Starting Anew: Coaching School Leaders through Transformation

by Cheryl Beeson, an Art of Coaching Conference presenter and guest blogger

One of the many marvelous things about living and working in the world of schooling is the chance to take a hard stop, to reflect and revise, and to then start anew. Leaders who feel compelled to make big changes in the schools they lead in order to improve the lives of children present their coaches with unique challenges, making it important for us to build on the framework for genuine transformation. Defining the purpose, process, and product in all things becomes key for the coach and for the school’s leader, and below are my thoughts about the early stages of starting anew.

Purpose: Tackling Transformation

Gathering lots of data points is valuable, but knowing the heart and soul of the leader is even more vital. Values, emotions, reasons, beliefs, and the work~life balance of the leader play huge roles in making and sustaining transformation. Grounding our coaching work here will be invaluable in the months ahead. Ask the school leader:

“Who do you need to be to take this opportunity and make it a reality?”

Sharing stories about people who have been change insurgents— who have led revolutions in history, business, sports, the arts and sciences and elsewhere— can reveal what characteristics your client both admires and reviles. Prepare for this coaching conversation by crafting a story or two of your favorite revolutionaries—perhaps one who raged against the machine and another who changed the world through civil disobedience or other ways. Consider what attributes you admire about the change insurgents you select.

Process: Imagining the Future

Leading the revolution must begin with imagining a fabulous reality for the children at the heart of the school. You will help your client develop a game plan, focusing on team building and staying close to the action.

Emily Dickinson wrote, “Success is counted sweetest / By those who ne’er succeed,” and as an English teacher-turned-principal-turned-coach, I trust that a school in need of a transformation is also in need of a success story. Help your client selects an area in need of a significant quick win that is at the heart of the longer term game plan; then, develop a way to have success within the first quarter of school. Soon you will spread the most powerful change agent: Hope, which is “the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul.”

Product: Making the Magnificent Manifesto

As a firm believer in the power of language, I ask leaders on the cusp of change to write their own Leadership Declaration that includes answers to these questions: 

1. To what possibilities are you committed?

2. What are you committed to giving up?

I’ve found that asking these two questions in tandem is key. When a principal I worked with moved and chose to lead one of that state’s historically lowest-performing elementary schools, her answer to the first question was, “Battle systemic oppression, racism, and classism rampant among the adults who work with children of color.” Wow! I also knew she had been working 100 hours/week and was about to give birth to her first child, so the idea of giving up her previous work life reality was looming large. “I’m not committed to giving up my personal life for my professional, so I’m committed to finding a way to be a mother and a principal” was her answer to the second question. Therefore, we now include in our coaching conversations the issue of giving up the idea that the amount of work is equivalent to the quality of her work. Transformation is not possible if the leader collapses!

As you move through the school year, know that this is a long, exhausting, exhilarating crazy haul and your year ahead is going to be a rollercoaster ride full of surprising twists and turns. Your client, the school leader, is going to need you to be both cheerleader and coach as the Year of Transformation brings moments neither of you could have imagined. As you walk the halls with the leader, look into the faces of the students. Imagine their futures based on a firm foundation of learning in a caring environment. Help their school leader to see those faces when the teachers, the union, and/or the superintendent stand in the way of these students’ fabulous realities.

Listen. Remember. Remind. Savor. Hope.

These are our tasks as coaches. These are the actions that take transformation from a dream to reality. There are few things more glorious!

The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion or position of Bright Morning or any of its employees.