School Improvement Episode 27: Developmental leadership coaching

This podcast from Teacher is supported by the University of Newcastle, Australia – top 150 in the world for Education.

From Teacher magazine, I'm Jo Earp and you're listening to another episode in our series on School Improvement. We're going to be talking about leadership coaching today. My guests are Karen Snibson, who is Principal of Phoenix P-12 Community College in Victoria, and Angela Mina, a leadership coach and executive consultant. They've been working together as part of a two year Menzies School Leader Fellowship Program. Now, the focus of the program is on increasing collective teacher efficacy and it uses an ‘incubator model' where the leadership Fellows are encouraged to trial strategies and interventions within their own school context. We'll find out a little bit more about the model and the program, but we'll be delving deeper into the developmental leadership coaching that's being used, and how it differs from an approach that existing school leaders may be used to. And, of course, we'll be chatting about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected Karen and Angela's plans and progress. So, let's get started.

Jo Earp: Hi Karen, welcome to Teacher, now you're Principal of Phoenix P-12 Community College in Ballarat. For anybody who doesn't know then, that's a city here in Victoria and it's about 110/120 kilometres I think from Melbourne. So, can you tell us first of all a little bit about the school and its context?

Karen Snibson: Sure Jo. We're a [Victorian] Department of Education and Training school, as you said in the southwest of Ballarat. Primarily we service the communities of Delacombe, Redan and Sebastopol. We also have students who come from rural areas across the Golden Plains. As a school, we're relatively young, we only came into existence about eight years ago when two underperforming schools merged – that was Redan Primary School and Sebastopol College. This time of merger was a really unique moment in history where we took the opportunity to redefine what it was that we stood for as a school. And, for us, it was unequivocal that we were here to serve our students and their families with a really authentic belief in our school motto, if you like, that in knowledge there is opportunity for our students.

The thing I guess that was really clear to us and emerged out of that process was a real commitment to our school values in terms of building high quality relationships and really starting to focus in a much more fine grained way [on] the learning that was going on. What also emerged, and has become more and more important over time, is the absolute drive to address an issue of educational equity, and a single core belief that children from our area have an equal capacity to learn and perform and achieve outcomes as their peers from anywhere else.

JE: Is it quite a large school? How many students do you have enrolled currently?

KS: We are a large school now. At the time of merger the two schools were deemed to be failing schools, if you like, and so we were facing a Prep enrolment of just eight children. That in itself becomes unviable and our secondary programs were the same. At this point in time we're in excess of 1500 students, we have 160 staff as well, so there's been considerable growth in our college right from Prep through to Year 12.

JE: So, with such a large school I should imagine collective efficacy of staff is important and we'll come back to that a bit later on. We're going to be talking today about your work with Angela, and this came about through your Fellowship with the Menzies Foundation didn't it?

KS: I'm a Menzies Fellow and I was actually fortunate enough to be the recipient of the inaugural Collier Scholarship, and I feel humbled to be learning in both of those capacities. When I think about my pathway towards Menzies it progressed really from an awareness of the work of [John] Hattie and Viviane Robinson, which was really about the impacts of particular styles of leadership and their ability to influence the learning outcomes of children.

JE: Now, Angela, you're the leadership coach and you're working together through the Foundation and I mentioned in today's introduction that it's something called an ‘incubator' model. I'm interested in hearing about that model and how you became involved the program.

Angela Mina: It's a really interesting program. The Menzies School Leadership [Fellowship] is quite unique. Not in its purpose, I think its purpose is similar to a lot of these programs – they aim to do what we all hope for, which is to improve educational outcomes for students. But what is unique about it is, it's a multisector collaboration. It's got philanthropist, research, the private sector, the education sector, these Fellows. And we've come together, grounded in the research of John Hattie on collective efficacy, to see what we can do together to actually make a change.

Now, you mentioned Jo that it is an incubator and that's exactly right. We're working with five Fellows and we're very much taking an inquiry and research lens towards what we're doing – we're looking to test and learn. We have some hypotheses that we're testing. Essentially, our hypothesis is that leading for collective efficacy is actually really complex – it's a complex challenge for school leaders. And, it's just one aspect of a really complex, demanding role; and that sits within a pretty complex sector, the way it's set up here in Australia and probably more broadly. And then, it sits in a complex operating environment – and that was even before a pandemic!

So, Menzies is a collaborative effort, really looking at how we support leaders to better lead collective efficacy, and what we hope to learn from that are some things that we could scale across the sector. That's really the hope of this.

I mentioned before that Hattie's research sits at the foundation of what we're doing and we're lucky enough to have him be involved actually with this program on the advisory group that really looks to guide I think the work of the incubator. But of course we work with the Menzies Foundation, we work with ACER, we're working with Clear Horizon who are one of the preeminent outfits in social change.

Where I come into this is really from the private sector. When I was first brought into this program, most of my leadership work had been in banks and large Australian listed companies like Wesfarmers and professional services firms – basically, everywhere other than the education sector. And, when Lizzie [Liz Gillies, CEO Menzies Foundation] approached me, her view was very much ‘What is happening there that you could see and bring? What's the best global thinking, and how can we use it and have it be part of this collaborative initiative?' So that's really the origin of my work with the incubator.

JE: Karen, have you worked with a leadership coach before and did you have any expectations going into this new partnership?

KS: Absolutely … I too had formed the hypothesis that leading scalable improvement in a school the size of ours, with the scope of ours, was possible but an add-on program or a bolt-on would not do that, it actually needed to really emanate from the core of the organisation in the culture that I would commit. So, for me … I'd been studying through my Masters at Melbourne University in Instructional Leadership and I'd become really fascinated with the notion of efficacy and really how to develop it within a school setting, and increasingly understanding how complex that is to achieve.

So, from my point of view, there were two key drivers. The first and foremost was to bring scalable improvements to the outcomes of our children, because I absolutely believe with every ounce of my being that that's what they're capable of. The second one for me, and this part really excites me, is about creating a culture within a staff team that I'd want to apply to as a beginning teacher or a learning support person, the sort of culture that I really would want to belong to, and the sort of culture that I'd want to send my children to. That you actually have this idea of what it is to create a workforce that has a singular focus around improving the life chances of the children who go to that school.

And so, the second part of your question – had I worked with a leadership coach before? Yes, I had and in fact I still do. I do have a principal coach, I've been working with the same coach for the last three years and that's been a long and positive partnership. This work with Angela, I was ready in partnership to embrace the notion of reflection and what that might be. And also understanding that in coaching there's a model around modelling and sharing your practice, testing and teasing out ideas and really doing that in a quite personalised sense. To be fair, what I didn't have a full appreciation for was how deep the process of reflection would be on my leadership … what sits at the core of my leadership beliefs, and how to engage with those in a different way so that I could be a better leader for this school community.

JE: And again, we'll dig into some of what's happened shortly. But, Angela, from the coaching side of things, when you work with somebody then – and you mentioned there that prior to coming to this you did very little work within the education sector but a lot of work outside of that with leaders – so, what's the starting point when you work with somebody? I should imagine that it's about their context is it; firstly working out what it is that they need, what they want support on. So, if you cast your mind back, what kinds of things did you talk about in those initial discussions with Karen?

AM: It's actually a very similar process to how, as educators, you support the learning of the children in your school. One of the starting points is data and that's what we used first, before the conversation. So there was a range of different assessment tools that we used to bring that data together in a way that might be meaningful to Karen and her challenges – so, that was our starting point. And, we used some standard psychometrics but we also used a way of assessing how Karen and all the Fellows thought in complexity – the skills that they had that helped them operate in complexity. So we looked at a lot of data.

Now, data isn't useful unless you can turn it insight and then that insight turns into action. So we looked then for the intersection point with Karen and her role and her context, and the single most important thing I feel like I did was to go out to see Karen at Phoenix. It was just a wonderful experience actually, but I'm not quite sure we could have got to the heart of things without me doing that. It's so informative to see somebody in their context, and of course we sat and talked and we had a bit of a career history and I understood a lot about what motivates Karen and what brought her to this role and her leadership journey. But I learnt equally from what she showed me, and the children I met, and how she interacted with the teachers, and what she was proud of, and what she said and what she didn't say.

And so, together, what we did was, look at our observations of the context, Karen's goals for collective efficacy in the school, what she really wanted to see, and then we mapped the data about who Karen was and what her skills were against that. And then fundamentally we started with a pretty simple question which is: What would be the one big thing that you would shift and grow in yourself in order to grow collective efficacy in your school?

So, our first conversation was very much me understanding and learning from Karen about what she was trying to achieve and what was important in terms of her own personal growth as a leader.

JE: Karen you're also working with a principal coach. What is it that Angela is able to bring to the coaching that is slightly different to what you've experienced before?

KS: The different perspective is a really sharp focus on what sits behind my leadership actions and really growing to understand those, unpack them, see them for their strengths and for their opportunities for improvement, and then plan together. ... And Angela's role is often teasing out my thoughts, keeping the focus on: What steps do I need to take? Who do I need to become? How do I need to grow as a leader?

And there is a key and important difference around that. A lot of the principal coaching is around strategic actions that I might take in a school – how I establish a study centre or how we go about implementing tutors – but this is a much sharper focus on the growth points that I need to have as a leader. And when Angela and I were talking about this, we settled upon the term as ‘growing the cup' of a leader. And that process in itself is certainly not an easy one, it really deepened my thinking. At first, when I began the process I had this anticipation of things that I would learn to create the seeds of efficacy, and they were here already – I was so proud of the work we were doing and I wanted to get to next level. And really, the reality was I needed to lead in a different way. It wasn't things I could do, it was more about who I am in my being as a leader and understanding that and then taking some actions.

AM: There are lots of different types of coaching and they all have wonderful value. The kind of coaching I'm using here with Karen and with the rest of the Fellows (and in actual fact we are observing to see whether it has an impact on collective efficacy) is what we would call developmental coaching.

A useful analogy is this glass of water that Karen was talking about. So, if you think about the leader as a cup, most leadership coaching and, in fact, leadership development – so, courses and books, and things that help to build leaders – are probably like filling that cup. And that's a useful thing, there's absolutely a place for that. And in fact it's always where you would start, it's the lowest hanging fruit, it's the easiest to change, it's the toolkit.

Unfortunately there are situations that emerge in many roles now, particularly the principal role (and COVID would be one of them) where there is no toolkit, there's no book, there's no even TED Talk that would tell you what to do. And so the approach of developmental coaching is a bit different – it looks at growing the size of the cup. Now, what I mean by that is that Karen can choose and find and learn and fill that cup, she doesn't need me to do that and I'm not an education expert. What I am hoping to do in this kind of coaching with Karen and the Fellows is support her to see more: to see herself differently, to see herself with less blind spots; to see her world and her school differently with less blind spots, less distortions, less filters, that we all have. So that, when she sees more she's got more options about what to do.

I mean, I mentioned earlier that Karen decided on a goal, the thing she really felt she needed to shift in her heart of hearts to make a difference to collective efficacy. It wasn't new to her, it wasn't a new goal, in fact it was something she knew she had to shift for ages and so where we had to start was not at all the books she had to read, or all the tools she could employ, or all the things she could do, or the toolkits, or the things I had learned from corporate leaders – where we started was what was holding her back from changing. What beliefs and assumptions she was holding that meant that while she had one foot on the accelerator towards this goal (and she had this deep intent to shift it) we needed to first find out what the foot was on the brake and lift that foot up.

JE: You've set that up beautifully because we're going to find out exactly what you did and what the priority was. We've made the point that leadership is such a complex role, and the bottom line, I guess, is that school leaders can't do it all on their own, can they? So, what are some of the decisions that you've come to around collective efficacy at your school and your particular way of working?

KS: Absolutely, and so for me collective efficacy is really building an absolute and relentless shared belief that we have the ability to deliver the outcomes for our students. And, that sounds really simple but it's actually really complex.

And so, for me (and I'm year five into my principalship), a lot of the focus prior to Menzies was around me as the individual and as the principal working with a leadership team, being the key driver and motivator and force behind the improvement plans that we would construct and really taking high level responsibility for developing that vision, identifying the strategies and then ensuring that I was resourcing to enable those to become a reality. And we were making good progress in that trajectory, but I also had this knowledge sitting behind me that if we were truly working in an efficacious way that we could amplify our results and you know really add some scale.

So for me, in working with Angela what really I needed to create a shift on was empowering the other leaders in my school to really embrace their role in leadership; for me to model some vulnerability, increase trust and to really then be asking them to be doing the same thing. So, actually looking at the leaders in our team, empowering them to grow more, to step in more, to be vulnerable and to be really active in the innovation space and knowing all the time that they have my support to do that.

And so really a part of that taking the foot off the brake is when my overarching drive and desire and innate leadership behaviour, I suppose, is to have absolute attention to detail all the time and be really focused on each of those steps, to [instead] step into a space where I actually not just share the responsibility but empower others to step in and release that responsibility, if you like. So that, what we actually have is a co-constructed Phoenix [College] vision around leadership. Much more holistic, much more empowering for the other leaders in our organisation and also I suppose it's more developmental, and at times it's more uncomfortable for all of us. What it has built is a far higher degree of trust and authenticity between us.

JE: Just listening to you there explaining some of the reasons, that's difficult stuff to work through isn't it. It sounded like you had to step away if you like, and let things go. What was that like?

KS: What was it like? Exhilarating and terrifying. Truthfully. However, we didn't get to that point in five minutes, it was really a deep process of reflection and, as I said, I had a lot to be proud of. There was so much growth and restoration of confidence in our school and it was really looking for the edge of what next and having a plan that was built on building efficacy, having the courage to stay that plan and to really stick at the work.

And so, the working on the plan part with Angela really took a good six months, didn't it Angela? We spent the second half of last year looking at all of those things that, perhaps I hadn't seen before, enhancing my knowledge, you know, broadening my view of how I could lead and how the others around me could lead. And then, of course, as the year began COVID came – and my hyper drive is to put my arms out and around and protect my community and to reign in all those things that I was talking about in terms of divulging responsibility and decision making power and whatnot. However, I could see that the minute I did that I would be absolutely 100 per cent putting my foot back on the brake and that would be counterproductive to all of that planning. And so, we've absolutely progressed with that work irrespective of COVID.

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JE: And Angela, delving a bit deeper into that working relationship. What did you actually do in terms of catching up with each other, how regular was it – how did this all work?

AM: I've met with Karen and each of the Fellows monthly, and as I mentioned we started with a single area of change they believed would make the biggest difference to their ability to lead collective efficacy in their school. And, they each picked an area where they knew what to do, but for some reason continued to act in a way that was counter to how they knew they should lead. So it was an area where they were really stuck.

So, I used a coaching methodology, and continue to use a coaching methodology, called Immunity to Change, which is designed to surface the assumptions that hold those unhelpful counterproductive behaviours in place. And over time we've worked together to build muscles of self-observation and reflection, learnt to see things more objectively, become aware of how we filter out information as a result of these assumptions. But that all is preparing these leaders for the heart of the work, which is really a series of low-risk, small experiments that we design together. And then we learn to step back and reflect on the objective data that these experiments provide, rather than seeing things through our own familiar distorted lens.

So things work together really gradually and sustainably to shift behaviour and mindsets in lock-step. And it's incredibly gratifying to see Karen become free of assumptions that held her back and replace them with new assumptions, and in doing so make significant progress on a goal that's really important to her. But it's important to say that, in doing this work together we're not just shifting this goal, hopefully what we're doing is embedding habits and tools for continued growth.

JE: Okay, so we're going to come back to the topic of COVID, to you Karen – you said that things went ahead, they absolutely went ahead, and it could have been so easy couldn't it to revert back and snap back to that normal to some kind of comfortable familiarity I guess. Given you've continued I would expect that these changes have started to have an impact now. What kinds of things have happened?

KS: I want to perhaps look back to the first round of flexible and remote learning and of course what we began to experience then as a school and as a system was this really strong sense of turbulence and there was a really strong reverberation and disruption to the things that we had planned. And what could have happened is that we became engulfed in that disruption.

Instead, the leadership team and I sat and had a conversation about: What would it look like if we were able to quiet the turbulence, what would we bring to our community, how would we convey that, and what would that mean for each of us? And so, I remember that very first meeting at the start of that time feeling quite stressed, I suppose, if you like, thinking about all of the important things that we needed to do in terms of getting 1500 children home [learning], 160 staff home, really in a very short space of time, ensure that the students were engaged in meaningful learning and then ensure that our staff were engaged in meaningful work. And at the same time keep everybody well – so, not a small job.

And what we really decided that was pivotal for us, still sat alongside our clear leadership plan, was that there were a couple of things that really mattered. The first and foremost being that we needed to focus, as a group, on not just maintaining our connections to our community – whether that be students, parents, families, staff – but actually explicitly thinking about, if we're going to build efficacy how and what strategies will we use to build connections. And we developed a set of activities and strategies for building connections and thinking through each of our roles in that.

Then we thought about two more things really. How do we create security for our people, you know, when we think about our whole community how do we create security? And we made some really conscious decisions about slowing the school down, I suppose, if you like, so that we weren't introducing new platforms. We wanted platforms that our students were familiar with, that our staff were familiar with, that they had confidence in, that we could really make sure that the learning piece there was really authentic and purposeful.

Then the third thing that we really, really wanted to do was think about our workforce and really ensure that each and every person that has a role in our college had an authentic role to play, and that their role was really closely connected, again, to our kids. And so once we started to evolve those strategies, the noise, if you like, or that background noise that was a really overarching distractor, we were able to minimise that and really focus on the stuff that mattered and be calm and purposeful and really quite clear in our leadership work.

And so through that period we met more frequently, we problem solved more frequently, but always under the guise of those three headings. It was a really – it's probably going to sound ridiculous – an affirming way to work. In the face of the pandemic where everything is uncertain, we had a real sense of clarity about what it was that we needed to do. And so each time that we met, each time we were strategising, it was with a sense of affirmation that we were 100 per cent clear on how we would take those steps.

Then, as flexible and remote came upon us, Wave 2, it came much, much quicker than the first time and again we had that experience of turbulence and noise and almost outside pressure to be responding really quickly to the unknown situation. And again we went through that methodology of thinking about what is it that we wanted to deliver to our community. But, we're in a unique position and just like my colleagues all around the states (I'm certainly not professing to have a font of knowledge that anybody else doesn't have), we had a set of key learnings, we knew where we were strong last time and we knew where there were opportunities for us to improve. And so we found this time, with that lens, we could move back or migrate into flexible and remote learning really quickly, but we were able to enhance the experience for staff and for students.

And really our thinking has been around: How do we pivot as a leadership team at this moment in time to ensure that when we get to the end of this period of flexible and remote learning, that we do that in the best possible shape? And not only that, that the pivot actually takes us to the end of the year, so that the planning that we had around developing the capacity of our teachers, that we retain a focus with integrity on that, but we're also thinking: What do we need to be doing to ensure that when we bring our students and staff back physically to the community, that we've considered their needs and done that in a way that all feel valued?

JE: And of course having that collective efficacy and building that as a strength within the school has made all of that possible by the sounds of it. I'm interested in what you've each learned from the process now. Firstly, Angela, from your side of things as a leadership coach.

AM: I've learned so much working with these school leaders and with Karen. I hadn't really had close exposure to school leaders and the complexity and difficulty of their role. I've worked with senior leaders in other sectors and many of them are overwhelmed by the challenges they face and it's truly a privilege to work with anyone who wants to grow and be a better version of themselves, and is committed and willing to do what it takes. But there's something very special about supporting school leaders to grow, and knowing that it will lead to them creating an environment where teachers are thriving and growing and our children are thriving and growing. It really doesn't get more rewarding than that.

JE: And, for you Karen, leaving the school priorities aside just for a moment how has it benefited you, your leadership skills and knowledge?

KS: For me personally, there's quite a few things. I feel really humbled to be continually participating in this learning experience. And, I guess, I would say first and foremost renewing my commitment and belief in the students in our school and their capacity to learn – that's a really special place and a special reminder, that when you reconnect with your own purpose as a leader and a learner it helps reenergise you to keep going. Because, the work is hard and the work is relentless and the work is complex, and never more so than this year. And, it gives me clarity in understanding how to strategise, to go forward, to put our school together.

I think I would say, with honesty, working in this coaching model (and it really is an action research model, if you like) ­is the courage to be vulnerable in the leadership space and understand that in being vulnerable and open to learning and embracing reflection, that there's an opportunity to be genuinely innovative­­, to grow in the space and to try new skills that other people can appreciate and benefit from as well.

I do believe that working in this way has helped me empower other learners and other leaders to step up, to fulfil their leadership capacity, to test and trial ideas and to be secure about making mistakes and to know that not being successful is sometimes the best learning opportunity and that if we've planned together then we will be okay. So, ultimately a far richer suite of leadership skills and beliefs and my sincere hope is that they will continue to grow over time.

The other thing,

As a school leader, consider the following: What would be the one big thing that you would shift and grow in yourself in order to grow collective efficacy in your school? What steps would you need to take? How would you need to grow as a leader?