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October 1, 2023
Vol. 81
No. 2
Program Snapshot

In Philly, Leadership Coaching from Within

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    Leadership
    Philadelphia school leaders and their leadership coaches share moments of joy and reflection.
    Credit: School District of Philadelphia Leadership Coaching Program
      Caption: A Philadelphia school leader and leadership coach working together.
      The School District of Philadelphia recently completed its fourth year using an innovative leadership coaching program to support its principals. One thing that makes this program unique is that the coaches come from within the system. Having previously contracted with external coaching providers (with little long-term success), the district realized it could create a cadre of leadership coaches who were already highly respected and had credible leadership experience in its own schools.
      My firm, Old Sow Coaching and Consulting, was selected to design and develop the new coaching program, with an emphasis on providing impactful coaching experiences for new and aspiring principals and creating new pathways to leadership for BIPOC educators.
      October 2023 Program Snapshot Extra PhotosCredit: School District of Philadelphia Leadership Coaching Program

      Philadelphia school leaders and their leadership coaches share moments of joy and reflection.

      In leadership coaching, as opposed to instructional coaching, the coach focuses very intentionally and specifically on the person being coached, not only on the problems or challenges they are presenting. As Elena Aguilar notes in The Art of Coaching (Jossey-Bass, 2013), the work of leadership coaching is about building relationships and creating sustained, lasting change—transformational change.
      Accordingly, Philadelphia's Leadership Coaching Program was designed to develop deeply trusting, confidential, nonevaluative, and nonsupervisory relationships between coaches and their coachees. It was also intended to have a broad impact on the school system as a whole by presenting a model for self-reflection, ongoing learning, and building resilience.
      The program began with a five-day training event for coaching candidates, all experienced principals and leaders within the system who showed a capacity and talent for engaging in new learning around coaching. This training included identity mapping and reflective exercises to help candidates understand their own power stories with the system. Coaches were encouraged to get personal—to reflect on their fears, uncertainties, and past experiences within the district. They also learned about the stages of adult development and leadership growth and underlying theories of how learning and transformation occur. In subsequent monthly professional development sessions (known as "Kitchen Tables"), the coaches focused on learning about somatic attunement, powerful questioning, deep listening, coaching presence, and managing accountability in coaching sessions.
      In sessions with their coachees, meanwhile, the coaches created leadership development plans aligned with district leadership competencies and began the deep work of supporting the principals' development and performance.
      Early on, concerns emerged among some principals about the coaches' authority and role, including whether the program was punitive or evaluative. To address such concerns, we placed a stronger emphasis on confidentiality between the coaches and their coachees and on creating a sense of safety for real transformational work to occur. As additional leaders in the district began to experience leadership coaching, fewer questions arose, and more leaders began to voluntarily opt in for coaching. One leader said, "Through coaching, I have become an even more reflective leader. I am more certain that my decisions, especially those that are unpopular, are rooted in my why."
      This past summer, at the end of its fourth year, the Philadelphia Leadership Coaching Program had coached over 200 leaders (50 percent of all principals in the district) and conducted over 5,500 hours of leadership coaching. The district has seen a dramatic reduction in leadership turnover, with only 5 percent of principals having resigned from their positions (compared to the national average of 18 to 22 percent). Evidence suggests that the program improved building-leader resilience, created greater capacity for situational problem-solving, and intensified focus on student performance and equity practices.
      In a sector where we dramatically under-invest in the self-reflection and deeper inner work required to grow leadership skills (and over-focus on the technical requirements of supervision and evaluation), the Philadelphia district's leadership coaching program has been a seismic shift for those being coached—and for the coaches themselves.

      Kirsten Olson is the designer and mentor coach for the School District of Philadelphia’s Leadership Coaching Program and co-author of The Mindful School Leader.

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