Using coaching to help professional development and wellbeing

Mo Laycock describes how creating a coaching culture for all staff can improve retention, increase wellbeing and help CPD

Author details

Mo Laycock, OBE, was the headteacher of a highly challenging Sheffield secondary school for 17 years. She retired in 2011 and remains involved in education as a consultant, and a leadership coach for the past 9 years with the Ambition Institute....

A successful coaching culture creates a positive and supportive ethos and becomes an atmosphere in which people enjoy being in. A whole school coaching ethos and practice, from the headteacher to support staff, can help with ongoing professional development, wellbeing and staff job satisfaction, and, in turn, recruitment and retention.   

Finding a coach

It is increasingly valuable for the headteacher to have a professional coach: preferably someone external for contracting, confidentiality and transparency. In effective organisations, headteachers will be signposted to experienced coaches and will engage in initial conversations to find the best fit, and a coach the headteacher can be honest with.

In some larger multi-academy trusts, the meetings of an hour, perhaps four times per term, will be paid for by the organisation. In other cases, headteachers may need to find their own coach.

In all cases it is important that the coach has coaching experience and some qualifications, preferably ILM Level 5 or 7, or at least an EMCC practitioner level. I have been coaching middle and senior leaders for nine years with Ambition School Leadership. These participants are on the two years Ambition programme, are generally undertaking NPQS and I speak with them every six weeks.

Timing of coaching sessions

This must be agreed between the coach and coachee, but it is preferable for these sessions to be before or after school, in quiet private rooms with no interruptions. I’ve been happy to do weekend coaching when this has been requested, as the coachee is often more relaxed and has the brain space to allow the conversations to flow well.

Developing a coaching ethos

In effective educational organisations and schools, the SLT are also given coaching, most often by the headteacher. This can sometimes get blurred with line management meetings, so it should be clear from the outset if the meeting is a coaching one or a line management one. This should all be timetabled and adhered to.

I have known a few schools where the headteacher and half the SLT undertake coaching training themselves, in order that this can be rolled out to all members of SLT and other staff effectively.

Middle leaders are often called the ‘engine room’ of the school, and vary in experience, skills and expertise. As middle leaders are vital to the success of the school, I have seen coaching to be highly beneficial to them too.

Middle leaders not only need to have high quality skills and experience in their curriculum areas, but they also need to have effective interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence, and an understanding of how their colleagues are doing, both professionally and personally. Therefore, in good schools, these coaching skills will permeate through the entire staff.

A happy, well supported school team will be a good place to work in, an attractive one to prospective staff, and happy staff equals happy pupils.

Coaching for students

Staff coaching of pupils happens quite naturally and in many schools, this looks more like mentoring, with a focus on academic progress. Pastoral staff will generally mentor students with some emotional, personal, family and attendance issues. This wraparound process is important to all students, whatever their abilities or issues, to ensure that each student knows there is someone they can talk to.

Coaching and relationships

Effective coaching is about positive and supportive relationships, and it may be necessary in some cases to move coaches and participants around, if honesty, trust and compatibility become a concern. This can be a problem in schools, but this support should not be given up.

This arrangement should not be confused with instructional coaching, which has its obvious merits in improving classroom practice and pedagogies. Many schools are using this strategy, which includes coaching feedback.

Coaching does not make problems go away, but it can change the participants’ ownership of issues and empower them to progress. Having the space for engaging in coaching is always necessary, as it often requires courage for staff to think and behave differently.

Getting staff on board

In moving to a coaching establishment, the headteacher and/or an external professional will need to dedicate training time to get staff on board and answer questions. This will include the:

  • why coaching is important
  • how to coach 
  • where coaching takes place
  • when coaching may occur.

Contracting and confidentiality at the beginning of the coaching process is vital for all concerned, so this should be given priority to ensure clear boundaries are set. If staff are given the time in a training day to consider these issues, they will together be able to design an acceptable coaching policy, which will be congruent with the vision and aims of the school.

Such a policy will need to consider the timing of coaching sessions, such as early mornings, after school or in a free lesson for example, and the location. All of this is not easy in busy schools but involving staff from the beginning and having a coaching policy created by staff will help allay any worries and get them on board with it.

Effective coaching is about positive and supportive relationships

Measuring the impact of coaching

A happy, well supported school team will be a good place to work in, an attractive one to prospective staff, and happy staff equals happy pupils.

Great leaders and teachers have passion, purpose and effective listening skills, and are always authentic. They demonstrate this every day, and in every interaction, helping all to feel valued and important. Communication, integrity, inclusion and sensitivity to the needs of staff, round out the qualities and characteristics of aspirant and effective leaders.
When I undertake consultancy with schools, I try to have a couple of hours walking around the school during lessons and unstructured times. I will watch for staff and students smiling at one another, having a brief chat, and, importantly, eye contact.

In so doing, I can generally take the temperature of the school ethos, combined with positive displays of work, students’ photographs and pride in the school. Linking this culture with outcomes and progress is often fairly easy and apparent.

Other measures of assessing the school re KS3/4 progress and attainment or performance management are mechanistic aspects of how well a school is doing. But the school culture, happiness and satisfaction as a teacher, leader, TA or student is all about relationships, and coaching is indeed pivotal to this.

I believe a coaching ethos is the way forward in schools currently, to overcome some of the external pressures on schools. Such an ethos can only make schools and all within them more effective, and stronger places to work and learn in.

Last Updated: 
15 Aug 2022