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Coaching culture – how to build one in your school

Tying on your cape and launching to everyone’s rescue may seem helpful, but allowing staff to become their own problem-solvers is better. Educators are hard-wired to want to help people achieve their best – it comes naturally as part of the job. But school leaders or senior staff who try to give their colleagues all […]

Damian Mitchelmore
by Damian Mitchelmore
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Tying on your cape and launching to everyone’s rescue may seem helpful, but allowing staff to become their own problem-solvers is better.

Educators are hard-wired to want to help people achieve their best – it comes naturally as part of the job.

But school leaders or senior staff who try to give their colleagues all the answers or who dive in and solve problems for them are not providing their team with the tools to succeed. 

To illustrate the point, imagine a Y2 pupil coming to you at breaktime with their shoelaces undone. The simple act of stepping in to tie those laces gets the child back out into the playground, but it doesn’t really solve the problem at hand.

In the long term, pupils need to develop the confidence and ability to tie their own shoelaces. 

Likewise, we need to empower people to develop their own brilliant ways to address issues in our schools, and that’s where coaching comes in.

School staff can sometimes feel they have the weight of the world on their shoulders, particularly during unsettled times.

However, there is no need to carry that burden alone. Rather than trying to fix everything all at once, it is better to build a team of capable problem solvers who are always ready for the next set of challenges.  

Anyone in a school can be a coach. A less experienced teacher could have a coaching conversation with a more experienced colleague; for example, to help them find ways to address day-to-day challenges such as how to help pupils collaborate on a project using technology, or how to teach a maths lesson outdoors.

However, getting to this point involves embedding coaching throughout a school, and that calls for a culture shift… 

Solution-focused coaching steps

Take the example of a teacher who is experiencing low-level disruption in their Y5 class. If the teacher comes to you for help, your natural instinct might be to tell them what you would do in that situation and recommend they do the same.

Alternatively, you might be tempted to go to the classroom and talk to the children yourself.  

However, this won’t help the teacher find their own way to approach the issue next time. 

In a coaching culture, the first thing to do is listen – and empathise. Find out what the issue really is: are the children tired, distracted or disengaged?

Then you become a facilitator by asking your colleague what techniques they could use and how they could make the most of their own professional qualities to address the situation. 

Here are some coaching steps for this scenario: 

  1. Encourage the teacher to explore what the issues could be. Are the pupils really misbehaving or are there other factors making them play up? 
  1. Focus on encouraging them to accept what is happening in the classroom when pupils behave in this way. 
  1. Inspire the teacher to identify what they want to achieve by making a change. What is their aim? 
  1. Ask, but don’t suggest, what steps they could consider taking to address the issue. 
  1. Empower the teacher to think about their own set of skills and qualities, and how these can be used to help them to solve the problem. 
  1. Challenge them to take ownership of the issue and encourage them to think of one or two new actions they could try, to see if it changes the pupils’ behaviour. 

Coaching conversations

Coaching gives teachers the time and space to express their individual voices as professionals. That’s because it is not passive – coaching is not done to someone, it is done with them.

In a school with a coaching culture, these conversations become a part of everyday learning.  

A good coaching conversation will follow the 80:20 rule. The coach should keep a teacher in the ‘what’ part of the conversation for 80 per cent of the time.

This is when you encourage the teacher to fully explore what the issue is, accept what is happening as a result, and identify what they want to achieve. 

For the remaining 20 per cent of the time, you focus on the ‘how’ part of the conversation, when the teacher talks about how they want to move forward.

At this point, the teacher should create one or two tangible, positive actions to address the issue.  

It can be useful to have a set of coaching questions to give structure to the conversation, such as: 

  • Where are you now? This explores the teacher’s strengths and areas of development without overly focusing on or brushing over the negative. 
  • Where would you like to be? This question examines what the teacher wants their practice to look, feel or sound like next. 
  • What do you already do? This keeps the conversation positive by establishing what is working well and what they should keep doing. 
  • How could you be more effective? This is the point where the teacher considers their next steps and sets some well-defined goals. 

Impact of coaching

Coaching can take a bit of getting used to at first. While training and mentoring focuses on imparting knowledge and demonstrating skills, coaching is more about encouraging people to change their behaviour and mindsets.

As a result, some teachers initially feel challenged by coaching. And yes, they are being challenged, but in a positive way. 

Ultimately what happens is people learn to self-coach. They ask themselves difficult questions and are always seeking out opportunities to improve, flourish and progress. 

Paul Day, assistant headteacher at Royal Wootton Bassett Academy, says this about the impact of coaching in his school:

“The problem with many approaches to professional development is that they focus on what people are not so good at, and what they need to improve. Coaching, on the other hand, gives staff greater autonomy over their own development, and it encourages them to seek out opportunities to learn and grow. 

“One of our teachers was having difficulties in the classroom and the leadership team were trying to find ways to offer support. But the real difference came when this teacher started her coaching journey. She became inspired to take ownership of her future, found her spark as a teacher and flourished. This teacher is now a head of department.” 

Teacher retention

Schools urgently need to recruit and retain great talent, and the best teachers want to work in an environment where they can grow as professionals and make a genuine difference to their pupils’ lives.

Teachers will want to work in your school because it is a place where everyone thrives, and is empowered to succeed. 

In fact, coaching comes naturally to people who work in schools. Good teachers are already supporting their pupils to tackle problems and figure out solutions for themselves.

Empowering teachers to use their own teaching style to overcome hurdles will help your school whatever the future brings. 

Damian Mitchelmore is a former deputy head and managing director of OLEVI,  a leading coaching organisation for schools.    

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