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October 1, 2023
Vol. 81
No. 2
The Resilient Educator

Transformational Coaching for School Leaders

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If all new leaders received coaching, far fewer would quit.

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Credit: Michele Pevide / SHUTTERSTOCK
In my fantasy world, every school leader is coached during their first few years of leadership. Their coach is a Transformational Coach, skilled at coaching behaviors, beliefs, and ways of being, with whom they explore issues of identity, power dynamics, equity, and emotional intelligence. Every week, regardless of the chaos that predicably happens at sites, the leader has time for learning and reflection, a confidential place to speak, and a person who always sees their potential. The leader builds resiliency—and stays in their role for many years.

The Principal Turnover Problem

While teacher retention gets a lot of attention, principal turnover does not. But research tells us that principal turnover disrupts school progress, often resulting in higher teacher turnover and lower gains in student achievement. As of 2016–17, the average tenure of U.S. principals in their schools was four years. However, 35 percent of principals stayed at their schools for less than two years; only 11 percent stayed 10 years or more (NASSP, 2019).
One of the top factors contributing to principal turnover is inadequate preparation and professional development. When I coached administrators in the Oakland Unified School District, they were required to attend a lot of trainings. These were called "professional development," but in truth the majority were meetings in which administrators were given a lot of information, trained in new curricula, and informed of new policies. Those meetings weren't really leadership development. They weren't helpful in knowing what to do when a teacher came into a principal's office sobbing and saying they were quitting.

New leaders really need coaching, but we all deserve a safe, confidential space in which we're guided to fulfill our potential and live our life's purpose.

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Coaching is a form of professional development, and research shows that it's particularly effective because it's job-embedded, ongoing, and differentiated (Joyce & Showers, 1988). Coaching differs from mentoring in that it's more structured and formal, organized around goals, and based in adult learning theory. A mentor listens and shares experiences, advice, and tips; a coach guides a learner. New leaders can benefit from mentors, but it's like the difference between getting advice from a confidant when you're going through a major life change and going to a trained therapist.

What's Unique About Coaching Leaders

Although I'm known for my work on coaching teachers, I've coached more principals, heads of school, central office leaders, and superintendents than teachers. The statement I've repeatedly heard from leaders is: "This work is so lonely. There's no one else I can talk to in the way I talk to you."
There are key differences between coaching leaders and teachers. In addition to confidentiality issues that prevent school leaders from sharing details about issues at their sites—and the different knowledge set required for site leaders—administrators frequently deal with:
  • Navigating power dynamics—and conflicts—between stakeholders at their site, within the district, and within the community at large.
  • Leading change and responding to resistance to change.
  • Facilitating adult learning, especially if they are responsible for delivering PD to teachers.
  • Understanding identity issues that may arise as they transition into a new role, which can include experiences related to race/ethnicity, class background, and gender, and feelings of imposter syndrome.
  • Finding new sources for belonging and connectedness, because being a site leader can be alienating.
  • Cultivating emotional intelligence, which decades of research has shown is the primary skillset leaders need (Goleman et al., 2001).

The Coaching Approach that Helps Most

I've found that five high-leverage coaching strategies are most helpful for guiding new leaders:
  • Listen, listen, listen. Don't try to fix the leader's problems. Don't share war stories. Don't give advice. Offer empathy and be curious.
  • Coach them toward agency. New leaders often experience waves of feeling disempowered. Guide them back to a sense of empowerment and help them remember their ability to solve their own problems. This sounds like: "You're experiencing a lot of challenges right now. Which do you think would be most useful for us to talk about?" Or, "I hear that you want my advice, but I'm going to hold off on that. I think if we keep talking, you'll be able to identify the best next steps to address this challenge."
  • Guide them to remember what they already know about leadership, and the skills they already have that might transfer. Ask, "Have you ever experienced challenges like this before? How did you respond?" Or, "What would you have done in the classroom if something like this happened?"
  • Strengthen their emotional intelligence—but ask permission first: "I can hear you're dealing with a lot of challenging situations. We can talk through some next steps, but I'm wondering if first we might take a little time to unpack the emotions you're experiencing to help you gain clarity. Would that be OK?" Daniel Goleman's 2001 book, Primal Leadership, is a fantastic resource in this regard.
  • Bolster their will. Reignite their passion and commitment. Help them remember why they've chosen the path of leadership. This can sound like: "At the end of this year, what do you hope you'll say about your first year as a principal?" Or, "In 10 years, how do you hope teachers and students at this school will describe you?" These are questions about legacy, and talking about legacy is often energizing and clarifying for educators.
Remember, you don't need to have the title "coach" to take a coaching stance with a new leader. You could be a colleague, supervisor, or even a mentor—as long as you have a good relationship with the leader and know they want this kind of help from you. And a new leader could be a site administrator, department head, grade-level chair, or central office leader.

Every Leader Deserves This

Actually, in my fantasy world, every educator would have coaching for the entirety of their career. The world is always changing, which means we need to always be learning—and coaching is a way to keep learning and become more resilient. New leaders really need coaching, but we all deserve a safe, confidential space in which we're guided to fulfill our potential and live our life's purpose.
References

Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R., & McKee, A. (2001). Primal leadership: Learning to lead with emotional intelligence. Harvard Business Review Press.

Joyce, B., & Showers, B. (1988). Student achievement through staff development. Longman, Inc.

NAASP and Learning Policy Institute. (2019). Understanding and addressing principal turnover: A review of the research.

End Notes

1 Transformational Coaching is the model I have created and write about in The Art of Coaching and Coaching for Equity. It's distinct from traditional instructional coaching because it prioritizes surfacing and exploring the beliefs from which we work and building emotional intelligence.

Elena Aguilar is president of Bright Morning Consulting, a sought-after speaker and presenter, and author of many books, including The Art of Coaching (Jossey-Bass, 2013) and Coaching for Equity (Jossey-Bass, 2020).


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