Transform your school the hard, slow and satisfying way

Here’s the full piece as edited for the TES on 2 September,2016.

I have come late in life to the writings of Maya Angelou, the American poet and civil rights activist. I rather regret it. One of her more memorable quotes is;

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

In my experience of leadership and executive coaching so far, it’s the feelings which are most often the driver for behaviours and performance. Coaching aims to improve the individual’s performance by helping the client to see the facts and understand the feelings.

Over a year ago, I grasped the opportunity to undertake an Executive Coaching and Mentoring qualification at Masters level (Level 7). From afar, it looked vaguely interesting and I had known others whose judgement I respect who had completed it and spoke highly of it. I was intrigued by what it could do for me as a school leader, what doors it might open in the future and, most importantly, whether and how it might liberate my colleagues to be even more inspirational. My conviction that it has an important place in the toolkit used by exemplary school leaders is enhanced by my recent re-reading of Robert Coe’s excellent report What Makes Great Teaching? (Robert Coe et al, 2014). In this seminal review of the underpinning research, Professor Coe cites factors such as the prevailing school climate and processes as important in promoting teachers’ learning and, hence, their ability to produce great teaching.

Seven taught days in the company of our urbane facilitator Keith Nelson of yourtotalcoach.co.uk and eleven other learners (what a bunch), plus a great deal of reading, more than 30 hours of practice coaching and over 15,000 words of writing later I have gained a great deal in terms of holding focussed, clear discussions which help people review, analyse and improve their performance.

So what are the key elements of coaching?

  1. It’s the culture stupid!

Coaching aims to improve performance. In schools, this means the ability to produce great teaching and great leadership – these are the key influences on pupils’ progress, achievements and personal development. Little else matters or has any significant positive impact on pupils. A school culture which focusses primarily on summary judgements of employees’ performance and narrow accountability measures, such as Progress 8, is unlikely to build or sustain continuing high performance. On the other hand, establishing a positive culture of open reflection and analysis almost certainly will. Coaching makes having such conversation a natural part of the landscape for teachers and other employees in the school. It’s so much more than a “nice” chat. It’s focussed on being better at your job.

  1. Listen, listen & listen!

Most of us are great talkers and even if we take the time to listen to others it’s most often so that we can respond to what they are saying as quickly as possible – just like snatching a ball from someone else so that we can play with it; “it’s my turn”. The hardest thing about great coaching is to listen; to really listen so that you can work out what the underlying facts and feelings really are. Only by listening carefully can you hope to enable the person you are coaching to take responsibility for the changes in behaviours needed to improve.

  1. Not everyone is driven by achievement, like you. Get over it!

McCelland’s Theory of Needs (McCelland, 1961) suggests everyone has three motivators that need to be satisfied across their personal and professional lives: achievement, affiliation and power/influence. People behave very differently at work according to how well their needs in each of these areas are being satisfied. Indeed, many of the “problems” I see arise as a result of there being a mismatch between one of these needs and the ability of the person to have it fulfilled, or not, at work. As a coach, I’m aware of the danger of assuming my need for achievement, for example, is the same as the people I coach. Of course, it may not be. So, as a coach, I have to be acutely aware of imposing my needs on others.

  1. Percolated coffee has so much more depth of flavour but, OMG, it takes time.

Instant coffee is, well, instant and it has little lasting flavour or satisfaction. Percolated coffee is so tedious to prepare but soooo much more satisfying. The same is true of coaching. It takes time for people to cotton on and achieve a depth of understanding of themselves that allows them to see a way forward. Ultimately, it is much more satisfying and you simply have to be patient. Don’t expect a quick return and learn to enjoy the aroma as the coffee percolates through the mind of the person being coached.

  1. How many times can you ask the same question?

Just like the best learning in lessons, the best coaching requires the person being coached to suffer cognitive fatigue as a result of thinking hard about the issues. That means asking lots of questions so that the client is forced to explore, evaluate, summarise and synthesise. As a coach, I have to find different ways of asking open-ended questions that make this cognition happen. These questions might be prompted by a discussion of a model of leadership (see McCelland above) or other ways of breaking the thinking down into manageable and digestible pieces.

  1. The light bulb moment leads to transformation

If I’m being successful as a coach, there is always a moment of revelation; the light bulb moment. Most often, this occurs when the client realises (or more likely finally acknowledges) that they can transform their circumstances by taking responsibility for their actions, the way they behave and the way they portray themselves to others. Realising that they have control over such matters and options for the future is often a moment of great emotion.

  1. Face the facts and notice the feelings.

In my limited experience to date, almost all of the people I have coached have come to discuss issues with relationships. Possibly, it’s a matter of the relationship with themselves; often a lack of confidence in their own capability at work as a result of a change of their role. Often, it’s difficulties in relating to others and, of course, most often that person is their boss or someone who is otherwise causing them grief (there’s a saying that “people don’t leave organisations, they leave bosses”). In these circumstances, the feelings of the client can remain hidden for some time but they are nearly always the driver of behaviours and so they have to be dug out and faced. In other words, the emotional and the rational have to be at the core of coaching as all people are somewhere along the spectrum from one to the other.

The purpose of coaching is to improve performance. Great coaching is demanding on the coach and the client. It’s improved my performance as a school leader to provide clarity for my colleagues and, if they are to be believed, it’s also improved the performance of those I have coached.

We’re now rolling out formal training in coaching for performance to all our leaders. Down the line, I expect it will have added to the continuing transformation and evolution of the school.