Coaching in One School or Across Many Schools?

Here’s an email I received which reflects a dilemma that many schools and districts grapple with: What’s more effective–for a coach to work exclusively at one school (the “site-based coach”) or to work across many schools (a “central-based coach).

I have a middle and high school background. My former principal tagged me to work with him at the district level as a coach for 14 elementary and early childhood centers, for which he serves as assistant superintendent. I have enjoyed the challenge and the people have been terrific, but overall, I just felt so much more in touch and effective as an on-site coach. The big bright spot in my job is coaching the ten school-based coaches who are assigned to elementary schools. I love my job and feel that I do make an important difference, but I am seriously considering going back to one school. I am really struggling with this decision. I just feel that I can be more effective and am eager for advice.

A Magic Number?
This situation raises many questions which dive into the heart of this work. In order for coaching to be effective, we need a very clear understanding of the conditions that must be present. Let’s start with how many “clients” a coach works with. There might just be a magic total number of people with whom a coach can effectively work. Trusting relationships are essential when coaching adults and these take time to develop. Just as teachers can’t effectively connect with and support 150 students in a day, I suspect there’s a limit for coaches. You work in 14 different schools–I’m wondering how many adults you coach all together? Even if you’re just coaching two teachers at each school, how often can you observe them, model instruction, debrief with them, and engage in the conversations that build trust and create a space for safe learning? Fourteen schools seems like a lot. I’m convinced that in order for coaching to be effective–in order for us to see change in a teacher’s practice–we need to be meeting together every week, for a minimum of an hour a week. Is this possible in your work?
Here’s another condition that’s a prerequiste to our success: In order to be the most effective coach, I think we need to know as much as possible about our coachee’s context–we need to know about the school he or she works in, about that community; we need to know all kinds of data sets; we need to know the school’s goals and initiatives and vision. This knowledge base allows us to coach strategically and in line with the schools and community’s needs and aspirations. As coaches, we help connect dots, keep work aligned, coach towards a big picture. I can’t imagine how you can do this with 14 schools. It’s just too much knowledge to hold in one brain. At least it would be for me.

Knowledge and Skill Set

In addition, the background and skill set of the coach is important–elementary schools are different than secondary! And the knowledge set needed by a coach is different. That is a significant leap for you and while it’s not insurmountable, I imagine it would take a few years to feel grounded in the social, emotional, and cognitive stages of the elementary child as well as in the correlating practices for teachers.
I’ve had the experience of working as a coach in one school, and working across many schools, although the greatest number of schools that I worked across was 6. Personally, I prefer working across a set of schools–but no more than six at a time! Being a site-based coach allowed me to really get to know the school and community well. I was deeply involved with professional development and the leadership team and worked closely with the administrators. I was able to impact systemic change and help shift the staff culture. However, I also found it personally challenging in that it was a very difficult and draining context. When I’ve worked across schools, I appreciate being able to “get away” from one site and get a break from whatever complicated dynamics were going on there. I appreciated the little bit of distance that I could create between myself and each site. I was less involved in every aspect, and that helped me manage the emotional strain. My relationships with each teacher were not as deep, but they were deep enough. As a site-based coach I felt that I was “on” all the time. I constantly had to be in coaching mode and I was always looked to as a model for how to manage change, be a professional, engage in school improvement. It was hard!
Support for Coaches: The Missing Factor
But there was another huge difference in my experience as a coach, one which raises another question for you. As a site-based coach I had no support, no coach-community, and no professional development for myself. When I became a coach across sites, I was a part of a team of coaches. They were my “home base” and we met weekly for PD. I also had a manager who supported me. Maybe, as a site-based coach, if I’d had support and a team of colleagues I could have been happier and more effective.
And so I wonder where you get support from? What is your professional development like? You say you’re supporting ten coaches working in elementary schools, so it’s great that they’re getting support, but what about you?
This is an essential condition to any professional’s success and it’s one I think we need to name over and over: I can’t do my work without being engaged in my own learning and without having my own support network. Coaches need professional development. Managers of coaches need professional development. We will be much happier and more effective if we have ways to keep refining our practice and ways to support each other.
Name the Conditions
My advice to you is to name the conditions you need to be effective as a coach. What are the maximum number of schools that you’d coach at? What’s your ideal job description? How can you do what you feel most effective at? What kind of support and learning community do you need?
I think the challenges you’re dealing with have less to do with the number, although 14 is high, and perhaps more to do with your job description. Given that your supervisor wanted you and must think highly of your work, perhaps you can discuss these needs with him and see if there’s a way to modify the job for next year. It sounds like you enjoy coaching the 10 site-based coaches (and we know how much they need that support!) so maybe you can re-craft your job so that you can be more effective.