I am counting down to our annual conference, Teaching, Learning, and Coaching, and through out 2018, to introduce you to our amazing lineup of presenters, I’ll be posting interviews with the experts who will be presenting at the conference along with other interviews from last year’s conference. These conversations I have with presenters 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: Ray Smith

Today Ray and Julie Smith’s book Impact Coaching: Scaling Instructional Leadership is released.  Ray and Julie are former principals with decades of experience in leadership development, and they share a wealth of information about coaching leaders in their new book. I was honored to be asked to write a forward for the book.  If you have any interesting in leadership development, I think you’ll find it very useful.  Their presentation at TLC last year was one of many hi-lights.  

How did you come to write about coaching?

It began somewhat selfishly as I reflected on the support I received, or did not receive but desperately needed, when I served as high school principal. As time passed, my appetite for leadership coaching intensified and consumed much of my professional time. Over the past decade or so, I’ve found myself in situations when principals need coaching and felt appreciated when it’s given – it’s almost a gift to them – so it’s become clear from my work that coaching is an essential quality of improved leadership performance, not just for athletes but also for CEOs and school principals.

Tell me about your publications on coaching and related topics

The book that Julie [Smith] and I just finished for publication January 2, 2018 entitled Impact Coaching: Scaling Instructional Leadership is the first formal writing I’ve done about coaching. It’s a nice spin-off however from our earlier book. While our earlier publication, Evaluating Instructional Leadership, Recognized Practices for Success, is not strictly about coaching, it describes in detail the topics that impact coaches might end up talking about – instructional leadership. The word evaluating throws people off because they think it’s primarily about an evaluation system. But it’s more than that. It focuses on practices that research has shown have a significant impact on learning. So, when we coach, we tend to steer people to practices that we know have great impact on learning and student achievement.

What are some of the core ideas in your approach to coaching?

The best way to explain it would be to describe the concept that you know so much about Jim – the partnership principle – the idea that coaching is based on a couple different theoretical constructs. These partnership principles together with our ten theories of practice form the foundation for our leadership partnership relationship with and between the impact coach and school leader.

One critical theory of practice is evaluating your impact on the school leaders you are coaching. That is impact coaches believe their most essential undertaking is to seek continuous feedback about her influences on those they are coaching and alter or enhance their coaching strategies based on that feedback. We think that effective coaches see themselves as agents of cognitive change. Which means that, similar to your and Carol Dweck’s writing, coaching success is not a fixed trait but a dynamic one. Coaches should be focusing on learning – not just teachers’ or school leaders’ learning, but also students’ learning.

Another key aspect of effective coaching is engagement and dialogue. The importance of dialogue is building meaning, which requires coaches to truly listen to others with the intent to understand so that they can respond and help facilitate others’ growth; and it’s also is about valuing others’ opinions.

Another focus of our work is embracing the challenge in coaching. Not all school leaders that you coach come to it in the same way, so the challenge is taking people from where they are to where they want to be in their professional growth. In that connection, we believe that a key aspect of coaching is developing relational trust. Trust is built by practicing, and expecting others to practice, the qualities of respect, valuing ideas, employing deep listening skills, and believing in others’ capabilities to grow and change.

We also think that it is important to acknowledge that coaching and learning is hard work. Often, coaching doesn’t proceed in a linear fashion. It’s recursive, redundant, in many cases it’s frustrating. So coaching is about helping others to identify the strategies that they use when they get stuck, rather than always feeling they have to be coached by someone else.

Finally, we believe that by working together, we accomplish significantly more than by working individually. That’s especially important when coaching school leaders, because they tend to be isolated. So we help them understand how to collaborate, what effective collaboration looks like, and the skills and practices they can use to collaborate more effectively.

So, the core idea surrounding our approach to coaching is based on the ten theories of practice, which guide the actions of coaches and the partnership principles describe the values that underpin the coaching relationship.

What distinguishes your work from other people’s work on coaching?

Two things distinguish our work from that of others’ writing on the topic. First, it is focused on coaching the five big “winner” practices or focusing leaders’ actions on what matter most. It isn’t coaching around all the different aspects on which school leaders are evaluated, but on helping them scale instructional leadership practices. Second, it emphasizes that the coaching process must result in measuring the quality of impact. You’re not just measuring the impact of coaching on student performance. You are also quantifying the impact on teachers, along with quantifying teachers’ perception of principals and their impact on them, with the end goal of measuring those things repeatedly so that you can make adjustments and have a greater impact.

What have been your key learnings over the past two years?

Coaching is all about change. One key learning has been that we know as much about what happens during change now as we did three decades ago. So, the problem isn’t a knowing problem. It’s a doing problem. We either choose to ignore what the research says about best practice and forge ahead, or we get so overwhelmed with the job that we forget to apply those practices.

The other key learning is that we’ve seen a fairly steady increase in coaching assistance for teachers, but not for principals. What we heard from the reviewers who first read the manuscript of our recent book were things such as, we’re a small district, we can’t afford coaches. But the book is less about hiring coaches and more  about providing coaching for those you hire. All educators within the system need support, but teachers are leaving the ranks in the first three to five years because of lack of support, and the same is true for young principals. One of the findings of my dissertation was that in many cases when principals are hired, they’re simply given the keys to the building, and then people walk away. There was very little support for coaching newly hired school principals, and that is still true today.

We’ve also learned a great deal about feedback and its impact on achievement. Leaders, like teachers and students, also need feedback. Further, I’ve learned that all the feedback is not helpful. For example, the feedback I was giving classroom teachers when I was a principal was, in hindsight, not very effective. It wasn’t really feedback; it was more suggestion and advice, and that wasn’t very helpful to teachers. The irony is that I wasn’t asking if it was helpful, I was just assuming that it was.

What’s a good metaphor for what coaches do?

First a little story, and then I’ll move to the metaphor. One of the smartest things I ever did as a young high school principal was to get hooked up with two of my colleagues, Carolee Hays and Jane Ellison, who at the time were working with Bob Garmston and Art Costa on cognitive coaching. In our district we had a lot of formal training in cognitive coaching, and to me one of the lasting ideas was that to coach means to convey a person of value from where they are in their thinking to where she wants or needs to be in their thinking. This idea of transporting somebody in a coach, if you will, is the metaphor. It’s all about coaching another person to become expert in their ability to self-direct, self-monitor, self-modify, which is going back to the notion of conveying someone from they are to where they want or need to be – that’s the metaphor.

What else do people need to know about your approach to coaching?

Our coaching model shares many features with other coaching models, including yours – focusing on relationships, respect, listening, and dialogue. But what is fundamental to our model is that district administrators, those who are responsible for evaluating school leaders, need to get away from the traditional notion that principals are there to serve them and move toward one of coaching, providing support to school leaders out in the buildings, who are feeling isolated and not very supported. So, it isn’t about districts and schools hiring leadership coaches as much as it’s about coaching those leaders you hire because of the impact that coaching has on people and their skill sets.

If you would like to hear more about Ray and Julie’s work on coaching leaders, you can see them at our Teaching, Learning, Coaching conference. You learn more about our conference, the world’s leading conference for instructional coaches, here:  The TLC Conference