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March 1, 2023
Vol. 80
No. 6

Empowering Change Through Whole-Staff Coaching

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School-level coaching can help identify key instructional challenges and bring educators together around common aims.

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Empowering Change Through Whole-Staff Coaching
Credit: Sjoerd van Leeuwen / TheiSpot
Desiree McNeil (a pseudonym) is a principal deeply committed to change. During the first two years of her leadership at Warren Elementary School, she observed many strengths, but also many areas for improvement. Now she feels it's time for action. Desiree has conducted a needs assessment and presented her findings to the staff, along with a prioritized list of needed changes. However, the staff isn't on board. Despite her explanations of the data and descriptions of what the school might become, she faces resistance.
I have worked with several principals like Desiree, as a consultant and as a colleague. My description of her is a composite of their experiences. Desiree is like many principals who put a lot of effort into promoting change and subsequently feel defeated and exhausted. School change is challenging in part because schools are complex adaptive systems; they are composed of multiple, interacting, and constantly changing parts (Patterson, Holladay, & Eoyang, 2012). For instance, while Desiree was making notes about needed instructional improvements, the team of 3rd grade teachers were already strengthening their use of formative data for planning small-group math instruction, and the school district was providing support for creating classroom libraries. Desiree was aware of these changes, of course, but they illustrate how planning for change is often done while change is already in progress.
Additionally, the complexity of school systems means that some veteran staff have already experienced plans for change brought forth by previous administrators—and seen those plans fail, making them skeptical. Meanwhile, some brand-new teachers are so focused on what's occurring in their own classrooms that they don't fully engage with what Desiree is proposing.

Fostering Peer Interaction

A process I call whole-staff coaching may be useful to school leaders like Desiree. While there's no single cure-all for the challenges found in schools, whole-staff coaching offers powerful possibilities. It puts teachers in charge of planning, implementing, and evaluating change, yet allows school leaders to facilitate the process so that it attunes teachers to the school's mission and priorities and helps them see existing patterns and potential changes. The process occurs over several sessions during which the leader, usually the principal, invites the school staff (either all employees or just the teachers) to identify an obstacle to being the effective school they want to be, choose and plan a shift to address that obstacle, evaluate their effort, and repeat this cycle on an ongoing basis.
My vision for whole-staff coaching builds on a framework developed by Supovitz et al. (2010) to illustrate factors that lead to greater teacher and student success. Supovitz and colleagues suggest that principals are most influential when they draw attention to the school's mission and goals, strengthen trust in the school, and focus on instruction. At the same time, their framework highlights the effect of teachers' peers in strengthening instruction through conversations, interactions, and networking. Principals, the researchers point out, increase the effectiveness of instructional-improvement initiatives when they support such peer interactions. Whole-staff coaching can accomplish all this.
The process takes time and there are many possibilities for scheduling the whole-staff sessions; they might happen weekly or as several longer sessions held on a staff retreat, for instance. Like most effective coaching in schools, whole-staff coaching starts with teachers, attends to their concerns, and puts them in control when determining what to do, how to do it, and whether their actions succeeded (Toll, 2018). Also like most effective coaching, whole-staff coaching relies on skilled facilitation—a task best performed by school leaders. While coaching is often thought of as one skilled educator helping one teacher identify problems of practice or support changes the teacher wants to make, a coach can also catalyze problem-spotting and support change with a larger group. Similar skills are required.

Nine Key Steps

To show whole-staff coaching in action, I'll describe the key steps in the process, referencing a composite example that draws from actual whole-staff coaching cycles I have seen unfold in schools.
1. Ask teachers to identify the school's purposes and strengths. William Carter, principal of Lincoln High School, asked teachers to discuss in small groups two questions: Who are we? and What is important to us? Each group shared three responses to each question. Carter recorded all 24 responses and projected them onto a screen, giving everyone the chance to appreciate the faculty's commitment and their desire to make a difference in the lives of young people—and in the world.
2. Ask teachers to identify obstacles to successfully achieving the priorities identified in Step 1. Principal Carter requested that each small group identify conditions that get in the way of fully being the school they envision and list them on a shared document. He observed that certain obstacles identified, such as state law and school board policy, weren't directly in teachers' control but could be a focus if staff members wanted to consider how they might respond to conditions created by laws and policies. Other obstacles, he noted, focused on students and their successes (or lack thereof), while still others addressed teachers' experiences working in the school, such as scheduling issues or limited resources. Finally, some obstacles were personal, referring to individuals' own perspectives or approaches to the challenges of teaching in a large high school.
3. Ask teachers to select one obstacle from the list to focus on. Principal Carter asked teachers to identify in small groups their two priority obstacles from the list brainstormed in Step 2, which eliminated several items not chosen by any group at this step. He then invited individual participants to vote for the obstacle they most wanted to focus on. This process clearly identified Lack of adequate support for academically struggling students as the priority obstacle the whole staff would tackle.
4. Describe the target obstacle in-depth and examine related data to see patterns. The teachers at Lincoln High reviewed disaggregated data to understand which students fit the label of academically struggling and created a visual schema that illustrated what usually happened when a student was identified as belonging to that group. They broke into task forces to look into each part of the schema, interviewing related personnel—such as intervention teachers, special educators, and guidance counselors—seeking to understand what worked well and where the process encountered difficulties or didn't work at all. The task forces also interviewed students and families to understand their experiences of academic struggle and the school's response to it.
At a subsequent whole-staff meeting, the task forces shared their findings. Small-group discussions led to a list of patterns that were observed, such as: Students with IEPs get better support than those without; the RTI process leaves many students feeling that they have been identified as "losers" rather than viewing intervention as helpful; and home-school communication, when it occurs, leads to greater success for students. These patterns were distributed for reflection and department-level discussions before the entire staff met again.
5. Identify a pattern to shift. The teachers at Lincoln High next reviewed the patterns identified by the task forces. They decided to shift intervention activities to enhance students' self-efficacy rather than causing them to view their need for extra help as a sign of their hopelessness.
6. Plan to make the shift. Principal Carter led the staff in outlining steps to take, including altering instructional activities for academically struggling students so they clearly enriched learning and the emphasis in the work being done in intervention classrooms was on acceleration (elevating students' successes to create pride rather than embarrassment). Another step was selecting more culturally relevant instructional materials for intervention classrooms.
7. Plan to evaluate the shift. Principal Carter asked, If a visitor came to our school now and then after this shift is made, what would we hope they would see or hear during their second visit that shows improvement? The staff listed possible changes, labeled as "What is seen" and "What is heard," and identified ways to evaluate whether those changes had occurred. For instance, one sign of success would be that students in intervention classrooms would speak with confidence about things they had learned, which could be evaluated by their teachers' completion of a three-point discussion observation checklist during small-group discussions.

I've found teachers really don't need training for this process; they just need good facilitation by the principal.

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8. Implement the shift and evaluate outcomes. School staff members made their planned changes and then surveyed students receiving intervention services. The survey showed 25 percent of the students had improved attitudes toward school, and data indicated that 10 percent more were moving out of intervention. However, observations of intervention classrooms failed to ascertain that students were significantly more engaged, and teachers who had these students in other classes reported that they didn't see them transferring new skills from intervention into their other classes.
9. Discuss the results and plan to tweak the shift, make another shift, or address a new obstacle. In evaluating the changes made in intervention programs, the staff at Lincoln High recognized that intervention teachers were feeling overwhelmed and as if they were set up as targets by the rest of the staff. The staff revisited the shifts they had made and decided those changes still had merit. However, another obstacle was deemed a higher priority, which was that most teachers in the school saw responsibility for helping academically unsuccessful students as the duty of intervention teachers and special educators, not themselves. This led to a new cycle of whole-staff coaching; principal Carter led the staff through steps 4 through 8 to plan changes that would shift responsibility for struggling students to all classroom teachers.

Key Considerations

I've found teachers really don't need training for this process; they just need good facilitation by the principal. As with all coaching, principals enacting whole-staff coaching are wise to engage in their own professional development in order to smoothly facilitate the process. Good questioning, paraphrasing, and using protocols to steer decision making are useful in the process and will ensure that principals facilitate the process comfortably for participants.
One thing I've learned when leading whole-school coaching is that the process takes longer the first time, as teachers are learning it, so patience is key. I've also seen that the depth of the work, in both the obstacles selected and the shifts made, increases with each round of whole-staff coaching. Additionally, I've found there's value in reviewing the process at the start of each session, to remind participants of the purpose and processes. And it's best to frame the work as attending to matters that affect the entire staff, to avoid attempts to address individual teachers' needs or small-group interests.
Principals who effectively lead whole-staff coaching are process experts. They listen skillfully, communicate clearly about the process, and provide insights without being authoritative. Above all, they are skilled in helping teachers get "from here to there"; in other words, they assist teachers in smoothly moving through the steps of the process. Some resources that may help principals build their process skills include Radical Rules for Schools by Leslie Patterson and coauthors (Human Systems Dynamics Institute, 2012), The Power of Protocols by J.P. McDonald and colleagues (Teachers College Press, 2013), and my ASCD book, The Effective Facilitator's Handbook (Toll, 2023).
Let's return to Desiree McNeil's story. When she implemented whole-staff coaching, Desiree learned important things about her staff that she hadn't yet realized. Significantly, she learned the staff perceived that their strong commitment to every child's success was stymied by certain school and district policies, and that teachers felt siloed in grade-level teams, without opportunities to talk to those in other grade levels or to collaborate with special educators and content specialists. In one coaching cycle, the staff focused on the latter problem. They identified a shift to make in how their professional learning teams functioned, developing a plan to creatively mix grade-level teams and look at student learning in content disciplines across grade levels, with specialists included. They planned to evaluate the shift by using minutes from team meetings and a pre- and post-survey of teachers' understanding of student learning throughout the school, not only in their grade level.
Desiree was thrilled to realize that, although the teachers' focus and plans were different from her own, they would lead to outcomes she also desired—greater collaboration and insight into all students' learning. What's more, the conversations that took place during whole-staff coaching were deeper than many that had occurred previously. Several teachers stood out as peer leaders whom she hadn't thought of in that role before. Ultimately, teachers in the school felt more responsibility for the work they were all doing and displayed greater commitment to all students' learning.

Ultimately, teachers in the school felt more responsibility for the work they were all doing and displayed greater commitment to all students' learning.

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Normalizing Change

Because schools are complex adaptive systems, they are always changing, even when the changes aren't easily observable. School leaders who recognize this fact will normalize processes for teachers to continually interact around priorities and obstacles, seek out patterns, and together identify shifts they might make to strive for increased success—for themselves and their students. While individual and small-group coaching are effective approaches to professional enhancement, coaching processes used at the school level bring to the fore matters that often can't be addressed in more discrete coaching formats. Systems operate at multiple scales, and whole-staff coaching provides one more way to focus attention on areas for change.
It's been said that people don't mind change but don't like being changed (Senge et al., 1999). Whole-staff coaching puts school staff members in the driver's seat of change while placing the school leader in the important role of facilitator. I encourage principals to add it to their repertoire of leadership practices.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ How does the whole-staff coaching model differ from the coaching approaches used in your school or district? What do you see as its potential benefits and challenges?

➛ What do you see as the biggest barriers to instructional change in your school or district? How might whole-school coaching address them?

References

Patterson, L., Holladay, R., & Eoyang, G. (2012). Radical rules for schools: Adaptive action for complex change. Human Systems Dynamics Institute.

Senge, P., Kleiner, A., Roberts, C., Ross, R., Roth, G., & Smith, B. (1999). The dance of change: The challenges of sustaining momentum in learning organizations. Doubleday.

Supovitz, J., Sirinides, P., & May, H. (2010). How principals and peers influence teaching and learning. Educational Administration Quarterly46(1), 31–56.

Toll, C. A. (2018). Educational coaching: A problem-solving partnership. ASCD.

Cathy A. Toll, PhD, serves as both a university faculty member and a consultant. As a faculty member, she is an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh, where she serves as Graduate Program Coordinator in the Department of Leadership, Literacy, and Social Foundations. She teaches graduate courses in educational research, educational coaching, literacy leadership, and literacy instruction and was recently chosen to receive the Edward R. Penson Distinguished Teaching Award.

Cathy's scholarship includes models of teacher professional learning, coaching, and practices for whole-staff coaching, coaching-the-coach, and individual coaching. She has published widely on coaching, school leadership, teacher professional learning, and school change.

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