The Importance of Coaching for Leadership Development

School leaders are relied on as chief problem solvers.  Their willingness and capacity to take on this challenging role is essential to school success.  Traditional leadership training, however, often falls short in providing the requisite skills to support leaders in maximizing their potential impact on school growth, and particularly on the development of teaching capacity:

“When school leaders attend training or workshops designed to help them in their role as principal, little of what they learn transfers into their daily practice. As adult learners, we implement only a small percentage (approximately 10 percent) of what we learn in a workshop by listening to a presentation. However, school leaders implement up to 95 percent, of what they learn if there is an opportunity to practice with feedback and follow-up coaching” (Knight, 2009). 

The kind of development required by today’s leaders revolves around the cultivation of instructional excellence and the development of coaching acumen across all levels of the PK-12 space. A wealth of studies underscores this fact: educators guided by and mentored by dedicated instructional leaders exhibit remarkable growth in student learning. These studies include James-Ward’s 2011 study, The development of an infrastructure for a model of coaching principals and Holzer and Brackett’s Personal, professional coaching: Transforming professional development for teacher and administrative leaders (2012). This literature base informs the work of Jim Knight, Elena Aguilar, Joellen Killion, and Cindy Harrison and other leaders working in the field of leadership coaching.  

It has become clear that the most pressing need is a coaching model that is designed to keep a focus on elevating the instructional practices of teachers.  And to do this, we must motivate and engage teaching staff. This envisioned future necessitates a highly differentiated and personalized approach to leadership development that speaks to the specific environment and context in which leaders are working. Today’s schools require skills for building trust and belonging, nurturing brilliance within every child, and crucially, empowering the teachers who support them. 

The Essential Components of Effective Coaching

Our approach to leadership coaching is driven by the interplay of building deeply trusting relationships, and clear, rigorous objectives, meticulously designed to grow the capacity of educational leaders and drive significant improvements in teaching and learning. Effective coaches invite school leaders to try new skills, behaviors, and ways of being, and for that to work, a strong and flexible relationship needs to exist between leader and coach. This coaching model emulates the subsequent responsibility school leaders hold in creating trust among all members of their communities. It is essential that they have a confidential source of support to share their struggles, learn from the expertise of other leaders, and practice new solutions. 

Krasnoff (2015) notes, “While the coaching content is critical, the principal will not benefit from the coaching without attention to establishing and maintaining rapport, respect, trust, and confidentiality. It’s also important for the coach to confirm that the principal has valuable experience and knowledge upon which to build.” 

Our coaches are trained in a variety of coaching approaches and learn to take on diverse roles within the coaching process to accomplish different goals and model the various skills and mindsets required of effective leaders. Mastering these approaches is key to ensuring coaching goes beyond a conversation, and is instead an ever-evolving route to increased capacity through a trusting professional relationship, guided action research, and partnering to solve essential problems of practice. We provide deeply individualized coaching that invites leaders to adopt a learning stance, attends to leaders’ strengths, promotes their goals, and speaks to the specific context in which they are leading. This personalized approach to professional learning creates high-impact, short-cycle learning opportunities for leaders, grounded in real time problems of practice. 

The initial component of any coaching relationship is the coach’s affirmation of the individual, associated with the behavior that is being changed. The essential message must be reframed from “you are broken, and I am here to fix you,” to “you are so valuable and worthy, our mission so vital, and the future lives of our students so precious, that we have a joint responsibility to one another to be the best we can be” (Reeves, 2009).

Our leadership coaching program accomplishes this through four pillars of transformative leadership development:

1.    Coaching for Instructional Excellence: Leaders hone crucial instructional leadership and coaching skills by mastering the art of providing precise observations and actionable feedback, and by leading transformative coaching conversations. 
2.    Data-Driven Mastery: Leaders are equipped with advanced data skills and practical protocols to help leaders and their teams effectively use a full range of data to drive instructional decision-making.  
3.    Personalized Professional Development Design: Leaders gain the skills to design and deliver professional development, they become adept at crafting impactful learning opportunities that align with school goals and foster excellence in teaching. 
4.    Building Effective Leadership Teams for Equity: Leaders develop essential skills and competencies in building the capacity of teacher teams, ensuring that they are equipped to drive positive change.

Examples of Coaching Impact
Schools in Kent, Washington, have undergone a significant change to their leadership requirements. That change is based on the need to train up veteran teachers to respond to the needs of students engaging in 21st century learning. Our work with principals, assistant principals, and instructional coaches focuses on developing their approach to working with teachers to meaningfully engage them in change processes that significantly impact student progress and outcomes. Part of the shift is the acknowledgement that it is not enough to look at test scores alone as the driving data for change, but rather to combine this with capturing and measuring anecdotal data; often the data that teachers are compelled to refer to but see as underutilized. Understanding and acknowledging the full picture has helped schools build collaborative and trusting working relationships that support leaders in the implementation of capacity building strategies and actions. The structural and systemic change supported by our leadership coaches across Kent schools has created a leadership model where developments happen with, and not to, staff. This lends itself to more sustainable improvements as those involved are more invested in the processes, and the subsequent successes.

“The work with Etio (formerly Tribal Education Services) always felt like it very much honored me and honored the school - I never felt judged. Their approach is extremely human, a characteristic that shouldn’t be overlooked. There are a lot of consulting firms that feel very sterile, but Etio doesn’t just deal in the numbers and data – their different approach actively encourages and supports the humanity that is so inherent in this role, in teaching and in schools. They acknowledge that, help you work with it, but then help you move forwards.” 
 - Carrie Howell, Instructional Coach, Kent Public Schools District, Washington, US

Our state-wide leadership development work in New York mirrors this developmental and collaborative approach

New York State Education Department (NYSED) was facing a common challenge, in which state level programs were often perceived as oversight, rather than support. They partnered with Etio to create a coaching model aimed at developing strong school leaders and ensuring their work struck the right balance between support and accountability. The current approach is encapsulated in the following statement: ‘At the center of the Department’s (NYSED) approach to school support and improvement is an understanding that support and improvement are most likely to occur through partnership and collaboration.’ Their mantra of ‘there is no such thing as a bad school’ has been welcomed by school leaders who are encouraged, with their stakeholders, to take ownership of their own needs assessment.

"As a first-year principal, having my SSP work with me was invaluable. He assisted me in listening to the needs of each stakeholder group by facilitating focus groups, analyzing data, and conducing walkthroughs. He not only looked at our hard data, but moreover sought to understand the culture of our school and how to capitalize on our strengths. He supported and coached us in developing our School Improvement Plan, and helped me to script the critical moves needed to move our school, and ultimately or district, forward."
-    Matt Feldman, Principal, Holley MS/HS

NYSED’s shift in philosophy around supporting schools has enabled Etio to show their flexibility with working practices and partnering with schools. They have a world class team of educationalists (SSPs) with a significant range of experience in school and district leadership, supporting over 130 NYS schools in the last year alone. The team provides research-based support and coaching to principals and other senior staff, based on practical experience, trust, respect, and open communications.

The SSPs are skilled in identifying a developmental purpose which aims to enhance the principal’s skills, knowledge and capabilities as well as achieving specific and identified goals. Learning and knowledge transfer is often rapid, so through coaching principals and senior staff are able to expand their understanding and make informed decisions. 

Every school is different, so support is personalized and tailored to individual unique needs and circumstances. SSPs adapt their approach to the principal’s goals and preferences to ensure that guidance is relevant and beneficial.

A new principal identified that his SSP was, “Good at focusing him on next steps and in the longer term because as a new leader, he was in a reactive mode.” A veteran leader said, “I enjoy the challenge my SSP brings to conversations but also appreciate they know ‘how far to push’ on different subjects and issues.” 

Etio coaches offer a safe and supportive environment so that school leaders and their staff feel comfortable sharing their ideas and aspirations, and are equipped to try new approaches and take informed risks based on their school’s context and leveraging the experience and facilitation of their coach. Feedback is framed with precision and compassion so it pushes leaders to grow, while leveraging their previous successes and school’s strengths to inform decision making.  


To find out more about Etio's leadership development and coaching programs, get in touch with Amber Leage and the School Improvement team today. 

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