Coaching

Principle of Legitimacy … Lessons from a Coach

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In my work life, I am fortunate enough to collaborate with an amazing literacy coach who is one of the best educational leaders I’ve encountered.  I am also lucky to be sharing my life with her because she’s my wife.

Last year Tracey transitioned from her role as an elementary teacher and informal educational leader to a more formal leadership role as our literacy coach.  Now I realize I may be a little biased, but she really has done an amazing job!  It’s almost like she was born to be an instructional coach. You would be hard pressed to find a member of our large faculty who wouldn’t agree with me.  She has been able to improve learning, develop professional practice, manage change, implement new initiatives, provide engaging professional development, and simply make our school and district better.  What makes her work so amazing is that she is the lone instructional coach in a K-5 elementary school that is home to 1,200+ learners, 70+ faculty, continues to grow in size, and strives for continuous improvement.

There is a lot to like and admire about Tracey, and as a colleague and partner, I love to see her evolve as a leader and succeed in her new role.  For Christmas, Tracey gave me Malcolm Galdwell’s David and Goliath.  While reading about how underdogs succeed, I realized that much of Tracey’s success is built upon the “principle of legitimacy”.  Although this idea is a legal concept for reviewing laws it aptly applies to education and leadership in general.

Instructional coaches, principals, classroom teachers, and really anyone with positional authority who want to influence others, needs to understand the three components of the “principle of legitimacy”.

  1. People need to feel like they have a voice.  They need to feel that if they speak up, they will be heard.
  2. People need to feel that things are predictable, that your expectations and how you work, will roughly be the same tomorrow as they are today.
  3. People need to feel that things are fair. No one likes to be treated differently.

Like most exceptional leaders,  Tracey has been able to succeed in her role because of her legitimacy.  Not only does she possess the depth of knowledge and breath of experiences to be successful, she is also legitimate in her thoughts, words, and actions. In this case, actions certainly speak louder than words.

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Coaches Make a Huge Difference

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For the past two years, my family and I have returned to Canada to spend our Christmas holidays with our extended family.  What surprised me about returning home during the winter was not adjusting to the cold, but instead it was my learning curve.  Since being away from winter, a lot has changed. The internet exploded, fax machines disappeared, and cars now have anti-lock brakes.  This certainly made driving much easier.  Technology also made skiing easier.  When I left Canada to work in Mexico, snowboards were still not allowed on most hills.  No one wore a helmet and the skis themselves were very different. Even though I grew up skiing all of my life, I booked some time with a ski instructor for some lessons. I needed to relearn how to ski using the new fancy parabolic skis. Thanks to a great ski coach and some new technologies, I was back skiing … possibly even better skier than before. What enabled me to experience immediate success?  It was the coaching provided by my ski instructor — specific, timely feedback that provided very clear goals.

On the ski hill and in sports, coaching works.  More and more teachers are adopting a workshop model for literacy instruction that enable them to coach readers and writers.  Schools around the world are recruiting for a variety of instructional coaching positions — learning, literacy, math, science, cognitive, instructional, technology, etc.   There has certainly been a great interest in the professional learning model that might be described as coaching; and for good reason.  The coaching model is an incredibly powerful form of professional development.  Jim Knight, from the University of Kansas Coaching Institute, shared the following on the chances of teachers implementing new instructional practices.

  • Workshop on the new skill – 10%
  • Workshop with modeling – 12-13%
  • Workshop, modeling, and practice – 14-16%
  • Workshop, modeling, practice, and feedback – 16-19%
  • Workshop, modeling, practice, feedback, and coaching – 95%

It’s a no brainer.  Coaching and coaches have the potential to make a HUGE impact on learning, both for students and teachers.  So I find myself wondering, how can schools and educators take advantage of this great opportunity?  What role do coaches and coaching play in your learning and your school?

“Excellence is not an act, but a habit.”

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Sydney Crosby, Rory McIlroy, Rafeal Nadal, Lindsey Vonn, Dr. Atul Gawande, Itzhak Perlman, and Usain Bolt share a number of commonalities. Each has reached the upper echelon of their chosen profession — be it sports, music, or medicine.  Yet, despite being at the pinnacle of their individual professions, recognized as true models of excellence, they each also have a coach.

As an educator, my professional practice has been shifting away from the traditional paradigm of a teacher, to become more of an instructional coach for the students who bound into school each day.  As an educator, much of my day is spent offering and developing specific, targeted, and deliberate practice / feedback so that students can develop the depth and breadth of abilities they will require for future success.  Simply, learners improve by working on what they are not good at.

I would like to see more of an instructional coaching model help improve my professional practice, shape the growth and development of my profession, and ultimately strengthen student learning.  Teaching and learning is simply too complex to be able to be successful in isolation.  Without another set of eyes, offering a different perspective, people are unable to achieve and maintain their personal best.  The idea that once you graduate, from something like middle school, high school, university, driver’s ed, or cooking school, that you no longer require instruction, is simply outdated.

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As an educator, I know that I will always have something to work on.  As a professional, I recognize that each of my colleagues will always have something to work on.  As an educational leader, I will always value the role coaching contributes to the journey of continuous improvement.  As the husband of a learning coach, I see the importance of letting teacher’s, like students, take ownership for learning and choose their individualized path; be it keeping a mini-lesson truly mini, developing improved questioning, making better use of assessment data, organizing better collaborative meetings, or adopting new classroom management strategies.  The list is and should be, truly endless.

I see coaching being an essential role of every school administrator.  The most effective learning leaders are those who observe, judge, and help facilitate professional learning.  They enable their colleagues to become more competent; to move through the four stages of competence.

It’s certainly true that some background knowledge and expertise is important to be an effective coach, but the best players do not necessarily make the best coaches.  The great violinist, Itzhak Perlman is a case in point.  His wife is his coach.  Coaches don’t need to know it all.

“She is an extra ear.” She’d tell him if a passage was too fast or too tight or too mechanical—if there was something that needed fixing. Sometimes she has had to puzzle out what might be wrong, asking another expert to describe what she heard as he played”.

Gehry Excellence

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It is in this context that I find myself wondering, how do principals and headmasters stay at their best?  I think looking to the world of sports, medicine and the model that already exists in education, offers great opportunity. Instructional coaches are becoming increasingly common in our schools.  Perhaps it is time that formal educational leaders tap into the potential that coaching offers to further support their work.

To close, I wanted to leave you with one of my favourite quotations. It’s one of the values that my family emphasized while I was growing up and is one that I hope to impart in my three sons, and the kids who I work with every day.

“We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence is not an act, but a habit.”

I’ve never really known who originated the quote, but according to a recent episode of Grey’s Anatomy, it’s attributed to one of the great Greek philosophers.  Thanks to coaches like Maggie Moon, Pam Harper, Justin Medved, and Tom Baker, I know that coaching helps ensure that the work you do is your personal best, helps a school strive towards excellence,  and helps improve student learning.