Who is coaching you?

Sask Bulletin
February 1, 2020
By Jane Macleod, Senior Manager, Research and Records

The research is clear. The relationship between a well-designed mentoring and coaching program and professional success is no longer a debate. Whether planning the orientation for new and beginning teachers or newly appointed vice-principals, principals understand the benefits of successful experienced-novice professional learning partnerships to the individual and to the school.

So who is coaching the principal?

Over the past few months, I have highlighted the increasing intensity of the school principal’s role. Today’s principals simultaneously manage multiple administrative and instructional tasks amidst another well-researched reality: isolation. For many, the leadership role is a solitary one and the lack of organized opportunities for principals to share and learn from their experiences in a supportive and nurturing framework only works to exacerbate the solitary nature of the leadership position.

Two studies are worth mentioning. Jan Robertson’s study about building leadership capacity in New Zealand is grounded in a number of well-known leadership development models (i.e., Joyce & Showers, 2002; Goleman & Senge, 2014; Leithwood & Hallinger, 2002; Sergiovanni, 1992 and Fullan, 2014). The second, a 2010 study of the impact of a mentoring and coaching program with school administrators in Ontario over time by Joanne Robinson, affirms the benefits of an organized and coherent program for individual principals and their schools, the system, and most importantly, the students.

In this instance, the term coaching refers to “a learning relationship where participants are open to new learning, engage together as professionals equally committed to facilitating one another’s leadership learning, development and wellbeing (both cognitive and affective), and thereby gain a greater understanding of professionalism and the work of professionals” (Robertson, 2008).

The research supports the fact that, in addition to benefits such as increased understanding, confidence and expertise when responding to the complexities of the principal’s role, a process comprised of paired relationships and group activities serves to facilitate reflection, dialogue and debate. In addition, the coaching process honed those essential interpersonal leadership skills of listening, effective questioning and humility. Further, the studies conclude that the coaching and mentoring programs effectively work to “break down the barriers of isolation and provide opportunities for mentees to grasp the importance of their role within the context of a school district . . .” (Robinson, 2010).

Understanding how to work within the school division’s culture and context is a key learning tool for school leaders. As opposed to learning by trial and error, new principals have ongoing opportunities to learn about “how things are done around here.” Stemming from her research in New Zealand school communities, Robertson correctly acknowledges the influence of local context on leadership and states that the coaching relationship facilitates a good understanding of the social, political and cultural context of the leaders’ professional leadership and management responsibilities.

Perhaps the most important finding from both studies relates to the notion of disruption. A coaching model, characterized by professional respect, facilitates the principal’s critical reflection on everyday leadership practices and creates the opportunity for subsequent, and often transformative, change.

So, who is coaching the principal? Given the gravity of professional responsibility at the principal’s door, a coaching process that provides a solid foundation for their success and ongoing professional learning ought not to be a question. Rather it should be a goal to be realized.