Leadership to support a coaching culture

TDT conf

On Thursday 15 November 2018 I was pleased to be invited by David Weston to speak at a Teacher Development Trust conference in Manchester on the subject of ‘Coaching in schools – dialogue to drive performance’.  My particular interest and area of expertise is leadership, so I chose as my title ‘Leadership to support a coaching culture’, and this blog is based on what I covered.

When preparing for the session, I realised I needed to do some reading and research to clarify and confirm my understanding of a coaching approach and a coaching culture in schools.  Chris Moyse, Head of Staff Development in Somerset and a Twitter contact, recommended this book by John Campbell and Christian van Nieuwerburgh:


I found this book useful in terms of clarifying my understanding of key terms, for example Jim Knight’s definition of an instructional coach:

“I have come to define instructional coaches as educators who ‘partner with teachers to analyse current reality, set goals, identify and explain teaching strategies to meet goals, and provide support until the goals are met’.”

Jim Knight, President: Instructional Coaching Group

The impact cycle: What good instructional coaches should do to foster powerful improvements in teaching  Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin (2017)

And van Nieuwerburgh’s description of a coaching conversation:

“A one-to-one conversation that focuses on the enhancement of learning and development through increasing self-awareness and a sense of personal responsibility, where the coach facilitates the self-directed learning of the coachee through questioning, active listening and appropriate challenge in a supportive and encouraging climate.”

Coaching in education: Getting better results for students, educators and parents
London: Karnac (2012)

The emphasis needs to be on opening a dialogue, encouraging reflection and fostering growth and development, rather than on checking up on people, judging and labelling.

A coaching approach could be defined as:

“intentionally utilizing some of the transferable elements of formal coaching in a range of conversational situations that would not typically be considered coaching interactions”

This might include:

a focus on learning, growing self-awareness and awareness of others
personal responsibility
two-way conversations
focus on the coachee’s agenda and self-direction
the provision of both support and challenge
emphasis on the present and future, rather than the past

Campbell and Van Nieuwerburgh (2018)

I was struck by the idea of a coaching culture focussing on the present and future rather than the past, and the use of these questions:

“We believe that a simple invitation to flip from ‘what’s not wanted?’ to ‘what’s wanted instead?’ is one small example of a key element of coaching –  helping people focus on a positive outcome.”

Campbell and van Nieuwerburgh (2018)

I have tried these questions, to good effect, in recent coaching conversations I have held with an established and a new head.  Emphasising a problem-solving, solution-focussed approach, adopting a ‘How can we?’ rather than a ‘Why we can’t’ mindset and considering the Appreciative Inquiry model of searching for the bright spots, and learning from successes rather than fixating on ‘what is broken’, can, I think, move us further forward.

I asked those present at the conference to consider examples of successful leadership they had experienced and to summarise individually, then in pairs and then on tables, what they felt were key to the most effective leadership.  Each table put forward one suggestion, and the list read:

Emotional intelligence

Clear vision

Leading by example

Ability to listen and respond


Knowing the team

Showing humility.

We considered how these seven elements of leadership connect with what Campbell and van Nieuwerburgh suggest are the eight key coaching skills:

Building trust
Being present
Listening actively
Being succinct
Asking the best questions
Giving feedback

How can adopting a coaching approach help us to strengthen our leadership, and why might effective leaders be disposed to develop a coaching culture within their teams and schools?  Even outside a formal coaching arrangement, can we make use of the principles of coaching as we work to support and challenge each individual (leaders at all levels, teaching staff, support staff and pupils) to be their best?  Campbell and Nieuwerburgh have this to say about how leaders, working with individuals and with teams, can engage in and encourage productive dialogue:

“If we accept the view that schools are networks of people engaged in various forms of conversation designed to progress the purpose and goals of the school (Campbell, Coaching in schools, 2016) then the leader is a key person is setting the conversational tone.”

Building on the positives, showing hope, humanity, humility and humour (to use John Dunford’s words), I believe leaders can achieve much with the staff alongside whom and through whom they work.  However, this requires a degree of trust and a willingness to see developing others as a key part of their responsibility.  I recalled a session working with Middle Leaders on a staff day in 2017 where one Head of Department, having heard what I had to say about the advantages of taking a coaching approach, said, “That’s all very well, but I don’t have time to do that.  I’m an experienced Head of Department; I know what has to be done.  I just need those in my department to do what I tell them to do.”

Mike Buchanan, formerly the head of Ashford School and now the Executive Director of HMC, has, I think, the best answer to this, from a piece he wrote for Leadership Matters in 2017:

“Step back from directing to coaching, because the former might get the job done, but the latter builds capacity and confidence.”

So the job has to be done, but the best leaders focus not just on ensuring this is achieved, but that those they lead are developed in the process so that they have greater capacity and greater confidence to step up to new challenges in the future.  Leaders need to ensure that under their tenure the team they lead grows in strength.  Think about the legacy you leave as a leader at all levels – can you leave others stronger than you found them, or are you creating a culture of dependency so that the team risks falling apart when you aren’t there?  How can you encourage those you lead to step up, have faith in their ability to cope (with your guidance and support) rather than expecting you to protect them, or to solve their problems for them – or just always to tell them what they should do?

One useful tip is that if someone tries to give you their problem to resolve, you say, ‘Thanks for coming to talk to me about this – I’m pleased you have.  Tell me what you have done about it already.’  If they look blank at this, it may be that bringing the issue to you is the first (and only) thing they thought of.  In that case, ask, ‘Well what do you think you could do? Why might this work? When will you do it?  When could we meet again to discuss how that went and what the next steps might be?

Mike Buchanan, when a serving head, completed an extensive coaching course himself and used it to inform not only his leadership, but many aspects of the way in which his school operated, and you can read more about that here:

Transform your school the hard, slow and satisfying way

Leadership Matters  (April 2017)

Lastly, leaders at all levels need to recognise that they are models (remember ‘Leading by example’ from the list above) and one of the things they have to model is receptivity to (hopefully constructive!) feedback.  I believe all school leaders should have coaches – it doesn’t have to be time-consuming and hugely expensive.  I have regular Skype coaching sessions with some of the heads I am supporting – a regular session of structured reflection which helps them to get their head above the parapet and take a breath.

I used to say that leadership was all about relationships and communication.  I still believe these are essential, but I recognise that leadership is also about taking action – what you choose to do, or what you choose not to do (and why/why not).  I suggested delegates asked themselves at the end of the day:

  1. What three things might you do, as a result of being here today, which you might not have done had you NOT been here?
  2. For each of these three things: Why have you chosen it? When will you do it? How will you check on yourself that you have done it?
  3. What will you STOP doing, or do less of, to make time and space for taking on something new? (Otherwise our efforts may be unsustainable.)

Thanks to David Weston for inviting me to take part in the day, to all contributors for their sessions, and to the delegates who were a responsive and receptive audience.  Best wishes on your coaching journeys.

Photo credit: Montage by John Berry

(I had always assumed that when we used the word ‘coaching’ in an educational professional development sense, we were adopting/adapting the term used in sports coaching.  But one of the things I learnt from Campbell and van Nieuwerburgh was this:

“Etymologically, the word coach was used to denote a type of horse-drawn carriage called a kocsi.  It was called that in the Hungarian language because these carriages were built in a village called Kocs.  In the 1830s, educators at the University of Oxford extended the concept of a vehicle that takes a person from Point A to Point B by using the term coach as slang to refer to a tutor who supports students to pass exams.  In other words, the tutor (or coach) would take a person from ‘not knowing enough’ (Point A) to ‘knowing enough to pass the exam’ (Point B).  Notably, the first recorded use of the word coach in an athletic sense did not occur until 1861.” )




2 thoughts on “Leadership to support a coaching culture

  1. Thank you for this incisive and very positive post. I firmly believe instructionsl coaching the way forward – I hope lots if people read what you say and development the courage to take coaching forward. Thank you for writers by this!


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