is based on clear professional and personal goals.


Too many coaching conversations are unfocused, with progress often depending upon the coaching client’s ability to bring an issue to the table for discussion. That is a sign of a lazy coach. A more effective practice is to have every conversation focus on the professional and personal goals that were established at the beginning of the coaching relationship, with a thoughtful focus on celebrating progress made since the previous conversation, identifying and addressing barriers to achievement of goals, and where appropriate, making modifications to those goals. I was lucky enough to have a great coach for more than a decade, and when as a client I drifted off into the neverland, whining about the crisis of the moment, my coach would skillfully redirect the conversation toward goals. It occurred to me that I sometimes avoided those conversations because the truth was that I had not made progress toward my goals, instead allowing a thousand urgent details to get in the way of what I knew was most important. Coaches are not there to provide therapy or pleasant conversation; they are there to improve individual and organizational performance.


4. Be clear about confidentiality.


There is a prevailing belief in many systems that the coaching conversations are always confidential. It is essential that the coach establish clear exceptions to this general principle. First, if there is any indication that anyone – students, the client, or others – is in danger, the coach must report that information to the appropriate authorities. Second, in goal-oriented coaching, the coach has an obligation to synthesize and analyze goals throughout the organization and consider the degree to which the individual and organizational goals are in synch.


5. Make coaching real.


There is a considerable amount of instructional coaching that takes place without any students present. Imagine if your athletic coaches wanted to give advice to the players in private sessions, but never actually attended any games. As silly as that sounds, that is precisely what happens when coaches are prevented from visiting classrooms during actual lessons or leadership coaches are prevented from sitting in on meetings and classroom observations. Educators often complain about the irrelevance of professional development workshops, and that complaint is often valid. But if relevance and personal applicability are the criteria we demand, then the same should apply to coaching.


Having been both a coach and a coaching client, I know well the potential benefits and pitfalls of coaching. My colleagues, Jo Peters and Lisa Almeida, created a concise document about what you should expect form your coach. Email for a free copy of this helpful document and feel free to distribute it to your colleagues.

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