Each new school year inevitably brings with it a fresh swathe of training and initiatives all designed to help schools improve outcomes for their pupils. Too often these are delivered in silos, superceding and occasionally contradicting last year’s must-have methods.
Building your professional development around coaching in your school offers a solution. Coaching has the capacity to positively impact all individuals in a sustainable way across education, from CEOs and headteachers to teachers, students, non-teaching staff and parent communities.
Let me be clear what I mean by coaching. Coaching has influences from many spheres, including self-help, psychology, psychotherapy, business, sport and cognitive behaviour. If any of these areas sound “fluffy” to some readers, be in no doubt that coaching in an educational context is based upon a huge volume of research evidence and transformational outcomes. Good coaching comforts the troubled and troubles the comfortable.
“Coaching in an educational context is based upon a huge volume of research evidence and transformational outcomes.”
In a traditional sense it is worth remembering that coaching is different to mentoring, and both have their place. In mentoring, the mentor is seen to have all the answers, while in coaching the answers should come from the coachee. Whilst this a good starting point, I believe coaching is more nuanced than this.
I define coaching as a skilful dialogic partnership in a co-created, reflective and experimental space that encourages engagement, development and learning. This is therefore applicable not simply for individuals — which is increasingly commonplace in schools — but encompasses a wider reach through group and team contexts.
Coaching underpins the development of key leadership skills: managing change, ownership of learning, agility, and the ability to work with ambiguity.
In my book All Ways Coaching, I explore a framework for contemporary leadership practice that aligns with the skills and approaches of effective coaching: a coaching way of leading. A coaching leadership style has the potential to improve performance, support greater staff autonomy and teamwork and encourage confidence and ambition. This is achieved through the development of self-awareness, relationships, and agility. Each of these skills is multi-faceted and in the book I examine each in detail.
Self-awareness is the foundation of effective leadership. This includes understanding who you are, what you can do, what you can’t do, where your values come from and where you need improvement. It is also about being in tune with your thoughts and actions in relation to other people and your environment. It offers a new way to consider events, people and processes, enabling educational leaders to better understand the complex situations that arise in their setting.
“Self-awareness includes understanding who you are, what you can do, what you can’t do and where your values come from.”
As leaders we tend to be very good at being self-conscious: “do people think I’m up to the job?” for example. In self-consciousness, the focus is purely on the self, whilst in self-awareness the focus shifts to what is unfolding before you. When coaching leaders, I find that once people are truly aware of the way they operate — tendencies, bias and potential blind spots, for example — other things fall into place across all aspects of their lives.
When people feel listened to, feel their opinion matters, believe that you want them involved and are acknowledged by you then they will feel like they are in partnership with you. Outstanding leaders recognise relationships are the route to performance and so devote a great deal of their time and focus to the people and the climate of their organisation.
A coaching way of leading necessitates developing a wide network of relationships, working beyond institution boundaries and potentially spending time outside of your own education setting — when possible — to enable learning.
In today’s complex, interconnected and rapidly-changing world, the demands placed on education leaders have grown exponentially. Arguably, leadership has not kept pace with the changing nature of educational organisations and the leaders that they need. Agility is about drawing together ways to be able to deal with complexity. Developing agility in the context of education leadership requires, among other things, the ability to thrive under pressure, strategic agility and to lead change effectively. Seek opportunities to learn, carve out time to pause and reflect, and use feedback to fuel your learning and inform your planning.
“The majority of educational systems have a narrow focus on targets, growth and efficiency.”
Leadership is a key component in creating a coaching culture in your school. The majority of educational systems have a narrow focus on targets, growth and efficiency. Our human purpose, our relationships, our compassion, our hopes and dreams are all too often left at the door as we enter our workplaces. A coaching way of leading will enhance your service to the people you work with, by helping you to place coaching at the heart of education.
Nicholas’s book All Ways Coaching is out now, published by Cadogan Press and is available from Amazon.