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I Am a District Leader and I Need a Coach. So Do You.

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By Scott Fuller, Next Generation Learning Coordinator in Colorado Springs School District 11

Recently I re-visited an article by Atul Gawande in The New Yorker called "Personal Best: Top athletes and singers have coaches. Should you?" In his article, Gawande proposes that access to high-quality coaching is critical to a professional's evolution even though the "peak" years of her or his career expertise. Successful business leaders with notable names like Branson, Gates, and Jobs have all gone on record to say that surrounding yourself with people who will push you is critical to an organization's growth.

So why, in education, is there still a stigma to coaching?

When I was still in the classroom, it was known that only those "struggling" to meet the requirements of their job received coaching. It was remedial and often a first step toward being removed from your position (multiply this tenfold for leaders who received coaching). Educators who were viewed as the best were often left alone because there wasn't a problem. What I began to notice is those great teachers became isolated. Rarely evolving practice with the rapidly changing world. This isn't because they didn't want to continue to grow as a learner and educator, it is because they never had access to others who could challenge their thinking, share innovative practice, and help drive them forward.

I was a third-year teacher at Brownell Elementary School in Flint, Michigan when I won the local teacher of the year award. It may not seem like a big deal, and ultimately wasn't, but for a new teacher, that sort of recognition felt affirming. I was one of the best! Sure, I would continue to develop, but for the most part, I had this teaching thing figured out.

The problem, as I am sure you might have guessed, was that I knew nothing. You see that award was for compliance. I did what I was told, how I was trained to do it, and with few incidents. Where other teachers may have struggled with behavior issues, my students rarely slipped up enough to warrant an office referral. I was managing my class, but make no mistake, I wasn't anywhere near being a teacher of the year.

As I advanced in my career, I continued to be pretty good, and that was often celebrated. Within a few years, I had moved on to Colorado and was fortunate enough to be hired by Denise,* a principal who started to push me on my instructional practices almost from day one. Her pushes weren't based on remediation, rather her skill in identifying and developing talent. This was uncomfortable, frustrating, and the best thing to happen in my career to that point.

Denise was wise enough to recognize where she could help me evolve, while also pushing me to develop the skills that would someday help me lead. Our conversations helped us both grow as leaders and challenged almost everything that we believed and valued about teaching and learning. At that point, ten years into my career, I began to plateau again. Instead of experiencing the supreme confidence I had in my earlier years, there was more of a restless feeling. I felt I was good, but began to question what that even meant. I was feeling the isolation of the good teacher and it was frustrating to me beyond words. Could I really continue another twenty years like this?

Denise was wise enough to recognize where she could help me evolve, while also pushing me to develop the skills that would someday help me lead. Our conversations helped us both grow as leaders and challenged almost everything that we believed and valued about teaching and learning. At that point, ten years into my career, I began to plateau again. Instead of experiencing the supreme confidence I had in my earlier years, there was more of a restless feeling. I felt I was good, but began to question what that even meant. I was feeling the isolation of the good teacher and it was frustrating to me beyond words. Could I really continue another twenty years like this?

Enter a mentor from outside of my school and district, David.* David has been a mentor for the last six years. Like Denise, David challenges me almost daily. He also supports me in my work as a district leader while bringing an outside perspective that is so often missing from the world of education. David is a coach for me, not because I am struggling, but because I am striving to evolve constantly. I am passionate about it and know that surrounding myself with the best people is critical to growth. Yes, David knows school systems, personalized learning, how to manage change, and communicate. However, what he knows best are relationships. David has taught me that great leaders invest in people, not programs. Like with Denise, my work with David is reciprocal. It challenges both of us and helps us grow as professionals.

I shudder to think where I would be if I was a good teacher who was allowed to just be good. Appreciated, but isolated and unchallenged. Even more frightening: if I was in a leadership role assuming that I no longer needed to evolve. Plateaued and working daily to help others reach my same safe place. Instead, I have access to great mentors and 'mentees' who allow me to push myself, while also being the challenging, and yes sometimes frustrating, the voice that will enable them to develop into something well beyond my plateaus.

I need coaching and hope I never get to a point where that is not true. Find your coach, invest in the discomfort, and pass on what you have learned.

* Denise Rubio-Gurnett is the principal at Trailblazer Elementary in Colorado Springs School District 11. David Gregory is the managing director of G&D Associates. I am thankful to them for empowering me and others to constantly evolve our practice.

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