Coaching: A solution to leadership burn-out?

Written by: Viv Grant & Professor Rachel Lofthouse | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

New research shows that coaching may be an effective solution to potential burn-out among school professionals, including leaders. Viv Grant and Professor Rachel Lofthouse outline their findings

CollectivED – the Centre for Coaching, Mentoring and Professional Learning at Leeds Beckett University – recently published an evaluation of a year-long headteacher coaching programme (2019). The coaching was provided by Integrity Coaching and funded in 2018/19 by the National Education Union.

We hear a lot of the difficulties faced by headteachers in England, but we rarely hear of potential evidence-based solutions. At a time when the challenges in the education system are becoming acute, it is essential that we find approaches which support school leaders and allow them to contribute to sustainable school cultures.

Key findings

The findings from the evaluation identified that there is significant potential within coaching for meeting the support needs of headteachers and addressing the increasingly high levels of burn-out among senior school leaders. Some of the key themes that arose from the report were:

  • Coaching helps headteachers to gain a greater sense of work/life balance.
  • Coaching provides heads with emotional support.
  • Coaching helps heads to gain confidence in their role as leaders.
  • Coaching supports problem-solving and the need to cope with continuing demands of the job, including emergency management.
  • Coaching helps heads to recognise the importance of developing teachers and systems to better support children’s learning.

A predominant theme

The need to help heads achieve a greater sense of alignment between the personal and the professional and a deeper sense of congruity between their values and those of the current education system was a predominant theme throughout the report.

The need for heads to engage in identity work is often something that is missed in discussions around headteacher support and wellbeing in general. There may be a variety of reasons for this. To do so requires that, among many things, heads need to feel: safe, listened to, understood, and valued. In a nutshell, they need to know that it is okay to be vulnerable and to be listened to without judgement. Relationships that invite this way of being in the life of heads are rare, yet they are crucial to heads’ vocational, emotional and mental wellbeing.

When this type of support is missing, heads over-adapt to the demands of the role. They adopt habits and coping strategies which on the surface may appear to be successful, but more often than not cause damage to the individual’s true sense of self.

This evaluation report is of significance because it identifies the deep need for this type of work to take place with headteachers. It has shown that when these types of conversations take place, it is not just the individual that benefits, in one form or another, other members of the school community also gain.

Through analysis of feedback from the headteachers and coaches the evaluation showed that when heads regularly in engage in coaching as a reflective practice it helps them to mature as leaders. It helps them to:

  • Recalibrate when times are tough.
  • Find new perspectives.
  • Discover solutions for their feelings of isolation or for when they feel overwhelmed.
  • Gain confidence and self-belief.
  • Ensure their values remain at the centre of their leadership.

Implications for schools

With the continued focus on wellbeing in our schools, there are a number of important implications from this evaluation for heads and governors leading on wellbeing in their own settings. The findings from this report can be extended to current wellbeing initiatives and used to bolster current discussions. For school leaders seeking to create an environment in which coaching can support wellbeing initiatives, there are five key recommendations:

1, Define what wellbeing means for you and your context: Headteachers’ reflections from this coaching programme illustrated that wellbeing was very much linked to inner work and heads working on themselves. As a result, they became much more self-aware and better able to manage themselves and their emotional responses to the demands of the job.

Sometimes in our schools, definitions of wellbeing are too narrow and tend to miss the responsibility that teachers must have for managing themselves and their own internal responses to their roles.

Having conversations that broaden teachers’ understanding of wellbeing to include a commitment to their own on-going inner work can help all members of a school community to see that responsibility for wellbeing starts with one’s self.

2, Explore coaching as a model for vocational conversations: Coaching conversations that connected heads back to their sense of vocation and purpose were found to be instrumental in helping heads feel as though they could stay in the profession for the long haul. In the busyness of school life, the need for these types of conversations can be over-looked or forgotten. Just like heads, teachers also can experience a disconnect between who they are and their sense of vocation. Creating time and space for teachers to build that connection again can be deeply fulfilling for everyone.

3, Agree on what ‘reflective practice’ would look like in your school: Being deliberate about pausing and reflecting on the day-to-day was another key benefit for heads on this coaching programme. Becoming intentional reflective practitioners simply meant that they freed up “headspace” to do the important strategic/critical thinking that after the coaching conversations allowed them to show up with greater assurance and confidence in the role.

Teachers need this time and space too. A collective discussion on the purposes and benefits of reflective practice would help to ensure that all staff were allowing themselves time to step off the treadmill and not feel guilty about doing so!

4, Review the types of conversations that take place: There is truth in the phrase, “relationships are built one conversation at a time”. The aim of most conversations with and between colleagues, pupils and parents is to come to a place of mutual understanding – not necessarily agreement, but at least to arrive at a place where both parties feel listened to and understood. There is so much within coaching that can be applied to everyday conversations – active listening, open questioning, non-judgement and so on. It was the display of these skills and more that benefited the growth and development of all heads on this programme.

Where a school has identified that some types of conversations could be improved, a simple audit of key conversations could be undertaken at an individual and/or whole school level. Results from the audit could be used to identify those conversations which could benefit from the application of a few coaching skills and techniques, in order to build relationships and create better outcomes for all.

5, A focus on sustainability: Have conversations with staff, governors and parents which highlight the need for schools to be a place which sustains the professionals who work there. Losing staff members either temporarily or permanently affects pupils very quickly and also interrupts the ability of the school to create a positive environment for learning. When working on school improvement, responding to new challenges and adapting expectations for practice, ensure that you consider the potential for negative disruption and unforeseen ripple effects.

Coaching conversations can become places where key members of the school community, such as the headteacher, rehearse ideas that can help colleagues and governors to make better decisions and through which tensions with parents can be better resolved.

Conclusion

The value to the headteachers who participated in this coaching cannot easily be accounted for in budgetary terms, but schools which have experienced stumbling starts with new initiatives, rapid staff turnover, lack of communication among team members or a breakdown of working relationships know that problems can escalate quickly and be costly and time-consuming to resolve. Finding approaches like specialist coaching which create multiple benefits can be well worth the investment.

Further information & resources

CollectivED: Sustaining a vital profession, Leeds Beckett University, January 2020: http://bit.ly/2HiZPvJ


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