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An Experiment in Combining Leadership and Instructional Coaching

Here's another blog by my colleague, Anna Martin. Last year (12-13) she was formally an instructional coach, but ended up intentionally engaging one of her clients in leadership coaching. I asked her to write about this experience because there's a lot to learn from it about what effective coaching looks like.

The Experiment: Combining Instructional and Leadership Coaching
By Anna Martin, Instructional Coach in the Oakland Unified School District.

Have you ever had a client ask to reschedule your weekly meeting because they have something else (grading, a parent-teacher conference, even lunch) to do?

As coaches we do have to be flexible, but we often find our work de-prioritized not just by administrators but even by our own clients who question (actively or passively) whether working with a coach is worth the time and commitment (the "it takes too much time" argument). This can lead to watering down our coaching rather than ratcheting it up.

I want to offer a counter-example: the case of a client for whom increasing her time commitment, and broadening coaching to address both instructional and leadership goals, proved powerful.

Case Profile: Teacher X*--
• 4th Year teaching same subject and grade level
• Assigned one new subject area
• Strong classroom management, lesson design fundamentals, knowledge of student developmental needs, and student, family & colleague relationships
• Selected as grade level team leader
• 50-70% turnover of staff in prior three years
• Earlier "coaching" experiences felt like "pats on the back" for a well-managed classroom
• Skeptical (understandably, see above) about coaching benefits, but interested in professional growth

We have all met Teacher X. She was no longer a novice, but not yet a master teacher. She wanted to improve her teaching skills but didn't see a relationship between her leadership and teaching roles. She was precisely the sort of teacher a school should want to retain and nurture, but was at risk of losing entirely.

She was open to growth, but initially saw this very narrowly as a teacher of X subject and X grade level in X school in X classroom. Although she felt challenged in her team leader role, she refused to set a goal related to leadership, because she seemed to think that focusing on this would detract from her ability to serve her students.

During the fall, we focused on her instructional goals, but our sessions would often get derailed when she would mention difficulties she encountered as team leader. We spent numerous sessions putting out team and administrative "fires," which didn't relate to her goals. When she came back after winter break, she seemed depleted juggling both teaching and leading and said it was the first time she felt "without a sense of direction or progress."

More Time, Not Less Time!
Not surprisingly, she rescheduled our meeting the first week back, citing exhaustion. I now felt that if we couldn't work on both her roles--as teacher and leader--that this school would not retain her as either. Luckily, during our next session, we began a mid-year review and looked back at our work plan. We noticed that a lot of our time seemed to be spent working on her leadership--and that she didn't have a goal for this and it seemed to detract from meeting her instructional goals.

And this is where I saw my "in": I asked if she would try an "experiment." Would she be willing for a few weeks to try a "double-dose" of coaching? On Mondays during her prep, we'd look at her lesson plans and address her instructional goals. I promised she'd walk away with her plans for the week all set. Then, on Thursday (our regular session), we would focus on her leadership work explicitly.

Would she go for it? I was nervous to even ask, but pleasantly surprised when she not only said yes, but also seemed more energized about our work going forward.

Increasing Commitment by Applying an Inquiry Lens
Rather than set a leadership goal, we framed this work as an inquiry question: Who am I as a leader and what type of leader do I want to be? Using the language of inquiry freed her to explore parts of herself she had let lie dormant or been afraid to touch. Just like the double-dose coaching (which we continued throughout the spring), we investigated this question through "experiments," treating it not as a problem to be solved or a lesson to be learned, but as an ever-widening data set to explore. She charted her energy, read about her personality type, collected data on requests received from colleagues, and created a decision-making flow chart. Teacher X was engaging more and deepening her commitment to her professional growth both as a teacher and as a leader when operating from the inquiry lens.

Integrating the Role of Teacher and Leader

Our "experiment" caused her to make connections between teaching and leading that I never anticipated. It also gave her renewed energy and purpose. In my May Report, I wrote, "Nearly every time we meet, [Teacher X] spontaneously brings up new learnings and insights she is having related to her leadership question [and instructional goals] and is able to articulate much more clearly how becoming an instructional leader involves both master teaching competency and leadership skill competency--rather than seeing them as two completely separate identities." In a May session, she said "[I'm] seeing integration--clarity on my own and others' roles and responsibilities, [I'm] able to return to a focus on my own teaching [and] feeling less tired!"

Opening to New Possibilities and Paths
I saw the power of combining instructional and leadership coaching with Teacher X. Late in the year, she reflected, "I just feel like my thinking with this inquiry question has expanded my thinking about myself and my role." She grew in her sense of agency from someone who was "tiptoeing around my life" and unsure about her professional path to a more confident and capable teacher leader ready to take the next steps on that path.

So the next time a teacher starts asking for less time, because he is overwhelmed with more responsibilities, consider whether a little "experiment" might help. Combining instructional and leadership coaching might enable nascent teacher leaders to emerge and to see your work together not just as instructional support, but as a way to explore the path they are on--as a teacher and a leader.

*Note the teacher's name and some other identifying information has been altered to protect confidentiality.

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