by Hannah Capin
Tiffany Campau was in her second year as an ANet coach when a school leader came to her with a request: I don’t know how to give feedback. Could you help me?
For a twenty-year school principal expected to provide answers, this moment was huge. Before she’d been partnered with a coach, the principal hadn’t had anyone she could reach out to in moments of doubt. But with Tiffany by her side, she finally had a partner she could trust.
“It was a powerful moment,” Tiffany recalls. “So many leaders, especially leaders with so much experience of their own—they’re not used to being able to say, I don’t have the answers. But there’s always something to add, and that’s where coaches can help.”
Coaching provides concrete and intangible benefits for overburdened leaders.
Coaching as an educational practice has been growing for a number of years. Working with teachers, school leaders, and district leaders, coaches provide curriculum guidance, assessment preparation, staff evaluation, data analysis, and professional development. These tangible aspects can improve instruction and raise test scores. And high-quality coaching extends far beyond these tangibles, offering even greater potential through an equal, transparent partnership for leaders who would otherwise face new challenges alone.
In a recent article, former teacher and principal Peter DeWitt highlights three deeper benefits of coaching: providing focus, raising efficacy, and offering an outside perspective. “Building leaders get the job and are handed the keys, but many of them are overwhelmed with the amount of duties,” DeWitt explains. “This puts them in the position of manager too often, and instructional leader not often enough.”
For Tiffany and other ANet coaches, the reality of overwhelmed school leaders rings true.
“I’m a former school leader myself,” says Lysa Scott, now a coach in Baltimore. “I understand the pull leaders have from so many directions and how the day-to-day can get in the way of the big picture.”
Lysa sees herself as a thought partner for instructional leadership. “You can coach so you’re just giving information, but that has so many limits,” she says. “When you’re a true partner, you’re having conversations with each other.”
This partnership guides every aspect of a coach’s work. “You’re there to listen and then to plan, together, in a way that will lead to shifts for teachers, and for students,” says Lysa. “Leaders bring their deep knowledge of a school and its history to the table. As a coach, I have new eyes for that school, and I have experiences I can share from other leaders who have been in the same situation and come through it.”
Julia Davis, a coach in Louisiana, agrees—and she echoes the importance of providing an open, supportive presence. “I’ve had so many leaders cry in meetings with me,” Julia says. “And that’s important. That’s valuable. School leaders need a place where they can be vulnerable, where they can ask questions they’re afraid to ask with other people. They have to be ‘on’ so much of the time and present clarity. We all have doubts, and school leaders need someone they trust and can reach out to and say, I need help.”
Partnerships built on trust foster honest reflection.
This theme appears again and again in conversations with ANet coaches and the leaders they serve. Having an objective partner who will listen without judgment means leaders can reflect honestly and consider new ideas.
“There are things leaders can’t say internally, because their staff wouldn’t be the right audience,” Tiffany explains. “But having someone with an outside perspective—someone who can say, ‘This is how it’s happened at another school; this is how another leader in your situation has dealt with this same issue’—that can move the conversation forward so much.”
This type of trusting relationship is particularly critical for leaders who don’t have peers nearby .
“I work with a couple of small schools in a district that’s suburban, bordering on rural,” explains Matthew Dennis, who coaches in Illinois. “If a school has only one teacher teaching a subject in each grade, it can be hard for leaders to assess what’s working and what isn’t. And it can be hard for them to address weaknesses, because feedback directed at just one teacher feels so much more personal.”
This year, as Matthew and two school leaders build a stronger professional leadership program for their schools, the leaders have been able to draw on the experiences of coaches and leaders in countless other ANet schools across the country.
“I had a principal say to me, ‘Is this working? Will this work for our schools?’” Matthew recalls. “She didn’t have a comparison to make locally, and she was feeling very alone. Once we’d talked through the experiences leaders at similar schools had had, she was excited instead of uncertain. That connection we can make as coaches—it’s rewarding to see how it encourages leaders to keep asking me the tough questions.”
The support of a trusted coach also helps leaders maintain calm, balance, and perspective that allows them to offer support, in turn, to their staff.
“When there’s trust and respect between a leader and a coach, it can lead to amazing change,” says Brandi Phillips, a coach in Colorado. “The shifts we can make together—for the staff, for the kids—they all start with building relationships. That’s the difference. Every school leader deserves that support.”