Why a Listening Tour Is the First Step in Instructional Coaching

This blog post for K-12 education leaders originated on the International Center for Leadership in Education website and has been edited for Shaped.

Leadership is the heart, coaching is the work, and listening is the key.

One of the great joys of my work as an instructional coach—first as an administrator and coach to teachers, and now as a consultant to instructional leaders—is the privilege of meeting educators all over the world who know nothing is more important than keeping students first, even if they are struggling with how best to do so. Recently in my work, I had my first meeting with an assistant superintendent who shared the latest survey data that only 53 percent of their elementary students liked school. He was crestfallen, as he and his team care deeply that students develop a love of learning.

In talking to this educator, I was reminded of an article I’d read in Harvard Business Review where Levi’s CEO Chip Bergh wrote of his effort to turn the company around. When he joined Levi’s in 2011, the company had been losing money for ten years. The brand had lost relevance in an industry with countless new competitors. Bergh realized that if he was going to devise a solution, he first needed to diagnose the problem.

Bergh understood that every employee was an invaluable resource because each knew more about the company than he did. He spent an hour with each of the top 60 executives and held town halls to ask employees questions and listen to learn from them. He also listened to consumers. The insights he gained from listening to how they perceived the brand and used the clothes were so powerful that one insight even led to the company’s new tagline.

At the end of his listening tour, Bergh was educated enough to see the root cause of problems and a vision for their solutions. Consumer insights also showcased how the company could evolve to meet their needs.

Importantly, Bergh spoke to all key stakeholder groups. Had he spoken only to employees, his strategic plan might have solved corporate problems, but it would have failed to design clothes consumers wanted. Had he spoken only to consumers, he might have suggested a plan to offer clothing they wanted, but without also addressing company problems, the change would have had only so much impact. In either scenario, only so much growth would be possible before hitting a ceiling.

Instructional Coaching Redefined

The benefit of studying leadership and the business world hit me years ago when I was an administrator in charge of instructional coaching. My teachers were making progress but then hitting ceilings. To understand why, I began talking to teachers, administrators, students, student families, and even some community members. In learning from them, it became evident that there were some systemic issues blocking teacher growth. It was then that I understood that if I was going to deliver on the promise of coaching—improvement and guiding teachers to lead their own learning—I would also have to lead some schoolwide changes to support individual growth.

Today, I call this coaching redefined, where a coach understands that unlimited individual growth must be supported by school-wide change. This asks us to learn not just about the coaching cycle, instructional strategies, and tools but also about leadership.

The Levi’s story is powerful because it shows us that leaders listen before suggesting changes. And it shows us that the entire school must adapt to support everyone’s growth—including that of students.

As I sat before this disheartened assistant superintendent, I shared with him my full confidence that he and his team were well positioned to turn all of their students into learning enthusiasts. After all, they had done something instructional leaders often forget to do—they had listened to learn from all key stakeholder groups: students, teachers, administrators, parents/guardians, and community members. Through their insights, they were beginning to see sticking points in the system that were stymieing teachers’ growth potential. With this profound awareness, I assured him the instructional leaders in his district were ready to become coaches redefined.

Launching Your Listening Tour

Coaches who are redefined will conduct a listening tour with all key stakeholder groups—before making even one suggestion. As they set out to complete a listening tour, great coaches will use their judgment when devising questions and mind school protocol in their approach, but they should always bear in mind the tour’s twofold goal:

  1. Great coaches want to understand issues and identify appropriate solutions. To do this, they will need to get qualitative and quantitative data. Questions need to unearth perceptions of the school, the teachers, the leaders, and the students and how to improve them. They need to unearth attitudes, such as if people are pleased with the school or frustrated and why, and so on. Follow this link for the questions I typically ask.
  2. The listening tour will let everyone know the coach is there to meet the needs of those they serve, not their own needs. Listening is the first step in cultivating relationships. By listening, people will begin to trust the coach. Trust is the only way people will, in time, open up to a coach and make themselves vulnerable to change and growth. 

Leading and listening are crucial steps to becoming a coach redefined.

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You can book a keynote with Sherry St. Clair, ICLE Senior Consultant, to bring her expertise about instructional coaching and leadership to your school or district.