Board-Savvy Superintendent

Petitioning the Board on Coaching's Merits
By ISOBEL STEVENSON/School Administrator, September 2019

FEW PEOPLE BECOME superintendents feeling they know everything they need to know — the job is just too complicated and all-encompassing. Savvy superintendents, however, draw on the experience of being new to earlier positions they have held to understand that not only do they not know everything involved in this exciting and daunting new position, they don’t know what they don’t know. These superintendents, therefore, hire a coach.

Atul Gawande, the noted surgeon and author of Being Mortal, offered an excellent argument for coaching in a TED Talk that I often direct people to access because it makes a great case for coaching. The kind of coaching that superintendents need, however, is not the kind of coaching Gawande is talking about.

Doctors and nurses, to improve their skills, need technical coaching because they are engaged in technical work. The problems superintendents face may have technical components — for example, there’s a proper way to create an operating budget — but those technical concerns also tend to be engulfed by adaptive challenges. No single right way exists for passing a budget that embodies community values, reflects strategic goals, and has a chance of being approved in a tight financial year.

Coaching’s Benefits
A professional coach will quickly diagnose how much technical support the new superintendent needs. The technical support will be conveyed in the form of direct transmission of information — this is what you need to know, this is what you need to do and this is how you need to do it. The support is topic-specific. Just because the new superintendent needs technical support in one area does not mean she or he needs it across the board.

The skillful coach also will ask questions about how a proposed course of action is related to larger goals; whether the superintendent has considered alternative explanations or options; and what success will look like. In other words, the coach will seek to provide support with district-level planning, decision making and problem solving.

How do I know this? During the past several years, my organization, the Connecticut Center for School Change, has collected data from new superintendents about the professional benefits of coaching. They tell us that, first, they want a strong relationship with someone they trust — not to keep their secrets (although that’s important) but to tell them the truth.

Second, they want to figure out better ways to do things (such as performance evaluations, board retreats, budget building and leadership team meetings) so they reach district goals faster.

Third, they want their thinking to be challenged so their decisions are stronger. One superintendent said, “There were times with my coach when he would be asking me probing questions in order to facilitate my thinking and problem solving and it was so difficult. I don’t really think I’m a dummy, but I’ll tell you some of those questions I just wanted to say, ‘Is this a trick? Is there a real answer? Or could you just tell me the answer?’ … His questioning of me was very, very effective.”

The Board Pitch
Why should you know this? The savvy superintendent’s case to the school board to pay for a coach ought not to be centered on coaching as a way to backfill aspects of the job she or he does not know how to do. Rather, the request ought to position coaching as a way to improve the quality of the new superintendent’s thinking, to keep her or him focused on board priorities (a challenge for a new superintendent) and to accelerate the superintendent’s learning.

Many superintendents in our research rated the coaching as not just the most effective professional learning they received as superintendents but the most effective professional learning they ever experienced.

This view was expressed by Matt Geary, superintendent in Manchester, Conn., who has had the same coach for five years, ever since he was a first-year superintendent. “I don’t know how else I would get this interaction,” Geary says. “She makes me a better thinker.”

ISOBEL STEVENSON is director of organizational learning with the Connecticut Center for School Change in Hartford, Conn. Twitter: @Isobeltx