In the weeks leading up to our annual conference, Teaching, Learning, and Coaching, I’ll be posting interviews with the experts who will be presenting at the conference. 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.

This week’s interview: Gary Bloom

Gary Bloom’s book Blended Coaching was one of the first books on coaching I read as I did research for my own coaching book, so I was honored when Gary agreed to present at one of the first TLC conferences when we held it in Lawrence, Kansas.  Gary’s thinking pushes many of us to re-consider our definition of coaching, and he shares coaching strategies that any coach can use. It was during his presentation at TLC, back before we called the conference TLC, for example, that I first learned about Atul Gawande’s work on checklists.

Gary Bloom currently serves as a national consultant focusing upon teacher and school leadership development.  He recently retired from the position of Superintendent of Santa Cruz City Schools, a K-12 school district south of the San Francisco Bay Area.  Prior to joining SCCS, Gary co-founded the New Teacher Center at University of California Santa Cruz and served as its Associate Director for School Leadership.  Prior service has included K-12 teaching, site and central office administration, and as university faculty. He is the founding principal of the Alianza Bilingual Magnet School and the founding administrator of Central California’s innovative and highly acclaimed Anzar High School.  Gary has presented and consulted with school districts and local, state and national agencies in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, and Central and South America.  He has presented at many conferences at national and state levels, and is the author of dozens of articles on topics related to instruction and professional development.  He is lead author of Blended Coaching: Skills and Strategies to Support Principal Development and Powerful Partnerships: A Handbook for Principals Mentoring Assistant Principals.  He is co-editor of The Peer Assistance and Review Reader.

How did you come to write about coaching?

I started my career as an elementary teacher and elementary principal. Early on in my administrative career, I found myself in a position of mentoring and supporting other principals and actually set up a mentoring program in my school district for novice colleagues. I was also involved in a beginning teacher support and assessment program, which provided support to first and second-year teachers. Santa Cruz County ended up developing a very successful pilot teacher induction program that led to the creation of The New Teacher Center, which I joined as a co-founder with Ellen Moir, who initiated the program. My particular focus was on supporting novice teachers and school administrators.

How did you come to write Blended Coaching after that? Is this a natural outcome from the teacher’s center?

Blended Coaching evolved from and maybe even diverts from some of the thinking around coaching and mentoring. At the time, the predominate model and language for coaching came out of Cognitive Coaching. A couple things became clear to me. We needed to make a distinction between coaching and mentoring. Both because there’s a difference in practices and because there is a lack of clarity out there in the world. To my way of defining things, mentoring is more of an informal process; you can have multiple mentors. To be a mentor one isn’t necessarily trained in the art and skill of coaching. Typically a mentor was somebody who is more experienced, who has some craft wisdom, who has the interest of the mentee at heart.

Coaching implies a more clearly defined role, maybe even a professional role. There’s a body of knowledge on around what it takes to be an effective coach. At the same time, coaching was taking off in the private sector (in some legitimate ways and some silly ways eg. life coaching). That fueled the importance of being clear about what we mean by coaching versus mentoring. That was one of the elements that led to the development of Blended Coaching.

The other was that in the early days of Cognitive Coaching, people came away from that training with the notion that it was somehow taboo to provide a coachee with direct feedback. They didn’t want to provide anything that might be construed as judgment or advice. They thought that the role of the coach is simply to provide a mirror to help the coachee to develop their capacity to reflect on their own practice. That clearly didn’t match with what we’re experiencing in the field.

What every competent coach ended up doing was giving feedback and at times sharing knowledge. At times they moved beyond simply asking reflective questions. That led to us sit down and develop the Blended Coaching model based on what effective coaches do in the real world. It seemed to be a practical approach to what it meant to be an effective coach. Another influence was some training that I participated in, private sector training in a model called Ontological Coaching, which was developed by Julio Ollia and Rafael  Echeverria. That perspective really helped to clarify the importance of a coach being willing to address issues beyond professional practice, issues around emotional intelligence and relationship building and what we call in Blended Coaching “ways of being.”

Tell me a bit about your publications on coaching.

I’ve written a number of articles around coaching and mentoring of both teachers and school leaders. The first book I did was actually an edited book around peer assistance and review. I think we need to be talking about more peer assistance and review  in terms of the teaching profession. Teachers themselves are in the best position to support one another in their professional growth and are in an important position in terms of both evaluating and supervising their colleagues. Blended Coaching was an important book in terms of what I’ve ended up doing in my career. Another book that I wish was being used more is called Powerful Partnership. Its premise is the notion that we have a shortage of effective and well-trained school leaders. One of the best places for us to be developing leaders is among folks who are in an assistant principal role. It’s a book designed to help principals and vice-principals structure their relationship as a master-apprentice relationship so that vice-principals don’t spend all day doing just doing discipline.

Most recently I’ve published a couple of articles around principal supervisors. The importance of supporting principles as supervisors has become more widely recognized. I’m currently working on a book that’s growing out of Blended Coaching. The focus of the book is on what I am calling, for now,  Coaching Based Supervision. The core concept is, “How can you be an effective supervisor who both coaches and supports the development of your folks but also supervises and ultimately has power around employment.” I want to challenge the still prevalent myth that somehow in education, you can’t wear both of those hats. That’s what I’m working on now.

What are some of the core ideas in your approach to coaching? Secondly, what distinguishes your work from other people’s work on coaching?

I suppose that the Blended Coaching model sums up my approach to coaching. At the heart of it is the notion that we need to be willing to provide people with coaching both on their professional skills and on their ways of being; their core dispositions, their emotional intelligence and their self-management. This becomes particularly important for people in leadership positions because effective leadership is so firmly grounded in relationships and in emotional intelligence. The Mobius strip graphic suggests that you’re moving between dealing with people’s ways of being and ways of doing. It suggests moving between a facilitative approach and an instructional approach where at times you’re in the role of a teacher or consultant or expert.

What would you say have been some of your key learnings over the past few years?

I find myself saying more and more often that coaches need to be bold. The work that we do in educating students is high stakes, even life or death work. I’ve talked often about how the best predictor of life span in the United States is education level. A third-grade teacher who makes a difference helps to determine whether a kid graduates from High School and goes on to college. Statistically at least, that teacher is influencing how long that third grader is going to live. As coaches and mentors, we have to be willing to be direct and take risks in giving feedback. We have to be clear about having high expectations. That comes hard to educators because we tend to be “nice” people. We tend to be ambivalent because much of what we are dealing with doesn’t have black or white answers. In the process of being bold, giving direct feedback and expecting high levels of performance, we are going to build trust. Most people appreciate frank and honest feedback that’s perceived to be in their interest.

What is a good metaphor for coaching?

I will share an image that helps me to summarize what coaching is about. That’s the image of the swimming coach standing outside of the pool holding a stopwatch. That swimming coach is not in the pool with the swimmer. The swimming coach may be a pudgy, middle-aged dude coaching a young woman and that coach may not be able to swim at half the speed that the young woman in the pool is able to swim. But by virtue of being an outside observer and with some knowledge of the practice of swimming, that coach is able to give the swimmer perspective and feedback that she doesn’t have access to because she is immersed in the water. So, for me, that image is useful in reminding folks that you’re not in the soup with those you coach, you’re outside of it. The most valuable thing you provide is perspective and feedback.

Since the conference theme is all about the kids, please tell me about the impact your work has on children.

My focus has been primarily around working around with school leaders. I think that the research is clear that in terms of having a positive impact on kids the places it needs to start is with teachers. Second in line are school leaders. Effective school leaders do have an impact on student achievement and historically it’s been a neglected group. As we’ve raised the stakes for teaching, I think it’s fair to say that over the last twenty years we’ve really increased our knowledge of what it takes to be an effective teacher. We know more about the kind of culture, climate and systems we need to create for teachers reach their potentials. We’re expecting more of school leaders as well. It’s no longer along the lines of beans, busses and budgets. We expect school leaders to be instructional leaders. We expect them to be able to engage with teachers in a meaningful and professional way.

Please, can you give me a quick summary of what you are going to present at TLC?

I think that my presentation will be around the notion of what it means to be both a supervisor and a coach. I will be focused on what coaching-based supervision might look like. I’ll be asking participants for their ideas and feedback as well. It will be grounded in the Blended Coaching model.

You can learn more about the Teaching, Learning, Coaching Conference here: Teaching, Learning, Coaching