Case study: The power of coaching

Written by: Louise Gohr & Helen Morris | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Having both experienced significant challenges within their early days of headship, Louise Gohr and Helen Morris first connected through the power of coaching and spotted an opportunity to lead their schools using this life-changing approach

Louise Gohr, Headteacher, Pikemere Primary School, Cheshire

When I became headteacher in 2009 I knew I had a lot to learn in terms of delegation, prioritising, work/life balance and raising standards. I wanted to do a great job but knew that leading the school forward was very different to my experience of being a teaching deputy. The school had not been inspected for a number of years, Ofsted schedules and expectations had risen, and things needed to improve. I wanted to invest in my staff, with high-quality CPD being a priority. I also decided to do the same for myself.

Having completing my NPQH, I decided to find a coach who I could be completely honest with. The coaching sessions were powerful and I started to challenge my own thinking. I began to recognise that I had the answers within me and that I was able to change things positively for the school. I also realised how important regular “head space” was to help me develop school improvement priorities and grow as a leader.

It is fair to say that coaching really has changed my leadership approach for the better. We work on a strength-based approach at my school with productivity and performance improving as a result. Staff members feel valued and know that they can take charge of their own performance far better than anyone else in school.

Helen Morris, Principal, Cranberry Academy School, Cheshire

I have worked in the same school my entire career and had a number of roles from NQT to principal. In 2011 I found myself in a challenging situation. My permanent position was deputy head but I stepped up to acting headteacher when the permanent head went on maternity leave. Three days later the school was inspected and placed in special measures. I spent the next 12 months working with a National Leader of Education assigned to support the school, focusing on raising standards in teaching and learning.

After a few months, the NLE told me he was appointing a coach to support me in my development. It was the last thing I thought I needed but agreed to a couple of sessions. I thought it would be a “soft” approach where we would talk about feelings. How wrong I was. It proved to be the most influential thing in my career development. By asking powerful questions, the coach helped me to see my ability and vision as a leader.

I began to look forward to the coaching sessions and at the end of a year working with him I was determined to get the permanent position as principal. I had a deep understanding of my strengths and areas to develop, as well as my vision and values for the school and for myself.

I was appointed principal in March 2014 and continue to meet with a coach believing it to be essential for my development and wellbeing. Coaching helped me to realise my true potential as a leader and gave me time to reflect on many aspects of my life. All of this impacted on the way I led the school.

I wanted to know how to coach my staff to see their own potential and was supported by my school’s multi-academy trust in qualifying as an executive coach. At the start of my training I began to coach a few members of my staff and saw them flourish both personally and professionally. They were leading projects in the school and engaging colleagues, pupils and parents with their passion and enthusiasm. I now coach a number of executive and senior leaders in school and deliver coaching training to spread this culture to others.

Joining forces

Based on the impact coaching was having on us individually, we decided to offer coaching to our own staff. We introduced the idea to staff as part of our weekly staff meetings, outlining what coaching was (and wasn’t). We waited for interested parties to come forward – and they did.

What we didn’t realise was that our individual journeys were running in parallel, and that we only worked in schools five minutes apart. By chance, at a local headteachers’ conference, we engaged in a conversation about the impact of coaching. It was at this point that we decided to develop this further.

Staff members had started to notice a change in our leadership style and approach. They also saw other teachers leading new innovative projects and wanted to know how they had gone about doing so. We heard staff members telling other colleagues that they should try coaching because it was a great opportunity to talk openly about an issue or a goal, and it was great for work/life balance.

Together we discussed how open staff would be if ultimately the person coaching them was still their line manager. It was here that we came up with the idea of coaching across the two schools. Louise would coach staff from Cranberry and Helen would coach staff from Pikemere. Based on the impact coaching had already started to have in our own schools we had no shortage of volunteers to try this new approach. We agreed some key principles:

  • Sessions would not be held in the coachee’s school but in the other school or off-site.
  • Sessions would start at 2:30pm meaning we could cover the class for the last hour without significant financial implications.
  • Staff members would go straight home after the session, contributing to staff wellbeing and “headspace”.
  • Each member of staff would have a half-termly coaching session.

The only cost to this approach was the time being given to the sessions as both schools were investing in their staff in a cost-neutral way.

We wanted to share this approach further and spoke to our local network of schools. We completed a two-day Learn to Coach Train the Trainer programme to be able to deliver the training to a wider group of staff. We have since been able to grow the model of coaching across schools. In a 12-month period we have trained more than 60 staff members (senior leaders, teachers, teaching assistants and business managers) from across 15 schools in Cheshire East.

Due to the demands on school budgets, every time we run a coaching programme we offer free twilight sessions to all coaches. We also run a Coaching Café, which is an opportunity for those who have attended the training to come to a networking session and receive input from myself and Helen. It is an opportunity for the coaches to reflect on their practice as coaches and develop further skills.

We coordinate the local coaching programme and having gained executive coaching qualifications, which enables us to focus our coaching time on developing aspiring senior leaders or those in executive leadership positions. We are passionate about finding future leaders within education and believe coaching is a powerful way of doing so. We have certainly seen future leaders develop within our own schools as a result. It has also had a noticeable impact on staff wellbeing.

Case study: Claire (teacher)

“My biggest success has been my ability to aspire for goals that I would never have dreamed of before coaching. Louise helped me to focus on a particular goal, one that would have a whole-school impact and would redefine my role within the organisation. As a result, I secured a research grant and I am in the process of achieving one of my all-time career goals.”

Claire couldn’t wait to start coaching. As a teacher at Pikemere School, she was enthusiastic and positive in her approach. Highly competent in her role as a class teacher, Claire was ready for change. She was only five years into her career, but was keen to be doing something more to support school improvement and her CPD. Claire attended coaching sessions regularly and made sure that she was challenging herself and her own beliefs. She would commit to actions and would always update her coach on the progress towards them at the start of the next session.

Claire spoke about work predominantly but home life did feature within the sessions too: “I now know that coaching is about achieving growth in all areas of my life. It is a way of diminishing self-doubt, empowering you to reach your full potential and capitalising on your strengths.”

Claire in one of her earlier sessions spoke very confidently about her future aspirations – that one day she wanted to become a school SENCO. During the sessions Claire explored what was holding her back, how she could make progress towards securing such a post and she also challenged her inner critic. She very quickly started living her life values and focusing on the actions that could help her work towards her goal.

As a result of coaching Claire has instigated involvement in action research around attachment theory, successfully gained accreditation for social, emotional and mental health, started the SENCO accreditation and started shadowing the existing SENCO, set up a Parent Forum within school specifically for SEND, and shared practice and learning with other local schools.

She added: “I have become more self-reliant and can easily establish goals that I may have previously found unattainable. Through the process, I have increased work satisfaction and have taken more responsibility for my achievements within school.”

Case study: Jane (teaching assistant)

Jane was a coaching sceptic but agreed to a taster session to find out more. Her first words to her coach were: “I don’t know if this is for me and I don’t do emotional stuff.” However, after her first session she was hooked.

Jane is a teaching assistant at Cranberry with a passion for outdoor learning. She was frustrated because the school had extensive grounds, including its own woodland, which weren’t being utilised fully by staff. She had an idea which she shared with the principal to develop the outdoor learning curriculum and underwent Forest school training. From this she started delivering outdoor learning lessons to every pupil.

Jane said that coaching helped her to focus on her targets and goals: “I get too enthusiastic sometimes and I trip and fall and have felt like a failure in the past. Coaching allows me to plan – it cushions the process. Any failures along the way are cushioned and I see them not as failures but a positive learning pathway.”

During one coaching session, Jane talked about her successes so far but also her struggle to move her plan further. She was challenged to go and talk to local headteachers about her work in a bid to spread it across the local town and to generate income to support future plans. Jane’s reaction was “I can’t do that!” After a coaching session on this she ended up presenting to headteachers at two trusts and generated interest and support in her work.

She has also developed a business plan with the principal and SBM, pitched the plan to several building companies and businesses which has resulted in securing an amount of funding, and secured sponsorship through a local company including outdoor learning kits for pupils.

  • Louise Gohr is headteacher at Pikemere School and Helen Morris is principal at Cranberry Academy, both in Cheshire.

Further information

Louise and Helen will be hosting a conference at Cranage Hall in Cheshire in October for those who are interested in developing their leadership and coaching skills further. For further information, email lgohr@pikemereprimary.org.uk


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