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Business, Engagement Edition Unlocking Potential in Schools


By: Grant O’Sullivan •  4 years ago •  

It has long been the case that great school teachers have been more facilitators of student learning than just fountains of knowledge who simply spray their knowledge across those before them. Think of the best teachers you had at school and it is highly likely they are the ones who built a strong relationship with each student and believed that every student in a class had the potential to achieve great things.

They individualised the learning opportunities based on each student’s needs. They supported each student to set achievable learning goals and asked them questions to help create the problem-solving, goal-achieving steps that they would take towards achieving that goal. They followed up very regularly, celebrating even small signs of progress. They affirmed for the student the strengths available to them, so as to help them take the next steps. In effect, they coached each student and had a natural understanding of the power of the “relationship to results” coaching methodology.

It is not surprising that the teachers who practice this coaching approach with students, also use the same approach when they move into leadership positions. Research indicates that one of the common traits of high performing school systems all over the world is that a coaching approach is evident throughout the school. It is used in how leadership manages staff and is the approach that teachers use with each other, supporting peers by continuously reflecting on their teaching practice (pedagogy). Of course, the outcome of that reflection with a peer coach is to subsequently change their practice where required, so that they have the most impact on student learning at all times.

This approach is now reflected in the Australian Professional Standards for Principals (Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership) where having a coaching approach to developing others is listed as a required personal quality of Australian school leaders.

What does coaching look like in schools?

As we have all been to school as students ourselves, we know that all schools are different. We know from our own experiences and those of friends, family and colleagues that various schools approach teaching and learning in different ways. Some schools emphasise aspects such as sport more than others, while others may specialise in music and the arts, or have an emphasis on religious education. It is the same in building a coaching culture in each school, with each requiring a different focus and approach according to the context of that school. In saying that, our experience at Growth Coaching International, where we worked in training over 8,500 Australian educators in 2015 alone, does suggest that there are some common approaches in the schools that have developed a coaching culture.

These schools are reporting a shift in student outcomes due in part to a coaching culture and when they operate in a high-trust environment. Quality conversations are the privileged unit of change at all levels across the school. The leadership of the school models enable this by trusting that their teachers are professional and have the desire to do all they can for the benefit of each student. The quality of the teacher is the single most important factor within the school’s control when wishing to improve learning for students. By coaching teachers in a high-trust relationship, the teachers are far more likely to make changes to their teaching practice and in turn have greater impact on their students’ learning. Building a high-trust environment enables everyone in the school to live by the mantra “know thy impact”, so eloquently stated by Professor John Hattie 2015, in his world renowned research, Visible Learning.

It seems obvious that teachers should always be reviewing and adjusting their teaching practice to ensure that everything they ask the students to do is evidence-based and has a high impact on learning. Many teachers have and do live by the “know thy impact” philosophy, however like all professions, many others have set ways of doing things and are somewhat reluctant to change the teaching strategies they have used for years. Change in teaching practice is higher when school leaders use a coaching approach for conducting the teacher performance development conversations. This, in turn, helps teachers to use a coaching approach in supporting their peers.

A coaching approach to performance development

Research the world over confirms for teachers what other industries have also known: the performance appraisal process is often not valued. In schools where a coaching approach to the process is well embedded, things are often different. While some of these conversations may look somewhat formal with goals and actions recorded in performance agreements or appraisal forms, the process in practice is very relational. The teacher can feel comfortable to set stretch goals that will result in them adjusting their teaching strategies for the greatest impact.

The leader/coach skilfully weaves the school’s bigger picture goals and directions into the conversation with each individual teacher, coaching them to plan actions that will bring these whole school goals to life, in their classroom.

Peer coaching

Teachers in this coaching culture are empowered to work collaboratively with peers using peer coaching to provide the day-by- day support for the changes they are implementing in their classrooms. The teachers use peer observation of their classroom teaching, followed up by coaching conversations, all the while focused on the teaching strategies that have the highest impact.

Student coaching

There are a number of portals or entry points to coaching in education. Two of my colleagues, John Campbell and Dr Christian van Nieuwerburgh, have developed the Global Framework for Coaching in Education where the four portals are clarified.

Leadership Coaching and Coaching for Professional Practice are by far the most common portals in schools at this stage, however there is an exciting development around Student Success and Well Being approaches. A school we are currently working with in Adelaide is training students to be coaches of other students.

This is different from traditional models where older students are appointed as mentors to younger students. Under the project at St Johns Grammar School, selected students are provided coaching training to equip them to be coaches for other students. Recent research is indicating this can have a positive effect on both coach and coachee (van Nieuwerburgh & Tong, 2013). Of course, this also provides a valuable resource for the school and a wonderful skillset for the student coaches to take well beyond school life.

The Future of Coaching in Education

As schools are fundamentally learning organisations for students and teachers, with the core purpose being to unlock the potential within every student, it was always going to be a natural fit that a coaching approach would help. The research and now Standards for Australian teachers and leaders (AITSL) clearly points to this approach being woven into a school’s culture. The future is very bright for coaching in education and I believe, for students in schools who embrace coaching.

Grant Sullivan Bio

Grant O’Sullivan is Director of Growth Coaching International WA, SA, NT which is part of an Australian-based company, Growth Coaching International, that each year provides coaching and coach skill development training for thousands of educators across Australia. Prior to becoming a facilitator and leadership coach, Grant spent 18 years in school leadership, including rural, remote and city schools, in various positions including school principal and as director of schools.

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