Keynote: Key coaching concepts from the perspective of a pracademic

Yesterday I presented a keynote to the National Coaching in Education Conference in Sydney.

My presentation explored key concepts that, in my experience, underpin the use of coaching in schools. I drew together insights from my reading, research, practical and personal experience of coaching in schools, with a particular focus on the organisational conditions necessary for coaching, and the effects of coaching on individuals and schools. I interrogated the complex interlocking elements that schools need to balance when working to build a coaching culture, including contexttrust, rapportway of being, differentiation, holonomy and semantic space.

Here is my slide deck.

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Santa Claus Phenomenon: The hidden magic of coaching & leading

It’s not until you’re a grown up that you realise Christmas doesn’t just ‘happen’. That magical day was pulled together by the incredibly stressed adults in your family. ~ Rosie Waterland in this post about Christmas

Sometimes in adult life we engineer magic. With glee we secretly make the miraculous and enchanting happen for others.

As parents, we realise how engineered the magic of Christmas is. We kind of know it when we discover that our parents are really Santa, but it’s not until we create Santa for our own children that we appreciate the hard work that goes into it.

All the preamble, that constant constructing of stories of Santa and reindeer and the intricate goings-on of Christmas Eve. Answering questions about store Santas and how Santa gets into the house and where the reindeer park the sleigh. Stealthy gift shopping, gift assembling and gift wrapping. On Christmas Eve there’s waiting until the children are definitely asleep and then assembling the gifts, artfully nibbling a cookie, enthusiastically chomping a carrot, dusting snowy footprints to the tree (and then closing the pet out so they don’t ruin the footprints overnight). This is magic that requires long term planning and strategic operation. 

Then: Christmas morning! Children wake. Santa’s magic comes alive. The Santa narrative seems not only possible, but real and wonderful. The children shower gratitude on the mysterious and benevolent figure of Santa. There are joyous cries of, “Thank you, Santa!” and “Santa got me exactly what I wanted!” How they glow with appreciation for the jolly red fellow and his generosity. Somehow he knew exactly what they needed at this point in their lives.

Of course, I do all of this because I enjoy the looks of amazement on my children’s faces and the thought that they feel part of something fantastical. But sometimes, as a parent, I secretly think, ‘It was us! It’s us you should be thanking!’ In these moments, I want my children to realise that all that joy is down to my husband and I. We contrived and concocted this whole thing. Of course I don’t ruin the magic. I encourage their belief and enjoy their wonder (they are currently 4 and 5). But part of me still sometimes wants recognition for all the hard work of being Santa and providing the magic.

Christmas Eve vignette from our place

Christmas Eve vignette from our place

There are two professional roles where I think this Santa Claus Phenomenon (no, it’s not a thing; I just made it up) plays out in professional life: the coach and the leader. It’s not that these roles are magical, but both have a sense of hard work going on behind the scenes, potentially without recognition from the recipient. Like the parents acting as Santa, both roles require the person to provide others with what they most need in that moment.

Coaching is hard cognitive work. In this post, I used the metaphor of the duck to describe the coaching experience; the duck’s legs paddle manically below the surface while above the water, all seems serene. So the coach works hard, but in order to be effective, this work needs to be imperceptible to the coachee. In fact, in order to best serve the coachee, the work of the coach needs to draw out and draw on the coach’s inner resources, so that they shine brightly. The coach is the hidden passageway or the mirror to self.

Similarly, a leader who empowers their staff can sometimes feel like the unsung hero. This kind of leadership is the subtle and invisible kind. Stepping back so others can step forward. Subtly coaching and nudging and encouraging and scaffolding. This isn’t brave sword-wielding white-knight stuff, the celebrated charismatic leader on the public stage. It’s about believing in and nurturing others’ capacities, in sometimes imperceptible ways. It is hard work with plenty of setting up and engineering for successes, but it’s done quietly in the background and sometimes no one sees this leader’s careful preparation and toil.

How do coaches who want to build the internal resources of their coachees, and leaders who aim to build their organisations by developing their people, interact with the Santa Claus Phenomenon? How do coaches and leaders celebrate or measure their wins? One way in a coaching conversation is in the responses to the question at the end in which the coach asks something like “How has your thinking shifted from the beginning of the conversation to now?” Leaders can know their own impacts by tracking the progress of their teams and individuals. But perhaps in both cases, others won’t notice the impacts, or the careful steps the leader conducted to get there.

I’ve written a paper for the Heroism Science conference that explores the idea of the less-visible leader. The leader who empowers. The coach who helps develop the coachee’s self-efficacy through layered and complex, but barely visible, practice. I wonder how this kind of leadership plays out in reality. Is the knowledge of one’s own impact enough? What happens when others don’t recognise that a coach or leader is engineering the magic? What if, from outside, it seems like the coach or leader isn’t doing anything? Is that as it should be–the noble but unseen work of coaching and leadership–or is it problematic?

Collecting honest data on coaching perceptions & impacts #educoach

Bruce Nauman's Human/Need/Desire, 1983 ~ photo taken at MOMA

Bruce Nauman’s Human/Need/Desire, 1983 ~ photo taken at MOMA

In a gentle way, you can shake the world. ~ Mahatma Ghandi

As coaches it is important that we gather data about the impacts of our practice. As a coach we might feel a conversation or relationship has gone well, but how do we know? How can we find out the depth of our coachees’ perceptions, vulnerabilities or reflections?

This has been on my mind as this year my school’s teacher growth model, of which coaching is a central piece, moved from pilot program populated by volunteers, to mandated model which involves all teachers in the school. This is a big shift. Piloting a model with teachers who have volunteered to be involved and are keen to have a voice in school change, is very different to applying a model, no matter how flexible and differentiated, to all teachers at a school. We’ve been very aware that one size does not fit all. We’ve tried to design something which is relevant and adaptable from person to person, early to late career, pre-kindergarten to Year 12, Physical Education to English Literature. Coaching is a big part of this as the lesson data collected and the following conversation are all about the coachee; where they are at; where they would like to go.

Over the last two years I have used focus groups of teachers and coaches to gather some of the data I’ve been using to reflect and report on our impacts. This year, too, we want to gauge how we’ve gone. The intention of our model is that it is meaningful for teachers, rather than a box to be ticked or a process to be endured. We want it to nurture cross-school professional connections, open classrooms, and build internal teacher capacities. We want it to be a process which both trusts teachers and in which teachers feel they can trust. (I visually represented these intentions in this post.) So how can we see if that’s happening beyond what the coaches might observe or what information teachers might anecdotally volunteer?

In order to get a sense of how teachers are finding the process, I have recently set up an anonymous survey monkey survey with the following questions. Apart from questions 12 and 14, which are optional comment boxes, the questions are click-button ones on a Likert-style rating scale of Strongly Agree – Agree – Neutral – Disagree – Strongly Disagree. The good thing about that is that it is quick for teachers to complete, and easy to analyse. While it provides a snapshot of how teachers are finding the coaching cycle, a limitation is that it doesn’t drill down into the why of respondents’ answers.

The survey questions:

  1. I have a clear understanding of the cycle’s process, expectations and roles.
  2. I found the reflection survey useful in terms of my teaching practice.
  3. I have felt comfortable having someone (and/or a video camera) in my classroom.
  4. I found the data collected in my lesson observations useful in terms of my teaching practice.
  5. I found the coaching conversations useful in terms of my teaching practice.
  6. I have felt that my coach is approachable, supportive and trustworthy.
  7. I have found it ‘do-able’ to manage the cycle in terms of time, scheduling, and, where appropriate, technology.
  8. The cycle has helped me gain greater awareness and clarity around my teaching and what happens in my classroom.
  9. The cycle has helped me clarify my instructional goals (i.e. how and in which areas I would like to develop my teaching).
  10. The cycle has resulted in the development of one or more collegial relationships (with either my coach or another team member).
  11. I have made changes to my teaching or classroom as a result of the cycle.
  12. Optional comment: If I have made changes to my teaching or classroom, what have these been?
  13. I think the cycle has had a positive impact on my teaching practice.
  14. Optional comment: I would like to offer the following comments or suggestions for the development of the cycle from 2016.

It is important that they survey is anonymous as we want the feedback to be honest. While these are by no means comprehensive, they provide a piece of our data puzzle in looking to the impact of our observation and coaching cycle as professional learning. It is by listening to positive and critical perspectives that we can identify those things working well, and address those areas of challenge.

Coaching fields forever #educoach #twistedpair

strawberry fields forever

strawberry fields forever

Today’s blog post is a response to two blogging challenges: the #educoach October blog challenge and the #twistedpair blog challenge set by Steve Wheeler, in which a blog post needs to blend two disparate things. I’ve decided to pair coaching (something of my journey as/to coach here) and picking strawberries. (Although now that I look back on Steve’s challenge, he asks us to pair people or characters, not things; still, I hope this counts as a strange duo.)

So how is coaching like strawberry picking?

Today I took my two young children to pick strawberries. After a week of working relentlessly on my PhDdeep in the thesis cave where it’s dark and solitary, and with a sprained ankleit was so good to get out into the sunshine and the dirt. 

The first rows were dry and over picked; there wasn’t much to find. We fossicked and looked, but our box remained sparsely populated. It wasn’t until we walked further afield that we found bushes that were greener, bushier and more bountiful. Even then, it wasn’t until we crouched, paid attention to a particular plant, and looked deeply into its foliage, that we found the glossiest and juiciest strawberries, protected by shade and unseen by others who had trudged by without stopping to examine that plant and explore its blossoms, leaves and unseen-from-the-outside fruit.

This reminds me of coaching, which requires us to approach a person, the coachee, uncertain of what we might find or where we might find it.  We cannot assume where they are at, or where the conversation is going to go. In order to uncover and bring to the surface thinking which they haven’t previously accessed—not to mention the a-ha moment, or ‘cognitive shift’ as it’s called in Cognitive Coaching—we need to be present, pay attention, and expertly use questioning to reveal those glossy, or rotten, unsurfaced thoughts which help that person to take their own reflection, practice or dilemma to the next level.

by @debsnet

part of our haul

Not only that, but as I picked the strawberries this morning, and later washed and sorted them this afternoon, I noticed their snowflake-like idiosyncrasies. Each was recognisably a strawberry, but each was a slightly different shape, colour and texture, with a stalk which bent a different way, or seeds which sat differently against its skin. Some were under-ripe, some had just begun to turn, and others were at the apex of their strawberry-eating life: red, shiny, firm and glorious. Each coachee is an individual, and they are in a different place each time we meet with them. So while a coach might apply a coaching conversation map or set of tools to all coachees, each relationship and each conversation will look different, shaped by its person, time and place.

Combining two very different things seems a disruptive way to approach a topic. I’m interested in how we might bring new understandings to familiar concepts or practices by attempting a twisted pairing. I’ve written before about research and Wicked, the musical, and my PhD as a sculpture or birthday cake. I’m wondering what else I might uncover about myself as coach through analogy or metaphor.

by @debsnet

strawberry blossom in the sunshine; perfect potential