Empowering teachers through coaching

Damian Mitchelmore, a former history teacher and managing director of OLEVI, a coaching organisation for schools, discusses the benefits of using coaching to develop and keep great teachers

Coaching empowers people to solve problems themselves, and when schools embrace a coaching culture, they have staff and pupils who are happier and more fulfilled.

After two years of disruption and with the consequences of the pandemic still looming large, independent schools are working hard to support their staff and pupils in every way they can. So it’s not surprising that headteachers take it upon themselves to fix absolutely everything in their schools.

However, school leaders who try to give their colleagues all the answers, or who swoop in and solve problems for them, are not providing their team with the tools to succeed.

For instance, if there are children in your class who struggle to remember which kit and equipment they need for their lessons, you could help them prepare, or you could even do the task yourself. This would enable the pupils to settle down and start learning more quickly, but it doesn’t help the children learn to plan and organise themselves. And that’s a life skill which they need to master.

Likewise, we need to empower our teachers to develop their own amazing skills, and use them to solve issues themselves, and that’s what coaching can do.

We need to empower our teachers to develop their own amazing skills


Building a team of problem-solvers

Coaching helps school leaders put aside their natural predisposition to want to fix everything, so they naturally start to encourage staff and pupils to try fixing things themselves.

Take the scenario where one of your teachers comes to you and says their pupils are always difficult to teach on a Friday afternoon. You might be tempted to call on your own expertise, and you could tell the teacher what you would do in that situation and suggest they do the same. You might even go into the classroom and talk to the pupils yourself.

The problem is that your approach might not work for this teacher if you each have very different teaching styles. The teacher might have their own approach which would work just as well as yours, but they need to be trusted to find it and believe in it.

In a school with a coaching culture, you would start by listening to the teacher to find out what the issue really is. Perhaps the pupils are not misbehaving; they are simply tired after a busy week, or excited about the prospect of the weekend ahead.

As a coach, you would ask the teacher what steps they could take and how they could make the most of their own special qualities as a teacher to engage the children.

Helping teachers grow as professionals

Coaching is not something that’s done to you; it’s something that’s done with you. Everyone in a school can be a coach – headteacher, staff and, yes, even pupils.
In a school with a coaching culture, school leaders don’t provide advice or model their own way of doing things. Instead, they listen, understand and encourage teachers to find the answers.

When that happens you start to see coaching conversations taking place around the school where people challenge each other as professionals, not as individuals. It’s a positive way to enable teachers to develop their own strengths with the focus on doing their best for the pupils.

For example, a newly qualified teacher could have a coaching conversation with a more experienced colleague to help them address everyday challenges, such as how to be more active during the school day.

As time goes on, people learn to self-coach. They ask themselves challenging questions and look for opportunities to improve.


Inspiring teachers to share best practice

Coaching can take a bit of getting used to. Unlike mentoring, which focuses on knowledge and skills, coaching is more about behaviour and mindsets. Teachers are being challenged, but in a positive way.

As a result, teachers feel more confident in their roles, and they are better prepared to do the amazing work which characterises the independent sector.

Anne Cavanagh, head of learning at Qatar International School, introduced coaching to engage both teachers and students. “Our aim was to raise standards of teaching and learning to achieve overall better outcomes and learning experiences for our students. Ninety per cent of teachers who actively engaged in coaching have seen a significant impact on their teaching practice.”

The result is teachers are learning to seek out the solutions to any concerns they have and, as a result, seek out solutions that suit their personality or style of teaching. It is not a one-style-fits-all approach.

[Coaching is] a positive way to enable teachers to develop their own strengths with the focus on doing their best for the pupils

Staff who feel trusted and valued

Independent schools are always looking to recruit and retain great talent, and good teachers want to work in an environment where they have the courage and confidence to take the initiative in the classroom and improve outcomes for pupils.

Coaching can help create this positive environment because it’s built on a culture of reflection and self-awareness, which makes teachers think more deeply about their role and how they interact and support pupils. This creates clarity of purpose which empowers and motivates teachers in their work. By exploring how they feel about their role and how they would like to develop, teachers feel trusted to thrive and succeed.

In a school which embraces coaching, teaching staff have leaders who listen to them and empower them to succeed. They know their leaders have faith in them to be brilliant teachers so they can deliver the high-quality education the pupils deserve.

As a result, your teachers develop the courage and confidence to take the initiative in the classroom and to be innovative in their practice in the spirit of independent education.

When you lead a school, it can often feel as though you are carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders, but you needn’t bear that weight alone by fixing everything yourself. Far better to build your own team of inventive problem-solvers who can lighten the load and come up with creative ways to address your school’s challenges.

In my experience, coaching comes naturally to people who work in schools. The best teachers are already coaching their pupils to solve problems, learn new skills and arrive equipped, prepared and ready to learn.

The last two years have certainly provided no shortage of challenges, but the independent sector has risen to those challenges by keeping pupils learning and progressing through unsettled times. By giving your teachers the power to tackle obstacles and find solutions, your school will be well prepared for whatever the future brings.


You might also like: Strengths-based coaching: the movement transforming schools

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