Coaching for Systems Change: One Conversation at a Time

by Kathy Eisenhower and Janet Baird, Art of Coaching Conference presenters and guest bloggers

When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.

-John Muir

We were thrilled to have been asked to share our experiences with systems change at the first Art of Coaching Conference in Asilomar, California.

This has been a surprising journey for us. Over the past few years, we have worked together to find inroads that better serve our students in the Roseville Joint Union High School District (a suburban high school district outside of Sacramento, California). Along the way, we have discovered some practical ways to change our system.

Our workshop was rooted in the Seven Lessons for Systems Change from The Center for Ecoliteracy. These lessons focus on how to change a system and what to expect in the process. In short, they are:

Lesson #1:  To promote systems change, foster community and cultivate networks.

Lesson #2:  Work at multiple levels of scale.

Lesson #3:  Make space for self-organization.

Lesson #4:  Seize breakthrough opportunities when they arise.

Lesson #5:  Facilitate — but give up the illusion that you can direct — change.

Lesson #6:  Assume that change is going to take time.

Lesson #7:  Be prepared to be surprised.

In our workshop we focused on Lessons 1 and 2 because these have yielded some particularly effective results for us.

Lesson #1: Foster community and cultivate networks

Cultivating relationships is one of the core values of our district. Our ability to serve our students rests on this principle. As a result, we have intentionally set out to foster communities both large and small throughout our district. We work with leaders at each school. We work with teams that include teachers and leaders. We have had to develop our social and emotional awareness in order to form trusting relationships wherever we go. Building networks and relationships has been foundational for systems change.

This leads to Lesson #2 – Work at multiple levels of scale

We have noticed that when we adopt a coaching stance in every situation, that shifts inevitably follow. And so we coach on multiple levels, “ top down, bottom up, outside in, and inside out.” Coaching new teachers is a big part of our job; at the same time, we use our coaching skills during district-wide professional learning days. We also ask strategic questions that focus or shift the direction of leadership meetings. And we have found that some of the smallest conversations (e.g. breakfast with a principal or district leader) can yield some of the biggest results. We are finding that as we grow in our transformational coaching skills, that truly – every conversation counts.

We all have the potential to be change agents. Let’s see what happens when we set out to change the world, one conversation at a time.


Kathy Eisenhower is a former high school English teacher and now serves as a certified Transformational Coach and Professional Learning Specialist in the Roseville Joint Union High School District. You can contact her at or follow her on Twitter @EisenhowerKath1


Janet Baird is a Transformational Coach and Professional Learning Specialist in the Roseville Joint Union High School District. She is also a certified yoga instructor and provides trainings on building happiness and resilience. You can contact her at or follow her at @JanetBaird