Leadership matters. We know great leaders create the conditions for teachers and students to thrive. Research increasingly finds that principals, in building collaborative cultures and creating opportunities for teachers to learn with and through each other, play the most significant role in a school’s impact on student achievement. In essence, school leaders are positioned to scale excellence so all students have access to and experience high-quality teaching and learning. We need great leaders in every school. But how do we get there? If leadership is so important, how do we invest in the ongoing development of school leaders?

DoDEA’s Centers for Instructional Leadership

The U.S. Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA)—an educational organization that operates accredited primary and secondary schools worldwide for the families of active duty military and Department of Defense civilian employees—recently launched an organizational change process to develop leaders. DoDEA serves more than 70,000 students in 164 schools worldwide, operating in 11 foreign countries, seven U.S. states, and the U.S. territories of Guam and Puerto Rico. In 2014, DoDEA’s newly hired director refocused strategic priorities to “establish the organizational capacity to uniformly improve student achievement and school operations.” As part of the restructuring, DoDEA created three regional Centers for Instructional Leadership (CILs), each headed by a chief of instructional leadership development. DoDEA’s 2018 Blueprint for Continuous Improvement defines these centers as:

“Regional hubs and field offices made up of a highly trained cadre of staff designed to increase capacity for district and school leadership and, ultimately, teacher leaders. The primary objective of the CIL is to ensure high academic achievement for DoDEA students by developing high-impact superintendents, principals, and instructional support specialists.”

In pursuit of this objective, the CILs are charged with four areas of work: (1) leadership development and support, (2) development for systemic priorities, (3) learning networks, and (4) innovative best practices. These CIL functions can be achieved through a variety of methods and strategies, but coaching is a main focus.

Why Coaching?

As Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates famously noted, “Everyone needs a coach.” We gain further insight from former Google CEO and chairman Eric Schmidt, who observed, “The one thing people are never good at is seeing themselves as others see them. A coach really, really helps.” While the concept of coaching is nothing new, it is gaining ground in new settings, due in part to documented impacts. For example, within public education, the NYC Leadership Academy credits coaching for the retention of school principals, which both saves schools money and positively impacts student achievement. Furthermore, coaching of classroom teachers has been linked to both improved reading abilities among students and data-based decision making among teachers, and a formal approach to the coaching can enhance the overall benefit.

The DoDEA Coaching Model

Adapted from the International Coach Federation core competencies, the DoDEA Coaching Model includes four major components: 1) Establish a foundation and relationships built on trust; 2) communicate effectively by listening, observing, and questioning skillfully; 3) provide impactful feedback that is targeted and specific; and 4) facilitate ongoing learning and results. The model draws upon Gary Bloom and colleagues’ framework in Blended Coaching: Skills and Strategies to Support Principal Development, which emphasizes ways of doing and being. DoDEA’s CIL staff were trained in this model through a series of workshops before implementing it with school leaders in the 2018–19 school year.

The DoDEA Coaching Model is already making a difference for DoDEA’s instructional leaders. For example, some leaders have credited coaching with helping them become self-aware and be more intentional with communication and building teacher capacity. Here are a few key lessons we learned from our first year of implementation.

Lesson 1: Coaching is an asset-based approach.

Framing coaching as an asset-based approach (rather than a deficit model) means everyone can benefit from a coach. In the case of DoDEA, the organization has invested significantly in developing its leaders and setting the expectation that instructional leaders will advance their practice in order to continuously improve student outcomes. Our coaching was designed to support job-embedded learning, helping leaders innovate and gain feedback as they try new practices in their everyday work. Coaching was not just introduced for new leaders or those who had identified areas of need—it was for everyone. We did not give principals a choice about whether or not they would work with a coach. This brought a range of reactions, from those who welcomed the coaching with open arms to those who shared that they did not think they needed a coach. Framing coaching as an asset-based approach helped those who were reluctant to engage with a coach to see their potential value.

To emphasize that everyone deserves a coach, we shared Atul Gawande’s New Yorker article “Personal Best.” Gawande details his experience working with a coach to take his practice as a surgeon to the next level, and he draws comparisons with elite athletes and musicians who continue to work with coaches throughout their entire careers. This article has helped us frame why coaching has become an anchor practice of DoDEA’s Centers for Instructional Leadership. By framing coaching as a tool for pursuing and achieving personal bests, we could explicitly counteract fears that coaches were there to “fix” someone. Even still, the work continues. Though we adopted an asset-based approach at the outset, we continue to reiterate the purpose of coaching and work to refine leaders’ expectations.

Lesson 2: Good beginnings matter.

Beyond framing coaching in the right mindset, we found it critical to invest in DoDEA Coaching Model component 1: “Establish a foundation and relationships built on trust.” In initial coaching conversations, our coaches came armed with coaching agreements, DoDEA’s definition of instructional leadership, and road maps to help set goals. This helped convey intentions of how we would support the leaders to achieve their goals. However, we could not begin the goal-setting process with leaders until they trusted us. Just as relational trust is the most important ingredient for school improvement, trust is the most essential element for a successful coaching relationship. Our coaches took the time—over several months—to get to know their leaders, the leaders’ aspirations, and the context of their schools. Through both words and actions, coaches conveyed confidentiality and instilled confidence in follow-through with their commitments to the leaders. In response, many principals expressed appreciation for having a thought partner who was not their supervisor, valuing instead an accountability partner to help them achieve their instructional leadership goals.

This type of deep relationship building takes time. Sometimes the coaches would grow impatient with themselves if they felt they had not set instructional leadership goals with the principals fast enough. However, we know trusted relationships serve as accelerators for performance. As we approach our second year of coaching, we anticipate being able to dive into goal setting and follow-through, building on the solid foundations set in year one. We also learned that our leaders have different strengths and needs. We need to be flexible enough to individualize and differentiate our approach, including the pace at which we work with leaders to help them set and accomplish their goals. Such differentiation is the hallmark of distinguished coaching practice, and we continue to strive toward that standard of excellence.

Lesson 3: Coaches need coaching, too.

Just as stand-alone professional learning events are often not enough for our leaders and teachers to close the knowing-doing gap, we found our coaches, too, need ongoing support and learning as they implement and refine their approach to coaching. Following professional learning on the DoDEA Coaching Model, the coaches met weekly as a community of practice, during which time we revisit the components of the model and use the innovation configuration map to reflect on our work. Taking Gawande’s “Personal Best” article to heart, we continually challenge one another to take our coaching practice to the next level. We use the time together to share problems of practice, engaging in collective problem solving using a consultancy protocol. In addition, we analyze our successes, sharing tools and resources to build our toolkit and enhance our repertoire of coaching moves.

As a result of attention to continuous improvement, the coaches have not only honed their practices but have also become a true learning community, in which they rely upon and reach out to one another for support. Our coaches, in their commitment to serving our leaders, practice what they preach by continuously working to improve their own skills. The coaches have embraced what we want for our leaders: learning new “ways of doing” that lead to new “ways of being.” In this way, DoDEA is becoming a true learning organization through its expectation and investment in capacity building at every level.

Looking Ahead

As we reflect upon implementation of the DoDEA Coaching Model, we are taking the lessons learned and framing them in a way that allows us to adapt our behavior for the future. While our consultancy protocol helps leaders process “problems of practice,” we have seen some in turn use this protocol for problem-solving with their own staff. With other tools, leaders deepened implementation of their collaborative professional learning structures with teachers, bringing these resources into their teachers’ collaboration meetings so the teachers can share ownership and leadership of the professional learning. In this way, we believe our investment is already paying dividends in terms of increased leadership and instructional capacity and, ultimately, in outcomes for our students.

As our coaches begin their second year, they are ready to build on the strong foundations of trusting relationships with principals, and we anticipate being able to move quickly to support principals’ instructional leadership goals. All schools deserve to have a great leader, and all leaders deserve the support, encouragement, and outside perspective of a well-prepared coach as they navigate the increasing complexity of the job of school leadership. DoDEA’s Coaching Model has enabled us to formalize our commitment to leadership development and, in turn, to deliver on our promise of excellence in education for every student, every day, everywhere.

Beth Schiavino-Narvaez, EdD, is the chief of instructional leadership development for the Pacific region of the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA), who previously served as superintendent of Hartford Public Schools and deputy superintendent of school support and improvement for Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. Eric K. Kaufman, PhD, is a professor and extension specialist with Virginia Tech’s Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education. Patrick J. Schuermann, EdD, is a research assistant professor of educational leadership and public policy at Peabody College of Vanderbilt University. Mark D. Cannon, PhD, is an associate professor of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations and of Human and Organizational Development at Vanderbilt University.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under award number 2016-39590-25894.