In the weeks leading up to our annual conference, Teaching, Learning, and Coaching, I’ll be posting interviews with the experts who will have presented at the conference, or those who will be presenting this year. The interviews will surface many different ways of looking at coaching, and like the conference itself, I hope they inspire, educate and provoke new thinking. I don’t agree with everything I hear in the interviews, but I am grateful for others’ thinking. We move forward by challenging our beliefs, and I hope you feel challenged too. You can keep up with the interviews by subscribing to this blog.

Jim: How did you come to study coaching?

Bill: It started back in the 80s when I was a principal and one day read an article by Carl Glickman called “developing teacher thought.” It had never occurred to me, as a principal, to develop teacher thought. I just thought I was the disciplinarian and all-around tough guy. In 1983 I went to a workshop with Art Costa on thinking skills, and this is where I heard about coaching, a new model that they were starting to develop. At the same time, I worked with my first principal who was a woman. Marney Wamsley taught and modeled to focus on learning. These experiences made me realize that there were other ways to relate to teachers than just problem solving and administering discipline. So my conversations with teachers started changing and teachers started to see me as a person who had some instructional background, in addition to being the tough guy who managed the school.

From there, I joined a think tank who were developing Cognitive Coaching. We met once or twice a year to talk about more effective ways to coach, which at that time was focused on reflection. Participating in that think tank was huge in terms of deepening my skill level and also understanding the need to be able to coach multiple people at multiple stages of their development.

Jim: Tell me about your publications in education, including what you’re working on now.

Bill: My first publication was coauthored with Ruby Payne, Living on a Tightrope: Survival Skills for Principals. Shortly after that, Skip Olsen and I published a book with 25 stories dealing with diversity, change, conflict, etc. I also coauthored several editions of Reflective Practice to Improve Schools with. Jennifer York-Barr. We started by listening to me talk in my office about trying to incorporate reflective practice into schools.

Next, Shirley Hord and I started working on professional learning communities (PLCs), in response to educators needing help to translate what they had learned in a workshop into classroom and school practices. Skip Olson and I created a couple editions of a Trainers Companion for Habits of Mind Thinking Skills. Those are ebooks available at the Habits of Mind website. Included are a stories, artwork, videos, poems and songs to support the 16 habits of mind. I started playing around with this continuum of conversations about three years ago. Finally, I had it worked out as a graphic and I asked my friend and colleague, Diane Zimmerman, work with me because of her deep knowledge of theory and practice plus she was the superintendent. I was the principal so we made a great team. That was a really fun to work with Diane and Corwin published it June 2018. I’m currently working on two books. One is with Jennifer Abrams, Intentionally Accelerating a Learning Culture in schools, using situational leadership as an assessment of what interventions will be move a school forward to increase learning. The other book is on stakeholder centered coaching. I was trained by Frank Wagner, with the Marshall Goldsmith organization.

Jim: Describe what stakeholder coaching is and how you see it working.

Bill: Stakeholder coaching has primarily been used with business executives and I think it has great potential in education, especially given all the poor principal supervision models that are out there; in fact, superintendents and assistant superintendents tell me they don’t do a very good job with principals. This type of coaching is intended for use with people who are doing well but want to get better and uses real data from real people to help leaders get better at their leadership. Principals, or central office staff, identify 6-10 stakeholders – teachers or people that they trust will give honest feedback – and ask them how they could get better as a leader. From those responses, we come up with themes and ask the principal to choose one or two to work on, and then we basically coach for about a year. Then we go back to the stakeholders to find out if the person is doing better, the same, or worse.

Jim: How do you see it working for principals and assistant principals?

Bill: It could be used with both principals and assistant principals as well as central office including the superintendent. In fact, it could also be used with teacher leaders. To be a candidate, a person must have the courage to confront real issues and be honest –humility, the ability to listen and learn and the discipline to follow through is essential. Unless the person has the courage, humility, and discipline to follow through, it is not going to work long term. I won’t spend time coaching if the leader doesn’t have those three attributes

Jim: If I’m a principal in a school, who might you interview to get the data?

Bill: Principals have to identify people they trust – teachers, the custodian, it doesn’t make any difference – somebody they work with and who is receiving their leadership and that they trust to give honest feedback. As an example, I usually say if a teacher walks in and says, we’ve got a problem, you [the principal] would say, I’m going to listen to this person because I trust him or her. I don’t want a ‘yes’ person and I don’t want someone who is just an adversary. Pick people you trust. That’s probably the kind of person you want to fill out the stakeholder questionnaire. I will then call them or send an email asking them what you are good at, what they think you could be better at, one or two suggestions they have for the leader and anything else they want to tell me about the organization or the school.

Jim: What distinguishes your work from other people’s work on coaching or supervision for administrators?

Bill: I think a lot of times supervision for administrators comes down to how many complaints are received from parents or teachers or supervisors through an unofficial network. But I think that’s a poor parameter because it only takes a couple of people who are upset about something and use social media to cause a problem – without a given principal even knowing there is a problem.

Many schools have a whole list of questions and forms that supervisors can use to evaluate principals. But from my experience, the assistant superintendent or whoever the principal reports to is busy trying to handle all the issues that comes in and really doesn’t spend time with the principal trying to understand what he or she is doing in terms of leadership and developing other leaders.

Let’s take the example of a parent coming in and wanting to talk to me [the principal] about a parking permit, and I’m on my way to evaluate a math teacher. The parent says, I want to deal with this, and I say, I’ll deal with it after school. The parent is really mad and insists on dealing with the issue right now. I have to make a decision. Is evaluation that math teacher or dealing with a parking permit more important?

I tell the parent I’ll deal with it after school. Right now I’ve got something really important to do, and that’s being in that math class. By the time I get back to my office, I will have a call from the superintendent saying that Mrs. Jones is really upset. I say, yeah, I know and ask, do you want me in a classroom evaluating instruction or do you want me dealing with parking permits? And if the answer is parking permits, you will need to find somebody else to be the principal. I think learning overrides parking permits. That’s just me as a principal. Again, what’s most important? Is it about learning or is it about making parents happy? Now, I want parents to be happy, but sometimes I don’t think we make the right choice.

Jim: What have been some of your key learnings over the past few years with stakeholder coaching?

Bill: One major thing I have learned is the importance of getting data from the people who will be the recipients of leadership. That is, while a principal may choose the stakeholders, the stakeholders should choose what they want the principal too work on. This can be determined by asking questions such as, What bothers you? What are you curious about? What are you most concerned about?

I was grounded in reflective practice through cognitive coaching. That is fine, but there are still people who don’t have the ability to do practice self-reflection. So, in my opinion, getting the above data is helpful to be able to get better at leadership,.

Jim: What’s a good metaphor for what coaches do?

Bill: Perhaps the metaphor of a car or some other mode of transportation to convey the idea of a coach helping somebody to get from where they are to where they want to be. To do that, you have to value the person on an equal status, decide where he or she is and where he or she wants to be, and then figuring out how to move in that direction.

Jim: What else do people need to know about stakeholder coaching?

Bill: In stakeholder coaching, I – the coach – am rolling the dice along with the person being coached. So I’ve got skin in the game. This change has been really helpful to me by shifting me from being a coach who goes on a monthly or hourly basis to let’s talk about whether the person is getting value and learning things that are going to help him or her be a better leader.

For example, I used to bill out at about $150 an hour, so I would have an investment in keeping the person on the phone. But sometimes, the person would say, I don’t have the time to hang on the phone for an hour every week or whatever, and would drop off. Now, if it’s a 5-minute conversation, that’s great! Besides, I don’t charge until the end. You either got better or you didn’t. If you didn’t, then I don’t get paid. I don’t know anyone in education who does that.

Another thing that is important about stakeholder coaching is that it is based on real data. I’ll do a mid-course evaluation with the stakeholders – How’s it going? What are you seeing? – and then report that back to the person I am coaching. Obviously at the end we’re going to find out if things are getting better or not.

Jim: Our conference theme is “Keep Learning.” Tell me how your work addresses that theme.

Bill: First of all, my belief is that if I’m not learning, the people around me are not going to learning either. I apply the same thing to leaders and principals. So, when working with principals, I say, if I asked your staff to tell me on a scale of 1-10, where 1 means you don’t even know how to spell the word “learning” and 10 means that the word is part of every sentence that comes out of your mouth, where would they rate you and why?

If you as the leader are not talking about learning and stretching yourself, then how do you give what you don’t have? So how do we build constant learning? First, I tell people not to keep to themselves what they are learning. For example, when I read book or find something interesting, I look for somebody who is willing to listen to me, talk to me, and give me their opinion because every time I say it, it gets deeper into my learning. Second, I ask leaders, who do you hang with? Do you hang with people who sap you and suck you dry? Or do you hang with people who zap you and energize you? So it’s also the company you keep. Who lights you up? Who excites you?

Finally, I urge principals to teach. Teach something. So I’ll go in and do a day on brain research, chemical dependency, math or something because I think it’s important to understand what it’s like to face kids, and I don’t know any other way to do that than by teaching. Teachers need to know leaders understand what it is like to stand in front of thirty moving targets with sweaty palms because you are not sure what is going to happen next. If you won’t do it, why would I listen to you?

Jim: Can you give me a quick summary of what you’re going to present at TLC?

Bill: I’m going to talk about a couple of things, including the dashboard of options that Diane and I wrote about with an emphasis on stakeholder coaching and how to use the ideas for kids. If we get leaders fired up about stakeholder coaching – whether at the building or district level – and focus on learning, I think it would have a huge impact.

Here is a list of some people you can expect to see at #TLCKC19 this year! If you’d like to review some of the work they’ve done, you can click on each name to learn more about them. To learn more about the  Teaching Learning Coaching Conference, or to register, click here.We hope to see you in Kansas City!

Rachel Lofthouse 
Ta-Nehisi Coates
Jamie Almanzan 
Linda Cliatt-Wayman
Kristin Anderson
Ellen and Bruce Eisenberg
Rebecca Frazier
Michelle Harris
Jan Hasbrouck
Ann Hoffman
Darnisa Amante
Kathy Perret
John Campbell
Marshall Goldsmith
Jim Knight
Nathan Lang-Raad
Nancy Love 
Alisa Simeral
Tricia Skyles 
Bill Sommers
Bradley Staats Sharon Thomas 
Christian Van Nieuwerburgh
John Krownapple
Tara Martin
Crysta Crum