The powerful difference coaching can make

Steve Bush, Assistant Headteacher at Sackville School spoke to SSAT Director Angelina Idun about the powerful difference coaching can make and why schools and organisations cannot afford not to coach.

Tell me about your journey into coaching and what has made you so passionate about coaching.

Shortly after becoming a senior leader with responsibility for professional learning I read Angelina’s SSAT article about coaching. I’d already developed an interest in coaching and believed not only in the process, but also that it addressed a gap in our package of professional support. Helpfully, my colleague and Deputy Headteacher Neil Feist was fully supportive so we asked Angelina to provide training for a group of half a dozen teachers and leaders who were keen to be involved. This was back in 2018 and since then we’ve offered coaching to a variety of colleagues in different situations. We’ve learnt a lot from the process and it’s not always been successful. But seeing how transformative coaching can be in the right situation has been a powerful driver towards extending and embedding our offer, and personally to becoming qualified through completion of a Level 7 certificate in executive coaching from the Institute of Leadership and Management. Coaching helps staff to thrive, directly impacting the children they work with, so we’re determined to extend this offer to all who might benefit.

How have you been using coaching in your role, school, federation?

Our experience is predominantly using coaching to unlock potential and build capacity outside the classroom. We realised early on that an instructional coaching model was much more suitable for ECTs, a model of support now embedded in the Early Career Framework. However, staff deal with a myriad of challenges outside the classroom, even more so as they move to middle and senior leadership. There are many different definitions of coaching, but for us we mean ‘working in partnership with someone who, through observation, active listening and powerful questioning, helps the coachee unlock their potential to maximise their performance’. We’ve coached middle and senior leaders in our own school and, through my qualification, other leaders in local schools too. We’ve also coached teachers needing to work through their own challenges or those hoping to grow their careers and secure promotion. Our next step is to engage partner schools in our federation and cross-refer to coaches outside our own schools, which adds the option of an extra degree of professional distance between the coach and their coachee.

What are the key skills you have developed as a coach?

Coaching is really about noticing – what people say, how they say it and also what they leave out. This requires the coach to develop astute active listening skills which are then transferable to other situations such as meetings and interviews. Being aware of one’s own reaction when listening, remaining non-judgemental and avoiding the “diagnosis trap” all drive powerful questioning. Learning why one question is more powerful than another can unlock so many great conversations and I’ve seen people gain a completely new perspective on their situation as a result of a single question.

I’ve also learned to trust the process of coaching far more than I trust my own coaching ability. Coaches need to set aside their own performance anxiety and learn to be useful but not helpful. Not needing to help and know the answer frees us from our fear of not knowing the answer and makes us more effective as a thinking partner. I’ve even reached for my coaching toolbox when confronted with very difficult situations out-of-the-blue and found these skills invaluable in supporting a distressed colleague to find a positive outcome.

Where is your school on its coaching journey?

What is called ‘coaching’ can vary significantly from school to school and whilst many staff have experienced coaching it’s certainly not all positive. Our aim was to offer coaching and develop our skills, learning along the way and refining our practice. We want to ensure we have a small group of staff in our school who have positive experiences of being coached. In sharing their own journey with their colleagues they have become powerful advocates for the process. This has taken longer than we’d have liked due to the pandemic but now we are ready to move into our next phase. Both our previous and current headteachers are strong advocates, having coached or been coached themselves, which has been central to our success.

What have been the barriers to implementation?

Aside from misconceptions about what coaching is, there are other barriers to be overcome. Professional training is absolutely essential if the good name of coaching is not to be immediately tarnished by poor practice, so investment of resources (both time and money) is required. But once trained each coach needs practice; without ‘walking the walk’ they simply cannot hone their skills, so it’s important to have people in mind who are willing to be coached and dedicate both the time and quiet space they need. Coaches also need to reflect on their work confidentially, so some element of coaching supervision is important. Coaching supervision creates a safe environment for the coach to share their successes and failures with another experienced coach. This reflective dialogue continually builds the capacity of the coach and was one aspect we neglected but are now addressing.

How has coaching benefited you and your school community?

Schools can be volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environments – the VUCA world. Staff deserve high quality support to help them be the best they can be, for their own sake and that of their students. Staff who have been coached often comment that their sessions are the only dedicated hour in the fortnight where they can completely focus on their own needs, often working strategically and making great strides in a short time. This builds their own capacity and that of their teams, but also supports their wellbeing. It’s no surprise that the Education Staff Wellbeing Charter advocates coaching to protect the mental health and wellbeing of leaders who are responsible for decision making. And certainly the recruitment crisis in teaching isn’t going away; we see coaching as an important offer to not only recruit the best staff but also retain them for many years to come.

Why should we put coaching at the heart of what we do in schools?

The coaching process requires us to give time to each other to listen attentively, notice and then empower someone to move themselves forward. It builds trust and confidence and is perhaps the only example of truly bespoke professional support. And so many leaders, in business and in schools, report that whilst they recognise the importance of strategic thinking they rarely make time for it. So we simply cannot afford not to coach! I see a time ahead when a coaching culture is embedded in the culture schools just like it is in other professions and this shift is reflected in the curriculum of the new National Professional Qualifications and other accreditations such as SSAT Lead Practitioners, where an understanding and experience of coaching is an essential requirement.

Many schools have become increasingly focused on instructional coaching, what’s your view on this?

There is much evidence to support the use of instructional coaching to develop teaching, particularly early in a teacher’s career, so schools are rightly adopting this model to support ECTs through the Early Career Framework. Indeed, some schools also use instructional coaching with all teaching staff, shifting the emphasis away from a more directive approach towards a dialogic model where partners have greater equity to develop their practice. However, whilst such an instructional model can be highly effective in the classroom, it has limited use in leadership coaching where the coach will likely be more effective as a facilitator of hard thinking. As is so often the case, it’s about choosing the right tool for the job.

Introducing a school wide approach to coaching can seem daunting. What would you say to a school wanting to get started with coaching?

The first step is to find out more about what coaching is and, perhaps more importantly, what it isn’t. There are some excellent books out there for different audiences, though Claire Pedrick’s ‘Simplifying Coaching’ is my recent favourite. Be clear you know what the intended purpose of coaching is for your organisation and what the different approaches are. Then arrange some training from a recognised body or coach delivered to a small group of enthusiastic staff who will persevere, practice, evaluate and grow future advocates.

What’s next for you in terms of your coaching?

I’m now working with federation partner schools to ensure coaching is a central pillar of professional learning. I’m also developing my own practice further with the aim of achieving Associate Certified Coach accreditation for the International Coaching Federation.

Find out how SSAT can support you to develop coaching in your school.

Join us for online training on the following dates:

Introduction to coaching – Thursday 9 June
Developing your coaching skills – Thursday 23 June

Or, contact us if you’d like more information, bespoke support or group training.

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