Executive coaching for educational leadership

Maria O'Neill

Maria O’Neill is advanced skills teacher who has led and managed many academic and pastoral initiatives. Her interests include coaching, NLP, mental health, social media and improving teaching and learning. She is committed to creating an educational community of learners in which pupils are encouraged and stimulated to develop academically and personally and staff are empowered to continue learning professionally. WomenEd advocate Maria is currently studying for PhD in Educational Leadership; her area of research is Executive Coaching for Leadership.

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Effective leadership coaching can happen on the dance floor of conversation.” -
John G. Agno

There are many definitions of leadership. Some highlight the importance of highly-developed professional skills and knowledge; others dwell on the importance of personal skills. A number of researchers state that leadership begins with the character of leaders, their emotional intelligence, self-awareness, personal values and beliefs. As Will Ryan (2003) pointed out: “If You Scratch a Good Head…You Find a Moral Purpose.” Other researchers rightly state that without a clear operational strategy or a strong strategic plan of how to communicate and achieve goals and create vision, success is not possible.

Most claim that it is the combination of both that would lead to sustainable school improvement: “The key skills of running good schools and colleges are personal and interpersonal on the one side, and technical and task-oriented on the other. It is the achievement of high levels of both and a balance between the two, that distinguishes effective leaders.” (Brundrell et al, 2003).

The only constant in education is change, "Coaching is not about giving advice; it is about empowering a person"hence professional and personal development should be a career-long process. Leaders at any stage should strive to continuously develop their leadership capacity through enhancing their personal and professional skills. Personal development (development of soft skills opposed to technical skills) is a relatively new concept and has not been fully embraced by all, although some researchers go as far as to say that the “change of self by self” (Waters, 1998) has to be recognised as the only basis for profound change and sustainable improvement.

It is my belief that coaching can be a useful tool in the personal and professional development toolbox of education leaders. It has been often associated with sport and confused with mentoring in the educational context. Coaching is not about giving advice; it is about empowering a person to come up with his/her own answers or action points. It requires reflection, evaluation, questioning, analysing, comparing, etc, encouraging the coachee to use and develop higher-order thinking skills. According to Tomlinson (2004): “Executive coaching is helping professional people reflect upon their work in a frank and rigorous way to establish new patterns of behaviour as a consequence.

Coaching provides relevant personalised development - development unique to each person and situation. The coachee sets the agenda for each session and determines what s/he wants to achieve and how s/he wants to achieve it. As a result, the coachee is empowered to take control and ownership of his/her personal and professional development. The role of the coach is to aid this development - to be there on the journey of developing self-awareness and responsibility.

Effective coaching provides a platform for conversation that offers the right balance of challenge and support. It offers a structure for the leaders to deal with work pressures by providing a judgment-free thinking space and enabling them to critically evaluate their practice and strategies. As someone once said: “The only real training for leadership is leadership.” Coaching enables leaders to reflect about their leadership practices and look at them as learning opportunities in order to gain knowledge and improve.   

Do you employ coaching in your school? Let us know below.

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