Coaching makes a shift in remote schools in Western Australia
Mark Muirhead, Synergy Coaching Group
The use of coaching to unlock a person’s potential may be common in big business, where big profits justify expensive strategies to improve the bottom line, but many people would be surprised to find a coach working with school principals in outback Western Australia.
The Mid-West district of the Western Australian Department of Education and Training contains 51 schools spread over an area larger than Victoria, so most schools are remote and considered hard to staff. The distance between most schools and the district office in Geraldton makes professional development difficult, and their remoteness makes it hard to attract teachers and principals to these schools. The Directors of the educational area decided to offer coaching training to principals so support them in their difficult role.
They engaged the Australian firm Growth Coaching International (GCI), which bases much of its training on Appreciative Enquiry and Positive Psychology. During 2008-09 GCI delivered its coaching training to the two district directors and 11 principals who applied for the training.
Research conducted in late 2009 asked whether the training that principals had received had improved their instructional leadership, the quality of instruction provided by teachers and the educational outcomes for students.
The research also asked:
The hypotheses were that:
In the research, a printed survey questionnaire was used to gather anonymous and confidential data. Principals were asked to complete the questionnaire in a meeting a long distance from the researcher, so this method was the only one that was financially viable. Ten principals of schools in the Mid-West district were all asked to respond to the same ten questions when they attended a meeting in Geraldton in late 2009. The questions were:
The Principal as a coach
When asked to rate themselves as a coach, all respondents rated themselves higher after the training. Self rating increased between 2 and 6 points, with two Principals reporting an increase from 1 (unskilled) to 7. The mean improvement was 42%, which indicates that the training improved coaching skills. Most Principals rated themselves from the feedback from the coachee (8 responses) and from goal achievement (7 responses) so the ratings were based on objective opinions.
The respondents identified a wide range of topics in the training that had improved their coaching. The most frequent responses described being given the concept and process of coaching: “key principles and clear model/ framework to follow”, “using ISMART & GROWTH”, “awareness of role (of) coaching, its applications (and) its necessity”.
Most Principals reported that they coached their teachers “whenever necessary” (40%) with others coaching monthly (30%) or weekly (20%). The training appears to have created a coaching practice that is either needs-based or regularly scheduled.
The topics raised in coaching sessions are most often related to professional learning and growth, followed by classroom management and teaching practice. It is reasonable to expect that the coaching of teachers on these topics on a regular or needs basis will have improved the standard of teaching.
Principal as an Instructional Leader
The research seeks to identify whether coaching training improves the principal’s leadership and the quality of teaching, and the results were clear. 20% of respondents stated that their leadership had improved “to some extent”, 60% stated that their leadership approach had improved to a “considerable extent”, and 20% responded that it had improved to a “very considerable extent”. No respondents stated that their leadership had not improved. This provides evidence that the principals believe the coach training has improved their instructional leadership. .
When asked how coaching has helped them to be an instructional leader, many identified improved communication. “It provides the opportunity for me to have a meaningful conversation” stated one Principal. Some identified aspects of communication – “(I am an) Improved listener” and “Better conversations with teachers”.
Others identified what was talked about: “Focussing on successes”, “Appreciating individual and team strengths”,, and “More focused on working from positives”. “Student learning sits at forefront of discussions” wrote another.
Some responses related improvement to how some manage their role: “Being more collaborative and able to delegate”, “Making me focus, reflect”, “Learning from others”, “It allows me to deposit to the emotional bank account of teachers”, “(An increased awareness that) regular communication is essential“ and “It gives me the confidence to touch on ‘tricky’ situations” show a positive change in management style.
The influence of coaching on teachers
When asked what topics or areas the Principals expected their coaching to influence in teachers, the most stated area was the quality of teaching. Examples were given such as “Instruction in the classroom – positive impact on teaching and learning programs”, “Teaching and learning”, “Classroom management “, “Distributed leadership”, “Performance” “Literacy outcomes improved” and “Pedagogy”.
Another area that coaching is expected to improve in teachers is self management (“Their ability to self reflect”, “Resolving interpersonal conflict”, “Use of reflection and goal setting”, “Relationship building”, “Beliefs/ practices”, and “Aspirations”).
Teachers’ approach to their work is expected to improve. Responses included “self assessment of classroom practices”, “Problem solving”, “Setting goals for career development” , “Targeted approach to their role”, “Positive actions”, “Communication”, “Team building” and “Collaboration”.
Organisational issues such as “Developing a coherent plan for the school”, “A shared language and purpose” and “Implementation of school-wide strategies” were cited, indicating that teachers are expected to take more initiative in the running the school.
These responses indicate that teachers are expected to benefit from coaching. A positive impact on teaching is expected; teachers are also expected to build better relationships and be more able to think objectively about their career and the school. This finding supports the hypothesis that teachers feel more supported and are more likely to stay at a remote school if they have regular coaching from their principal.
The influence of coaching on students
When asked what topics or areas Principals expected their coaching to influence in students, the responses were equally clear. Five of the Principals identified improved student outcomes or performance, with one identifying “Improved outcomes as teachers develop greater confidence/ commitment to goals etc”. Another stated “Teachers are planning collaboratively; the spin-off in terms of accountability means that the students are receiving sound instruction”. Principals believe that the coaching response is significantly contributing to improved outcomes. .
Other responses indicated an improvement in the values of students, such as higher motivation, goal setting, positive actions, aspirations, improved communication and improved relationships.
This supports the hypothesis that Students are likely to have better outcomes if they are taught by teachers who are being coached on issues that they find challenging.
Positive Psychology at Geelong Grammar
Martin Seligman, director of the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center, is one of the world's highest profile psychologists. His work on positive psychology, learned helplessness, depression and the power of optimism is featured in many books and led more recently to ground breaking programs attacking depression and anxiety in classrooms around the globe.
Positive education aims to take what has been discovered about building positive emotion and life satisfaction and merging that with the traditional education areas of discipline, conformity and literacy.
The research in Western Australia shows that there has been a significant improvement in the Principals’ coaching skills, as rated by their coachees and from outcomes, and the training has contributed to this by providing a coaching model. Principals also reported improvements in areas such as their communication skills and the way that they manage their role.
There was consensus among Principals that coaching would improve the quality of teaching. Improvements are expected in teaching skills, the approach of the teacher to their role and the running of the school, and the ways in which teachers behave in areas such as interpersonal conflict.
It is expected that coaching will have improved the outcomes for students due to teachers owning more accountability and working collaboratively.
While it is too early for statistical data showing an improvement in teacher retention and student outcomes, the responses given in this research indicate that the outcomes for both teachers and students are expected to improve significantly due to coaching by Principals.
These results from such a remote area indicate how much coaching can improve the culture in schools and the education of Australian children.
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