How can we support our school leaders to do their best work?
In a pandemic year, many of our traditional structures for professional development are changing radically. People aren’t permitted to gather in person, to share and to collaborate as we normally do. In this context, how do we maintain that personal connection to each other? How do we collaborate on the complex work that leaders do? And how can we support the growth and development of our principals, vice-principals, and other leaders when our traditional structures are disrupted?
In response to these questions, in the spring of 2020, Surrey Schools in B.C. began implementing an online one-to-one virtual coaching model to support the growth and development of principals and vice-principals. Mirroring hybrid models in our schools, this model focuses on leadership in times of complexity. Each participant received dedicated one-to-one support from a trained and experienced coach, who served as a confidante and learning partner to support their unique and individual learning needs. The model and the support it provides have been extremely well received, and we now have extended this work and coaching from the summer into the fall, with more than 90 district principals, principals, and vice-principals participating. This article explains the rationale for our model, how it works in practice, the feedback we have received, and our hopes for the future.
Coaching offers personalized support
While we were designing new learning experiences for our students, we also began to consider how to best design hybrid models of professional development for our school leaders. We had an opportunity to engage in an online coaching program tailored specifically to address the pressures of leadership during a pandemic. This was a unique opportunity at a unique time.
Years ago, I (Jordan) changed my own professional development strategy to include personal coaching. Rather than travelling to conferences, watching presentations or speakers, I found someone to coach me, to hold my feet to the fire about my own strategic plans, initiatives, and goals. To me, the change was transformational. It wasn’t transformational because I learned new things; it was transformational because I had someone at my side, a confidante, to hold me personally accountable for the work I committed to do.
Coaching is a strategic partnership. Everyone should have a safe space in which to discuss any aspect of their work. The ability to have someone external to your organization who can reflect, clarify, and challenge your beliefs and work can be enormously rewarding. In a COVID world, leaders are under intense pressure. We need to find ways to support our leaders, and this opportunity to provide safe, external, and confidential coaching was timely.
Strategies for personal resilience
We decided to partner with BTS Spark, a non-profit education group that matches school leaders with professional leadership coaches. In our collaboration together, it became clear that our first priority was to offer a summer program for school leaders focusing on personal resilience and well-being. We knew leaders were experiencing higher levels of stress in facing not only the challenges caused by the disruption of the pandemic to the previous school year, but also the uncertainty of what the upcoming school year might look like. We co-created a program to meet those needs, as well as our timescale and budget.
The Surviving to Thriving program was offered as an optional program to principals, vice-principals, and district principals. As a completely voluntary offering during the summer vacation, we were unsure how many school leaders would be interested in the opportunity. We hoped that 10–12 people might sign up. We were pleasantly surprised and delighted that 85 school leaders signed up to take part in the summer program.
FIGURE 1: Surviving to Thriving Coaching Journey
The virtual program was designed to combine one-to-one coaching sessions (providing personalized support to match each individual’s needs and context) with group coaching sessions (offering much-needed connection between school leaders during a time of stress and isolation). (See Figure 1). Over a period of a month, small groups of six people met weekly via Zoom for 90 minutes with a professional leadership coach. The goal was to hone and develop their skills to build personal resilience and resourcefulness. The work included reflecting on their well-being and balance, learning how to manage their state of mind, understanding what motivates them, exploring how to bring their “spark” into their work, and learning practical tools to help them deal with difficult interpersonal interactions, whether with parents, colleagues, or students. In between group sessions, participants could access one-to-one coaching sessions to process individually with their coach how to recover from the challenges of the spring and prepare themselves for the unknowns of the fall.
Feedback from the program – both formal evaluation and anecdotal feedback – was extremely strong. Participants were surveyed both before and after the program, and their responses consistently showed positive experiences. As a result of the program, our principals reported being more able to manage their state, stay resilient, achieve a work-life balance, deal with energy-sapping relationships, tackle difficult conversations, and go into the new school year with a clear vision (see Figure 2). All those surveyed said that they would recommend coaching to colleagues.
FIGURE 2: What impact did this coaching have?
|Principals/VPs participating were asked to self-rate…||Before||After|
|I have strategies to stay resilient and effective in stressful situations…||64%||100%|
|I am able to create a balance in my life…||44%||90%|
|I have a clear vision for the new school year…||43%||100%|
|I feel that I have the tools to manage energy-sapping relationships…||30%||100%|
|I feel confident having difficult conversations…||39%||90%|
As one participant commented, “I appreciated the opportunity to connect with my colleagues and to sort through the areas of my personal and professional life that are diminishing my spark. I feel I have tools to go forward this year with more positivity and resilience.” Another principal added, “I am looking forward to putting the strategies in place when I get back to work. I know that certain issues that I had at the end of the last school year are now put in a better perspective for me. If I didn’t have this program, I believe I would have opened this new school year with these issues holding me back.”
Personal coaching through the fall
I know we were not alone in facing the dilemma of how to provide support to our school leaders through a school year full of unknowns. What we did know was that the school year was likely to be a challenging one, that leaders would need to find new ways of leading in uncertainty, and that the usual face-to-face professional development and conferences were not on the horizon. We felt that leaders would want to draw on support that was responsive to what they were facing in their own context.
Our school leaders can build their capacity by tackling the very real challenges they are facing in their schools, all with professional guidance and support.
On the strength and feedback of the summer coaching program, we invited coaches to support our principals, vice-principals, and district principals through the fall. Participants were offered six hours of one-to-one time with a professional leadership coach, connecting virtually via Zoom at times to suit them. The coaching is responsive, focusing on their most pressing priorities and the challenges they are facing in their schools.
Again, this coaching was an optional offer and we saw relatively strong take-up, with 40 percent of all school-based administrators selecting to access the support. At the start of their coaching program, principals were guided through a self-reflection on their leadership capabilities, to identify both their natural strengths and the areas they wanted to develop in their current school context. As you can imagine, there was no shortage of needs identified!
It was interesting to see where principals wanted to focus. Our principals’ coaching objectives were analyzed and mapped to their curriculum of 33 leadership mindsets (see Figure 3). This revealed that our principals asked for help with:
- Engaging others, honing their listening skills to support others, e.g. “I’m aiming to become an active listener, to understand and engage those around me.”
- Skills and confidence to hold difficult conversations where needed and to stretch others, e.g. “I would like to be more courageous in giving feedback and having challenging conversations.”
- Bringing their core values to life in their work and creating a sense of shared purpose with their teams, e.g. “My current challenge is establishing purpose and creating a common goal as a staff.”
- Building personal resilience and gaining confidence, e.g. “I would like to have more self-assurance to bounce back from setbacks and find my power when I get nervous.”
As Superintendent, seeing the selected areas of focus gave me a window into the uppermost needs of our principals as they headed into the new school year.
An equitable and differentiated approach
We talk a lot about equity of access for students, but less about equity of access for our school leaders to quality professional development. This coaching model is delivered virtually, via Zoom, and is thus accessible to all schools at times that suit them. With this model, principals in the most remote schools in our country can still access top-quality leadership coaching, and they are also able to access French coaches.
While virtual coaching has provided support throughout the COVID-19 pandemic when face-to-face professional development is not a viable option, we feel that we may have tapped a valuable new method of personalized support. Coaching is offering our school leaders something new and vital. They have a thought partner, a critical friend outside our school district, and a leadership expert with access to a wide-ranging curriculum of practical strategies to enhance their leadership. This professional development is differentiated and is not a one-size-fits-all approach to leadership development. Our school leaders can build their capability by tackling the very real challenges they are facing in their schools, all with professional guidance and support. The potential to extend this offer to teacher leaders is enticing, and we are considering next steps.
We continue to look at how coaching can be one powerful mechanism to help support the development of leaders at all levels. We are also asking what it looks like to be more coach-like across the organization. We are excited to offer professional coaching to leaders in our education system, and I look forward to seeing the difference this will make as we move through this unsettled year and beyond.
Photo: Adobe Stock
First published in Education Canada, January 2021