I recently received an email from a principal who is considering making the site coach an assistant principal and wondered whether I thought that administrators could also be coaches (at the same time as being in a site administrator role). This is a valuable question to reflect on, and one that, like many, needs context.
The context that is most important to clarify is about the health of the staff’s relationships with each other and with the administration. Two coaching gurus (Rafael Echeverría and Julio Olalla) say, “Without trust, there can be no coaching” and this is always the bottom line truth. If there is high trust within a school, then it might be possible for an administrator to coach their teachers—but this is only one factor that affects how effective the coaching can be. Trust is essential. (There’s a tool for assessing trust at a site in my book The Art of Coaching Teams.)
Also essential: how clear and articulated the school’s vision, mission, and core values are; how refined and narrow the school’s annual foci and goals are; how onboard the staff is to these operating principals; how much skill, knowledge and capacity there is amongst staff. And finally, essential—your leadership as a principal. Your skill, knowledge and capacity to lead, to cultivate change, to inspire, to uphold a vision, and to build relationships and trust.
I’ve been asked this question many times (“Can an administrator be a coach to their teachers?”) and I often respond by asking this:
“Do you think your boss could also be your coach? Do you feel like you could tell them about the areas in which you’re struggling the most? Could you confess your insecurities and fears? Would you be comfortable having them observe you when you’re struggling or failing, knowing that ultimately, at some point, they have decision-making power over your employment?”
Coaching is a vehicle for learning. When we are learning things can get messy. Ideally, when working with a coach, we can completely let our guards down, we can be vulnerable and say every messy thing on our minds, we can confess our biggest fears and blunders, because we know this: our coach has only our best interests at heart, our coach believes in us always, our coach does not hold judgment—ever.
When you’re an administrator, best intentions aside, you always have to hold judgment. That’s your job. Your job is to keep an eye on performance. To evaluate—at least once a year. And that awareness will inevitably find its way into a coaching relationship.
I think it is very, very hard for an administrator to coach someone they evaluate or supervise. It’s hard for the administrator and it’s hard for the coachee. In the back of everyone’s minds (or sometimes in the front) is that knowledge—you can’t totally let your guard down. You can’t be raw and messy and ugly in front of your boss. And if you’re a boss, and you see raw, messy and ugly, it’s hard to forget it. You can’t ignore the power dynamics in an administrator-teacher relationship.
And so if it’s not clear: I’m not a fan of mixing evaluation and coaching. I’d say avoid it at all cost—so that you can preserve the integrity of coaching, so that you can reap it’s full potential.
The thing is, if an administrator is coaching a teacher, it’s not really coaching. The administrator might use coaching strategies, but I wouldn’t say that they are “a coach.” This isn’t just a matter of semantics, it’s about preserving the integrity of the role of a coach. All administrators should be using adult learning strategies (such as coaching strategies) to help their teachers develop and grow; this should be central to the role of a site administrator. And in addition, ideally, schools also have people in the role of instructional (or transformational) coaches who are separate from evaluation. Schools need coaches and administrators who help teachers grow.