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December 1, 2023
Vol. 81
No. 4
The Resilient Educator

How to Coach When You’re the Boss

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Yes, you can act as a coach with staff—just be clear which hat you’re wearing.

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Leadership
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Are you a positional leader who is committed to supporting people in their learning and growth? Do you want to take a coaching stance more often, but have questions about how and when to do so?  
Many leaders in roles such as principal, super­intendent, and chief academic officer grapple with how to navigate the tension between coaching employees and managing them. The challenge is that you must put on multiple hats as a leader: sometimes you’re a manager and sometimes you’re a coach. Sometimes you might also play the role of a consultant, trainer, or mentor. The way to effectively act as a coach is to define what it means to engage in each of these roles, determine when it’s appropriate to engage in each of them, and—especially—­be transparent with the teacher or colleague you’re hoping to help about the stance you’re taking at the time.

A Manager Versus a Coach

Let’s consider what a manager does and what a coach does. A leader is primarily responsible for growing and managing staff. Managing school staff involves ensuring that they’re following through with organizational agreements, articulating performance criteria, and holding staff members accountable to meeting those criteria, while providing the supports they need. Management also involves formal evaluation and hiring and firing.  
A coach does something different. They help people grow through reflecting on their behaviors, beliefs, and ways of being, and supporting the “coachee” in making changes to their behaviors. Because coaching is usually implemented one-on-one, it can be highly differentiated and, therefore, very effective—in contrast, for example, to whole-staff training.
When you take a coaching stance as a school leader, you help an employee figure out where they are and where the organization needs them to be. You help them see any significant gaps in their skills and knowledge, and offer guidance as they determine how to close those gaps. In contrast, as a manager, you hold people accountable to perform against specific criteria that you provide. When people perform against those criteria, there are rewards; if they don’t, there are ­consequences.  

Coaching is a stance you can take, a set of strategies to guide an adult in their learning and development, and anyone can take this stance.

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You don’t need to have the job title “coach” to coach people. Coaching is a stance you can take, a set of strategies to guide an adult in their learning and development, and anyone can take this stance. Even if you are a principal at a site that has a full-time instructional coach, you can still help staff grow by taking a coaching stance. You’ll want to align your methods with the full-time coach’s methods so that there’s consistency in coaching approaches with teachers. You might look at it this way: It’s unlikely that you’ll ever hire anyone who has refined every skill required for their job. So most employees will need—and appreciate—ongoing training from various sources.

When to Wear Each “Hat”?

You will likely need to take a managerial stance when communicating clear policies, expectations, or performance criteria, particularly when a teacher or colleague isn’t meeting expectations. You can take a coaching stance when you want to guide someone’s development and believe that they have the capacity to grow. Sometimes you will decide which stance to take based on the severity of the situation and your assessment of a person’s ability to grow.  
It’s common to take a managerial and a coaching stance in the same conversation. A leader might, for example, open the conversation by clarifying a policy and then shift into a coaching stance to help the employee determine how they’ll follow that policy. Let’s say a principal needs to address an issue around a teacher meeting deadlines. She might say, “Grades are due by 4:00 p.m. on Thursday. In the last two quarters, you submitted grades late. When you do that, our whole system gets backed up and several of us are impacted.” Until this moment, the principal has taken a managerial stance; she could now shift into a coaching stance by saying, “I’m assuming you want to turn grades in on time. Would you like my help to create a plan to get them done?” 
At other times, a principal may take a coaching stance entirely, perhaps after an observation. This could sound like opening with, “I know you’ve been working on increasing student engagement. In the lesson I observed, how did you plan to do that and what evidence did you see that those strategies were effective?” This question could be followed up with invitations to “say more about that” or “tell me what else you noticed” to guide a teacher into deeper reflection.

Be Clear About Your Stance

It’s essential that a positional leader clarifies the stance they’re taking. This can sound as simple as, “Right now, I’m going to put on my coach hat so I can guide you to think through this dilemma and figure out next steps.” When you need to show up as the boss, you can say something like, “I’m wearing my principal hat right now because I need to let you know that treating a student in that way is unacceptable.”

Learning to navigate coaching and managing allows you to build trust with employees, feel clearer about your role, and help people grow.

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Let’s consider the two stances (both acceptable) a leader could take in the following scenario: A teacher has sent a student, Alex, to the office for a fourth time. This is not in line with your school’s student support plans. When the teacher comes into your office, you could say either of the ­following:
  • Response A: “I know you are having a hard time with Alex, but you cannot send him to the office anymore. I want to be clear that I’m saying this as your principal and that this has to change.”
  • Response B: “I’m wearing my coaching hat right now. I am committed to supporting your growth, and I’d like to support you to develop a strong relationship with Alex so you can handle his behavior within the classroom. Tell me about another student with whom you have a strong relationship, and then we’ll talk more about Alex.” 
It’s also good to be clear about which stance you’ll take when scheduling time with teachers. Letting them know, perhaps on the calendar invite, whether they’ll engage in a “coaching” conversation or a conversation in which you’ll wear your boss hat helps a teacher know what to anticipate. This relieves some anxiety and lets them know what to prepare for.

It Starts with Clarity

Learning to navigate coaching and managing allows you to build trust with employees, feel clearer about your role, and help people grow. Like all leadership skills, it takes practice and reflection. Having clarity about what you’re trying to communicate and accomplish when interacting with a particular employee is the foundational knowledge you’ll need to perfect this skill.

Elena Aguilar is president of Bright Morning Consulting, a sought-after speaker and presenter, and author of many books, including The Art of Coaching (Jossey-Bass, 2013) and Coaching for Equity (Jossey-Bass, 2020).


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