Establishing My Coaching Role With the School Leadership Team

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Jason MacDonald, instructional coach from Alberta, Canada, shares his 3 tips for establishing a coaching role with the school leadership team and how to address teacher-coach confidentiality.

For more posts from instructional coaches, for instructional coaches, please check out our recent posts from the TeachBoost series entitled: "Your Coaching Toolbox".


t's critical that instructional coaches establish a positive partnership with school leaders. Getting off on the right foot with the principal sets a coach up for success before entering classrooms. However, nothing about achieving this goal is prescriptive; you won’t find a recipe for it. ICs must accept the fact that the majority of the scenarios they find themselves in require a degree of improvisation. And so, to do this here are MacDonald's Three Laws for establishing roles with school leadership teams:

Rule #1: You Can't Hit What You Can't See

In my first year as an IC, I seethed with glorious anticipation before I began my new career. I couldn't wait to attend to the first round of principal meetings, where I would share productive, positive conversations with school leaders. With the hard work and gritty research I put in over the summer previous, it would be impossible for an administrator to not share my enthusiasm for all the wonderful ideas and strategies I had for their school. On the contrary, I was met with stagnant attitudes, concerned looks, and was even told by one administrator to "tread lightly."

Just as fast as the wind entered my sails, they were shrewdly taken away; it's an empty feeling. I felt like I was left with a box full of new tools to help teachers, but nobody to share them with. Suddenly, not only was I not helping kids, but I was blocked from helping teachers help kids. It was in that moment I learned that if the principal does not partner with the coach, business will be sparse. I realized that I was not only missing the mark with district leaders, but was aiming for the wrong target. As the late, great baseball hall-of-famer Walter Johnson once said, "You can’t hit what you can't see."

Soon thereafter I started researching where I went wrong. I furiously reviewed coaching resources and structures, leadership literature, and jurisdictional procedures. Attempting to place myself in the principal's shoes, I made every attempt to find a band-aid for my mystery mistake. Nothing jumped out at me. Then finally, my phone buzzed with an email from a school principal that I was scheduled to meet with the following week:

Good morning:

Attached you will find our school’s education plan

See you next week,


Queue fireworks… I just received a golden ticket.

Inside of this document I was able to observe trends in the school's academic needs, successes, goals, culture, and supports that were currently being utilized. Just as one would study a map before a long road trip, I was familiarizing myself with the school's end goals and how they planned to get there. As I searched for potential detours and dead ends in the roadmap, I began to fit myself in the places to make their journey easier. I spent hours studying and examining the document to the point where I felt like I knew the school without actually stepping foot in the front doors.

From there forward, meetings with administrators began to go more smoothly. By religiously referencing the education plan in conversation, administrators could see that we held a shared set of goals that helped to establish my coaching role. It was at that point that I placed a new slogan on the back of my business cards: "You choose the goal. We'll get there together."

Rule #2: True Leaders Surround Themselves With Other Good Leaders

Almost three years ago, I was hired as an elementary math coach. Before I came on the IC scene a handful schools were contracting outside consultants to support their teachers in teaching mathematics. At that time, I had assumed that since the school division is now paying me to support teachers in their numeracy goals, contract help should just go away.

In reflection, this mindset was not only wrong but downright embarrassing. Again, I was back to square one (or even -1) with some school leaders and had to figure out how I could get back in their "good books." Unfortunately, the target was unclear and that helpless feeling came creeping back to me.

Then one day it happened: one of the contracted consultants invited me to visit classrooms with her.

Queue fireworks... another golden ticket.

The consultant and I rounded from class to class, working with students and teachers, and then debriefed after. During our visit, we shared ideas and I told her about some of the research I've been doing; she was floored with enthusiasm. "You’ve got some awesome ideas, Jason! This school should be using you when I’m not here!", she said. From there, she became my cheerleader to school administration.

In my third year as an IC, this school has gone from one of my dreaded adversaries to one that has beckoned for me time and time again for support. They taught me an important lesson on knowing when to lead, and when to follow—good leaders can do both.

Rule #3: Paint With A Large Brush

Teacher-Coach confidentiality is absolutely paramount in an instructional coaching role. Without relationships that are built on trust, the coach cannot be successful in making a difference in the lives of teachers and kids. Furthermore, it will not take long for word to be spread that you cannot be trusted and therefore, will not be allowed back into the teacher circle of trust.

Being stuck in the middle can be a potential reality of a coaches job. If you’re lucky, instances where an administrator asks you to discuss specifics about a teacher, will be few and far between. However, when it does occur to you, two things will run through your mind:

  • If I don’t say anything, I've lost an administrator relationship.
  • If I do say something, I've lost a teacher relationship.

In order to maintain professionalism and positive relationships, I've always responded by painting a picture with a large brush. If I get asked a question about a staff member, I give an extremely general answer that represents that whole school. For example, "Based on what I’ve seen in classrooms, we really have arrived at proficiently teaching multiplication concepts to students. We seem to be really picking up steam, and evidence is in student results. However, we must put more focus on…"

This is a favorable strategy and, whether you realize it or not, we use it all the time. Think about it: when one says mankind has landed on the moon we are not referring to every human being, but about a technological advancement as a species. And so, when confronted with an awkward question about a teacher, try to discuss a school's successes and shortcomings as a whole; it will help you to maintain a healthy relationship with both principals and teachers.

About our Guest Blogger

Jason MacDonald is from Marshfield, Prince Edward Island, Canada. He holds undergraduate degrees in Psychology, Sociology, and Elementary Education and is currently pursuing a Masters degree in Leadership in 21st Century Learning from the University of Prince Edward Island. Jason has worked as an instructional coach for the last four years and he currently resides in Alberta, Canada with his wife, Heather, and his dog, Axle.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jasonmac1202 

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