Professional Learning

The Case for Coaching Education Leaders

6 Min Read
July Eric Coaching Leaders Final

This post was originally published on Eric Sheninger's blog, A Principal's Reflections.

Growing up as a child, I played numerous sports recreationally and in high school. Upon entering high school, I was not the best athlete by any means, but football was one sport where I excelled more than others, and this led to some time playing in college.

Even though I had some fantastic coaches throughout my days playing competitive sports, I never gave much thought to becoming a coach myself. Once I knew that my destiny was to become a teacher, that became my sole focus. However, weeks before I was set to begin in my first teaching role, I was contacted by one of my former high school football coaches pleading with me to take an open freshman team coaching role at that school. Initially, I resisted but then decided that this could be an excellent opportunity to connect with more kids and, hopefully in the process, pass along some of the life lessons that I learned from my former coaches.

I loved coaching football and eventually took on the freshman lacrosse and head ice hockey positions in my school. For years, I was able to teach both in the classroom and on the field. That is one of the critical points of this post. In many aspects, coaching is teaching, but without formal grades. As a coach, I provided lessons and strategies on skill development as well as competencies that pertained to excelling at a particular sport. Each practice involved modeling, guided practice, and either individual or team practice. At the end of each practice, there was a closure activity where we reflected on the events of that day while preparing for a future contest. The actual game was more or less an assessment of what my players had learned during practice.

Why Coaching Matters

Coaching is so much more than the result of a game, match, or competition. It is really about helping kids develop many qualities and characteristics that cannot be measured with an actual number—such as leadership, commitment, perseverance, motivation, self-discipline, teamwork, resilience, enthusiasm, and reliability. The positive impact of a good coach can be felt for years and lead to success in both professional and personal aspects of life.

When we reflect on some of the outcomes I have listed above, it is apparent how important the act of coaching is in numerous professions, not just in athletics. Many school districts invest in instructional and digital coaches to assist teachers in further developing pedagogical capacity in those areas. This is a sound investment indeed, but research from the Wallace Foundation empowers schools to expand support to a group that is most often left out: leaders. In a Chalkbeat article, Marta W. Aldrich reported on a few studies highlighted below:

When it comes to the impact of school-related factors on student learning, research shows that school leaders are second in importance only to teachers—but also can have a multiplier effect on the quality of teaching. Historically, however, professional development has been limited to periodic workshops and training that focus mostly on administrative, operational, and compliance issues. They rarely receive ongoing, embedded coaching and problem-solving support based on the instructional needs of specific schools.

Leaders need consistent support and feedback on all aspects of the position to continually grow and improve, but the most emphasis should be placed on issues related to instructional leadership. If teachers are being coached on research-based instruction and digital pedagogy, for example, then leaders need to be well equipped to provide useful feedback and conduct effective observations or evaluations. The same can be said about professional learning communities, the use of data, meeting the needs of learners with special needs, innovative practices, space redesign, and so on.

I encourage you to take a look at the links (above) to the research from the Wallace Foundation for more detail on the why and how of coaching leaders. Using research from a 2007 journal article from Helen Timperley and her colleagues, Peter DeWitt outlines in an Education Week article some other key considerations when it comes to coaching leaders:

One of the issues with any type of coaching, and something I found in a small-scale study I did with a little over 250 participating principals, was when principals felt coaching was focused on their needs and remained confidential, as opposed to focusing solely on the needs of the district, it was beneficial to their growth. Leaders, like teachers, need to feel that there is trust when it comes to working with a coach. Additionally, leadership coaching is only an effective means of professional development when it has the following elements of effective professional development: happens over an extended period of time, involves external experts, deeply engages teachers and leaders, challenges existing beliefs

Implementing Coaching at Schools

Research has consistently shown that professional learning that leads to school improvement and meaningful changes to practice is ongoing and job embedded. It is incumbent upon organizations, boards of education, and school districts to commit to helping teachers and leaders through effective coaching practices. Larger organizations and districts may be able to make it work within existing structures, but this does not eliminate some of the inherent bias and trust issues that will still exist. Being coached by the person who will eventually evaluate your performance might not always lead to a trusting relationship. It is also important to have coaches who possess the practical experience aligned with the areas where a leader can benefit from job-embedded coaching.

In any case, coaching can lead to improvements in teaching, learning, and leadership. These results are not isolated to just achievement data but also to the many qualities and characteristics mentioned earlier in this post that cannot (and should not) be measured with a number. If the goal is to support our teachers better then commitments must be made to ramp up assistance to all school leaders, including central office. Investing time and resources in people, regardless of position, is the key to transforming school culture in a way that leads to better results.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


Blog contributor Eric Sheninger is an ICLE Senior Fellow and thought leader on digital leadership and learning. You can book a keynote with him to help your school or district explore solutions for leading and learning in the digital age. You can also view our full list of thought leaders, who provide customized presentations on a range of key education issues.

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