Coaching a Culture

Losing Authority, Gaining Perspective

I became one of them.  I am the guy who left the classroom to become a coach.  To this day, I find solace in the idea that I am there to support teachers, however, I no longer can be seen as an expert as I am no longer in the classroom.  I have influence, but no real authority; I am not an administrator, but I have lost the authority that comes from being a practitioner.

I could jump on my soapbox about how coaching is important.  I could reach for the nearest megaphone to remind everyone reading this that they are who they are as a result of some type of coaching, even if it was a negative experience.   As I have grown into my leadership role in and out of my school, I have seen more and more teachers, both experienced and not, resistant to the idea of coaching.  And in writing this, I am consistently using the wrong pronoun.  I keep saying “I,” rather we should be saying “we.” We all believe that our kids need coaching, so why would we be any different?  As such, let us all accept two assumptions:

  • The need for systemic, ongoing coaching is not isolated to any one building
  • This problem is not a professional problem, but a cultural problem

These problems are not mutually exclusive, but rather intricately connected.  While the work surrounding school culture continues to grow in momentum, not enough progress has been made, yet.  There are examples of places where it works.  Thomas Nelson High School in Nelson County Kentucky has created digital infrastructures to support the practice of teacher growth while protecting the teacher’s time and professionalism.  Teacher-Powered Schools has gained a national following because of the work they do around empowering teachers to grow and lead.

And while there are certainly more, they are not the norm, rather the exception.  What are the schools doing the work around coaching well actually doing?  Are they addressing instructional issues?  Systems issues?  Whatever the answer, changing a school’s culture takes everyone, and I believe coaching is the key to the change.  Let us offer one more assumption; in this context, “coach” is not defined as someone with the title of coach.  A coach, in this case, is anyone helping others grow, whatever that looks like.

So What, Now What…Three Ideas to Implement

K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Silly)

Teachers are notoriously resistant to change.  In talking to three colleagues, they all stated the same need.  Find two or three things to focus on for a year, and monitor its success.  People become frustrated when things change day-to-day.  Consistency is the key to student success, and according to my colleagues, also key to the success of teachers.  Teacher leaders need to advocate for keeping changes to a minimum and celebrating the successes of the implemented systems and visions.

Make Initiative the Norm

Teachers are, for a myriad of reasons, often beaten down.  Their sense of self-fulfillment and self-direction become sacrificed as the onslaught of data talks, tests, and day-to-day bureaucracy take hold.  With the loss of personal fulfillment and self-direction comes an ugly outcome; teachers lose themselves and their passion.  They lose their sense of identity around their job.  They lose their voice.  They may be able to address the science of teaching, but they lose the ability to engage in the art of teaching.  Coaches and teacher-leaders need to build the next generation of teacher-leaders by helping them to reclaim their initiative.  When someone says, “we can’t do that,” the response should be a visceral “why not”.

Innovation and initiative are easy to stifle in a building, especially when the leaders of the building do not believe in the work.  The beautiful thing is, however, teacher-leaders can be innovative through grassroots work.  Subtle, little changes can make tremendous impacts.  Someone will value the work, and it is up to coaches to guide and encourage the work.  It is also imperative that those coaches and colleagues celebrate the achievements and impacts of that innovation.

No One Gets to Opt Out

This idea is the most important of three steps.  Everyone should receive coaching.  Top down, left to right, everyone needs coaching.  The time for coaching is a sacred time.  It should be professional, but collegial.  In short, even the principal can learn something from the classroom teacher.  This type of forced vulnerability can be difficult, but it also creates empathy and understanding.  Lastly, it gives teachers power.  Shared leadership emerges when everyone is given voice and authority.  Do you want to change a school’s culture?  Change how leadership is seen.  If people invest themselves through shared leadership, school culture improves.

In Short

Coaches can be no more than teachers who want to help.  They help others through formal or informal processes.  Every teacher-leader is a coach, and every teacher is capable of teacher-leadership.

As is written by Bill Mulford, the Director of Leadership for Learning Research Group for the University of Tasmania, student outcomes improve when teachers and those who support teachers have consistency, feel valued, and receive support.  From the same paper comes this graphic on page 16.  It shows that teacher recruitment, development, and retention increase when teachers feel valued, feel autonomous, see themselves as a leader, and see improvement in their capacity.

I have the title of coach, but I also have the self-given title of teacher-leader.  I see my role to help others grow, but I see my higher calling to be one of school culture.  My role is to improve my school culture by ensuring everyone is coached, empowered, and elevated.

My question of you is simple.  What coaching and culture experiences do you have that you can share to continue to grow the work?

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