Creating a Coaching Culture in Schools

‘Could coaching help school leaders (or leadership teams) secure achievement with school improvement priorities?’  I took my leaders on a journey to find out the answer.  Six years later, we have a school where coaching is integral to what we do.  Ours is culture of coaching at all levels which proves that the answer to that original question is ‘yes’, in a variety of different ways.

Leaders need to know and understand what coaching is first of all – how it can make a difference to the effectiveness of the organisation and then be clear about what their culture will look like.  As with the process of coaching, it is about having clarity of goal.

It is said that ‘why?’ is not always a good question to ask during a coaching session sometimes bringing out some defensive behaviours or the need to prove one’s viewpoint; but in this case “why?” is exactly the right question.  Simon Sinek in his Ted Talk ‘How Great Leaders Inspire Action (Start with Why)’ encourages us with the idea that ‘People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it’.  Or, to put it another way, you need to start by asking yourself – what’s the purpose behind having coaching in your school?

We started by getting the vision clear for our school  in our particular circumstances.   At that time coaching was a fairly new buzzword in schools so it was important that I was clear what I wanted to create and why I wanted to create it.  I developed a picture of what coaching would  look like in our school – and then shared my vision with my Senior Team who were enthusiastic and open to embrace it.  I shared the vision with my coach, dare I suggest that a leader should get coaching to be able to develop a coaching culture in their organisation..?

Being able to describe the vision is key and helps bring others on board.  There may be naysayers and sceptics in your school, as leader you need to be crystal clear on the direction coaching will take the  school and the benefits it will bring. I didn’t have any models or testimonials from other schools at that time but I did set out to learn what we could from the business world (where coaching is commonplace and widely understood) and the sporting world about how coaching has brought success and could help define our own clarity.  We got clarity, and now find that coaching will enable people to create change through learning and in turn this has allowed us transform our organisation.  This research and reading of case studies gave us strength when things got a bit cloudy.

There needs to be a culture of openness and professionalism if coaching is to make a real difference.  This is not a quick fix and for us it is something we guard with a passion now it is in place.  If honesty, integrity, openness, professional conversations and the ‘confidence’ to make mistakes are the mainstay of the organisation, then coaching will bear much fruit by adding to the good practice already in place.

Timothy Gallwey in the introduction to the book Leadership Coaching states that “Creating an environment that minimises judgement is one of the central attributes of successful coaching.  Because coaching takes place in the domain of the inner, the unique human gifts of compassion, kindness and clarity are required in greater degrees than are normally expected…”

If the conditions are right, people will want to coach and to be coached; it adds to shared accountability and shared successes.  We trust each other, when we are coaching each other there is an excitement of expectation.  Borrowing the skills of coaching and using them in everyday conversations has raised awareness of each other’s capability to achieve highly.

There does need to be buy in, if not from everyone initially, then by ‘key players’.  For us it started with training senior and middle leaders who then ‘spread the word’ by just doing it!  Leadership teams need to be coaching each other both formally and by having those informal coaching conversations that for us brought challenge, clarity and direction.  By having different types of coaching provision all stakeholders can now be involved and everyone benefits pupils included.  We include everybody.

Our pupil coaches In my school, children as young as nine years old are trained as ‘Lead Learners’ to coach their peers to achieve success.  They know the difference between telling someone what to do and helping someone to discover things for themselves and they know how to stick faithfully to the process (using the GROW model).  The parents benefit from coaching conversations (they may not know it but they do)!  Our ‘Structured Conversations’ have replaced the traditional ten minute parents/teacher meetings and now take the form of a 35 – 45 minute conversation using the identified skills of coaching – questioning, listening, rapport and challenge to action. We know, understand and regularly prove that coaching, if implemented faithfully, will have a great impact on everybody.

Developing a coaching culture in school needs to be like any other intervention or provision you might implement – it needs a plan.  We treated it as a project – we had timescales, training, case studies, research, a budget.   The plan was made clear, we made sure that it was (and remains) congruent with the priorities in our school development plan.  We made sure that along the way we had a ‘professional’ who was  going to add value and bring experience and expertise to our plan.

Staff will need training if coaching is going to become embedded and not just be a nice added extra. Always have the vision central and the outcomes clearly in view. What will formal sessions look like?  Which structure or coaching models will you use?  Plan strategically and logistically. Expect it to take years not weeks or months.

Getting staff trained is step one (my own training took the form of gaining a diploma in coaching).  The change for us came when everyone ‘got brave’ and started coaching each other; the more you coach the better you get at it.  It may feel ‘clunky’ and strange at times but if all the other elements are in place and people are open minded then it will work. Stick with it.

Our provision comes in a variety of forms – there are peer to peer conversations across the workplace, coaching is seen as a leadership style and it is used in teams and for families.  There is allocated time for those that want formal coaching sessions, coaching provision for all new leaders (coaching for the first 100 days in a new post), coaching triads around specific school improvement priorities, the ability to request one off coaching from Leaders within school.  The nature of conversations has changed over time – coaching conversations are now the norm, particularly among leaders.

To create a coaching culture there has to be opportunity given at all levels to put the new skills into practice. Co-coaching (and supervision) provides quality assurance and supports development of coaching skills as does on-going CPD for coaches.

Record what goes well.  We know that coaching has to be more than a cozy conversation.  Without celebrating achievement of goals, noting the journey that the coachee has been on and the learning that has taken place, the impact could be lost.  We have to remember to  celebrate and to document successes.   These become points of personal and professional reflection and review, as well as opportunities for evaluation.

What are the benefits to of implementing coaching throughout my school?  Stronger more effective team working, honest conversations, trust between colleagues, greater professionalism, focus by everyone in the organisation on a shared goal, inclusion, a common approach and a common language, belief that the answer is there to be found, belief in the strength of each member of the team, a strong vehicle for managing change, time for each other and positivity to name but a few!