leadership coach

Getting the Most Out of Coaching

Kelsey McLachlan is the Instructional Leadership Coach for Leading Educators’ New Orleans program.  Kelsey began her career as teacher in Chicago Public Schools where she taught for six years.  She also led teacher leadership development at Teach for America Greater New Orleans and was the Founding Assistant Principal at KIPP Leadership Primary.  Kelsey spoke with us about her direct work with teacher leaders to advance educational equity through rigorous classroom instruction.

LE: Tell us about your role. What does an instructional leadership coach do at Leading Educators?

KM:  To my thinking, excellent coaching is about transforming leaders so that they not only increase student achievement, but also positively affect all of those around them. My aim is to help the leaders I coach be as successful as possible at grasping opportunities to improve and reaching goals through collaboration.  I have the privilege of partnering with teams of teacher and school leaders to ensure that they are making steady progress towards student and teacher goals rooted in college and career readiness standards. Reaching these goals is the way to live and achieve our mission of equitable schools for all students, and it's my job to use all of the components of our program to do that: one-on-one coaching, group coaching, and professional learning sessions.   

LE: What are common challenges your coachees face when stepping into instructional leadership?

KM: Accountability is often a challenge for new leaders. I support people to become stronger at holding each other accountable through explicit coaching around this skill in addition to modeling it in my own interactions with them. Holding people accountable to their student and personal growth goals and being honest, or “showing them the mirror”, is a strong way to build trust. In the course of our work together, we agree on goals that impact students' lives, and I want to hold them to those goals in a supportive way. I try to become invested in their goals as if they are mine and check in on them regularly.

Motivating others to action, and teaching the skills to motivate is vital in leadership coaching. I often compare coaching both teachers and leaders to coaching Olympic athletes: you can’t run the 100 meter dash for them, you can’t practice the race for them. The teacher or leader has to drive their own performance through reflection and practice. The coach is there to share strategies and feedback to improve their performance, for example, by suggesting that they shorten their stride or pick up their pace.

LE: What have you tried to help coachees land on a clear path forward?

KM: The most important first step to moving the needle is building trust with people.  I try to deeply listen to words, of course, but also body language and gestures, so that I can hear and understand everything the person means. So that means, I need to allow time for the person to speak and then ask questions to probe their thinking more deeply. Driving people forward in reaching goals is a baseline for a coach.  However, I think one of my most important realizations from many years of coaching is this: what sets a great coach apart from a mediocre one is the ability to see the leader’s “best self” and to help them access that “self”. Getting them there might be hard work, but a strong foundation of personal growth and discovery will make success more likely.

LE: You’ve mentioned a passion for educational equity.  How does that lens influence your approach to coaching?

KM: Elena Aguilar wrote in Education Week, “Coaching with an equity lens means that we pay attention to the social and historic forces which create and maintain systems in which children are treated differently based on who they are.”  In coaching, it's imperative to keep in mind my own identity and the bias that I bring to the table.  I have to do the work of unpacking my perspective, while also listening to and lifting up biases that may live within the work that teacher leaders do.  Also, building deep content knowledge with the teacher leaders I coach allows for a focus on instruction that is rigorous for all students.

LE: I know you love New Orleans! What keeps you so invested in serving New Orleans schools?

KM: New Orleans is, in my opinion, the best city on the planet. It has so many amazing bright spots that you can only experience in the Crescent City, and I believe the people who live here are its greatest asset. Still, our city has experienced generations of inequity and we individually and collectively have so much to do to change that. It's this injustice that keeps me here to prove what’s possible to achieve with our amazing students.

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Connecting Teacher Leadership and Professional Learning in D.C. Public Schools

How can we best connect teacher leadership to professional learning? What do schools sometimes get wrong - despite their best intentions - and how can we help more schools get it right? With the publication of Igniting the Learning Engine: How School Systems Accelerate Teacher Effectiveness and Student Growth Through ‘Connected Professional Learning', the nonprofit organization Education Resource Strategies highlights promising practices at four leading school systems. They offer examples of what it looks like to deeply connect professional learning to the everyday work of teachers and teacher leaders and to a coordinated, system-wide strategy for student success. They also explore how these systems organize resources like people, time, and money to make this happen.

As a national organization focused on the development of teacher leaders, we at Leading Educators are acutely aware of both the challenge and promise of connected professional learning. With regular opportunities to collaborate and deepen instructional expertise, teacher leaders can play a key role in improving student learning. At the same time, we know that teacher leaders are part of a larger connected system within schools, and their success often depends on the presence of content experts, access to high quality instructional materials, and the necessary time to work with colleagues.

Since 2012, Leading Educators has served as a key strategic partner to DC Public Schools (DCPS), one of four systems profiled in the ERS paper. At the beginning of the partnership, DCPS had just received a federal grant through the Teacher Incentive Fund to increase opportunities for teacher leadership, building on the district’s previous work on teacher evaluation and compensation. Leading Educators partnered with DCPS to provide technical assistance, drawing on our long-standing work with teacher leadership programs in New Orleans and Kansas City, Missouri.

Leading Educators worked with DCPS to launch the Teacher Leadership Innovation (TLI) program at a pilot group of seven schools. In the early years of the program, schools had great latitude in creating teacher leader roles. This meant that school leaders were highly engaged in the process but also that roles varied widely. While these roles added capacity for school leaders, they were not exclusively focused on examining student work or building teacher skills. For many teacher leaders who were new to leadership positions, coaching their former peers created challenging dynamics. Additionally, some schools struggled to protect release time that had been allocated for teacher leader functions when staff turnover occurred and emergencies arose.

As TLI expanded, structures, systems, and training were gradually put in place to address many of the lessons learned from the first cohort of schools. Over time, new teacher leader roles became more narrowly focused on what the paper refers to as “content-focused, expert-led collaboration” instead of tackling both administrative and learning functions. This ensured that principals aligned the roles to the key instructional priorities of their schools. To support TLI participants’ transition into new leadership roles, the program content focused heavily on developing both hard and soft leadership skills. DCPS also focused on helping new teacher leaders develop adult leadership skills. Leading Educators partnered with the district to provide sessions focused on relationship management, addressing topics such as difficult conversations, team dynamics, influence with and without authority, and conversations about difference. This content translated leadership best practices into normed processes and tools.

In addition, Leading Educators worked with DCPS to create systems and structures to support principals in becoming stronger distributive leaders. These included how to strongly connect school priorities to teacher leadership roles - the School Theory of Action - and how to regularly and rigorously analyze formative leadership, teacher practice, and student data - the Quarterly Data Review. Maggie Slye, the Managing Director for Leading Educators’ LEAP team, explains how these structures function in practice:

 

"The Theory of Action serves to anchor the school in its priorities, not just for students and teachers, but also anchors the leadership team in the commitments they’ve made to teachers. By establishing these priorities and commitments collaboratively, the Theory of Action supports alignment and a shared understanding of priorities. Each quarter, a Leading Educators Leadership Coach leads the leadership team to analyze student and/or teacher data to assess what has been accomplished and what may need to be revised. This data cycle - setting goals, assessing progress, and course-correcting - is something many schools do for students. It’s far less frequent to see schools doing this type of analysis for teacher goals and for leadership goals. Our schools emerge from Quarterly Data Reviews not only clearer on the next quarter’s goals for students, but also goals for teacher instructional practice and the leader actions they will take to support teacher development in those instructional practices."

 

Finally, the DCPS central office team, in partnership with school leaders, began to research, create, and share innovative scheduling approaches that would create more release time cost neutrally. With coaching, school leadership teams developed contingency plans so that they could provide sufficient time for productive collaboration even when unforeseen challenges emerged.

Leading Educators has had the honor of learning alongside outstanding DCPS school and central office leaders. Principal Art Mola from Bancroft Elementary shares:

 “It is hard to think of Bancroft and Leading Educators as a partnership. The amazing team at LE has become an intricate part of the Bancroft family in such a way that we do not view them as an external entity, rather a member of our leadership team. And as a result, Bancroft LEAP Leads continue to celebrate the amazing job our LE coach has done with each one of them, and with the whole team. I can confidently say that the quality of our Quarterly Data Reviews has improved exponentially, as we are firmly grounded in our commitment to the Theory of Action, and are already looking forward to next year as we get ready to roll out a more improved version than even now.”

These efforts laid a strong foundation for LEAP. With LEAP, DCPS is leveraging distributive leadership to improve instructional practice in content-specific and job-embedded teams. LEAP has ignited the learning engine by empowering principals and teacher leaders with the structures and tools to drive continuous improvement.