The Elusive Coaching Culture The Elusive Coaching Culture

The Elusive Coaching Culture

by Advancing K12 Staff
Advancing K12 Staff Advancing K12 Staff Culture Champions
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Fear, intimidation, and lack of accountability are classic hallmarks of bad schools. These are the ones we read about in the news for all the wrong reasons—the ones nobody wants to emulate.
But what is it that sets apart the inspirational leaders, the invested educators, and the most collaborative school communities? The ones working to make the lives of every student just a little bit better every day?
In this article, we’ll hone in on one of the most prevalent themes in any healthy, positive learning environment: the coaching culture.

What it looks like

In a coaching culture, everybody—regardless of org chart hierarchy—is committed to the idea of continuous improvement in the form of instant, direct, and actionable feedback.
It’s the kind of work environment where teachers are comfortable asking for and giving feedback to their peers.
The kind where office staff, school counselors, and paraprofessionals are open and honest about what works, what doesn’t, and where cross-department opportunities for improvement exist.
The kind where formal, observational feedback from a principal never comes as a surprise because it’s surrounded and supported by dozens of casual, on-the-fly interactions.
The kind where people don’t get defensive, don’t bristle at suggestions, and don’t push back because they know colleagues and their administrators have no ulterior motives and only want to help them grow as a person and as a professional.
Is this happening anywhere in your district? For too many, those paragraphs will read as sarcasm—an unattainable fantasyland. But why? And what can district leaders do to turn that pessimism into nodding heads and raised hands?

What it takes to get there

There are two distinct ways to attain a coaching culture within your school:

1) From the top

The easiest, most direct path starts with a school principal deciding to make this a priority. It takes a special kind of leader to implement a coaching culture—one with humility, influence, and perseverance. In many schools, this won’t be a small change, and there will be obstacles (examples below). 

Leadership requirements

Clarity: A coaching culture can’t be implemented on the down-low. School leaders must be transparent about the vision from the outset. All-staff meetings supported by follow-up resources are strongly encouraged.
Consistency: As with any large-scale culture change, messaging consistency is critical. That means total buy-in from the leadership team, a deliberate effort not to fall into old patterns, and a steady diet of feedback. Most initiatives start off strong before tailing off into oblivion. Constant vigilance is necessary.
Humility: The best way to boost confidence in a coaching culture is to model the vision. Leaders should actively seek out feedback on everything from communication to school strategy, then demonstrate responsiveness to the feedback they do receive. Egos will need to be set aside for this one.

Fear will be the biggest obstacle

The whole point of moving toward a coaching culture is to replace deep-rooted fears and insecurities with a collective growth mindset. Depending on what your culture looks like from the outset, the early stages of these efforts may be met by a healthy dose of skepticism.
To steal a mantra from the Philadelphia 76ers, every member of the school community must trust the process for this to work. For some people, this is going to take many months of evidence to support the idea that coaching is not punitive.

2) The grassroots approach

It’s not an ideal scenario, but a coaching culture can still flourish in the absence of support from leadership. Teams and department heads must be unanimously willing to put everything they have into the challenge, even if it feels a little like going rogue. It’s the familiar “Be the change you wish to see” motto, only this time applied to internal practices.

Requirements for success

Total team unity: A shared growth mindset vision can serve as a powerful rallying cry, especially for people who have never experienced this kind of work environment. Early efforts should focus on defining that vision and setting clear expectations for what everyone’s role will be. When the rubber hits the road, follow-up discussions are crucial. What’s going right? What could use some tweaking? How does everybody feel about the change so far?
Communication: You can do this in a vacuum if you want, but the best-case scenario will result in your mini culture shift slowly seeping out into the rest of the organization. You can facilitate this expansion by promoting the success you have and the change you see in your job satisfaction (and that of your colleagues).

Trust will be the biggest obstacle

It’s impossible to open yourself up to feedback without exposing any vulnerabilities or insecurities you might have. If you’re the one giving the feedback, you have to trust in the other person’s ability to accept it without taking offense or holding grudges. If there is any hesitation about hurt feelings, the value of the coaching will plummet.  
Frankness and receptiveness are the two most important requisites for a coaching culture. Direct, timely feedback, graciously received and used as an opportunity for growth, is the ultimate goal.

We’re better together

In any school, the collective enthusiasm, brainpower, and productivity of everyone who contributes to the experience will always be greater than the sum of the individual parts. In a coaching culture, transparency outweighs fear, growth defeats insecurity, and positivity reigns supreme. Guess who wins in a learning environment like that?

Follow-up resource: Exploring school culture

Are you passionate about school culture? Visit the Advancing K12 Culture Showcase Page to see the latest information on this critical education topic. 

Advancing K12 Staff Advancing K12 Staff Culture Champions
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