Fit to Learn

Throughout my 30-year career, the commentary has been the same. Principals are living with the stress of increasing expectations for student performance, teacher performance, and their own performance. Teachers are floundering in too-small classrooms with less support than they would like or are able to receive.

From my years in the exhausting, exhilarating, adrenaline-producing school environment, I have formulated four truths to address the primary question in my mind: How can educators not only persevere but thrive as they make the changes necessary to address society’s education demands when the system to do so just isn’t there?

Educational literature touts a multitude of methods and structures to drive productive and lasting educational change. After studying and experiencing many of these initiatives, I have concluded that the best choice is a coaching model that provides a framework through which problems, concerns, new ideas, and organizational or personal goals can be addressed in an objective, nonthreatening, collaborative way.

How Would Coaching Address Each of the Four Truths?

Truth #1: Schools must change in response to the rapidly changing environment inhabited by an increasingly diverse population.

  • The problem: Saul Alinsky, writer and community organizer, offers some succinct words pertaining to change: “The first rule of change is controversy … Change means movement, and movement means friction, and friction means heat, and heat means controversy.”
  • The solution: Rosabeth Moss Kanter, professor at Harvard Business School and director of the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative, notes that one of the primary reasons for resistance to change is concern about one’s ability and competence to make the change. “Leaders should overinvest in structural reassurance, providing abundant information, education, training, mentors, and support systems,” Kanter says.

“I believe coaching is the missing ingredient from our school improvement efforts,” says Karla Reiss, educator, administrator, author, and consultant. “ … When a well-designed coaching program is successfully implemented, school systems, staff, and students will soar.”

Coaching allows a person or an organization to decide on necessary change, plan how to get there, and be supported all the way. It is the oil that allows change to occur with minimal friction—facilitating the innovations that we so desperately need and struggle with every year.

Truth #2: Resources will continue to shrink even as expectations continue to rise, and educators must do more with less.

  • The problem: Most people want better schools, but too few are willing to pay the price.
  • The solution: As any astute manager knows, if dollars are held constant, methods to stretch those dollars must be manipulated.

For example, staff development is critical to educational improvement but can be costly. Research shows that a staff development plan and improvement process based on the workshop model—typically presentation of theory, modeling by the trainer, or practices and low-risk feedback in the training setting—yields a return of 5–15 percent of the learning being transferred to the classroom. Staff development delivered through a coaching model results in 80–90 percent of the learning being transferred to the classroom. The implications of these statistics for staff development are clear.

Implementing a coaching model for staff development has far-reaching financial advantages. Educators can become trainers, and then trainers of trainers. The benefits of the initial costs expand exponentially. In-house coach training can be a much wiser use of staff development funds than sending educators to a variety of trainings that may not include an accountability component to ensure classroom application. In Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers’ article “Student Achievement Through Staff Development” and David Collins’ article “Achieving Your Vision of Professional Development: How to Assess Your Needs and Get What You Want,” the research indicates that the “sit and get” model doesn’t work very well in today’s world—if it ever did. Considering this, the consultant fees for coach training are a small price to pay for a workable plan that can change the culture of a campus.

An institutionalized coaching model affects every component of education in a positive way.

“It became clear to me that to create success for students, you have to first build organizations that create success for adults,” says Lori Likis, corporate manager and creative coach. Budgeting, curriculum, staffing, student services, and extracurricular activities—a coaching model provides a method to ensure the best decisions are made for each of these areas. “Good coaches help leaders clarify their goals and figure out ways to achieve those goals, which in turn can make schools more productive places to learn,” says Joellen Killion, senior adviser of Learning Forward, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching and learning.

Truth #3: Education is a people-intensive business that must run on the oil of caring and concern.

  • The problem: Educators and students alike bring heavy baggage with them to school. Teaching and learning cannot occur until the teachers and students are mentally and physically healthy.
  • The solution: The basic concept of coaching takes individuals who have very good ideas about what needs to be done and melds that with how it can be accomplished. Sometimes the knowledge is buried deep and is embedded in layers of conflicting information that has accumulated over the years.

The coaching process honors individual wisdom and uniqueness. It drills down to what is authentic and frees the educator to see clearly and act decisively. Every part of the coaching process allows individuals to know each other better, trust more, feel appreciated and heard, and increase their sense of self-worth. Only then are they free to become the tremendous asset to the school that they want to be.

Truth #4: A higher level of support must be given to adults in the school if they are to care for students in a satisfactory way while continuing to thrive and derive joy from their profession.

  • The problem: In too many schools, the human element has been lost in an impersonal, fragmented, technology-riddled environment. Stressors multiply and are not counteracted by human warmth and interaction.
  • The solution: Coaching opens up the school environment to meaningful conversations about whatever needs to be discussed. Coaching practices ensure that people talk to each other, face to face, restoring a spirit of camaraderie and humanity into the school. The coaching process is easily taught to administrators, teachers, and students, and they can then be used by everyone. Those personal interactions build trusting relationships that carry over into other aspects of school.

From the new teacher in her first classroom to the new principal needing a veteran administrator’s advice, coaching alleviates loneliness and permits individuals to work through issues with the guidance of a sympathetic listener who knows how to ask the right questions and hear what is not spoken. Coaching is not mentoring, although coaching can include a mentoring component. Coaching is not counseling or therapy because the recipients are not sick; they just need gentle guidance and a confidence boost to allow them to move forward. The beauty of coaching is that everyone can be a coach, and everyone can be a recipient. There is no hierarchy, no chain of command. Coaching is a helping conversation between equals for the purpose of change and improvement.

It’s not rocket science. When people feel heard, supported, and appreciated, the energy is palpable, and the possibilities are limitless.


Jane Owen, PhD, is an educational coach and writer who lives in Wichita Falls, TX.