Grace under pressure


Paul Keenleyside describes methods of coaching used as a tool to support wellbeing and resilience in special school leadership

Over the last five years I have worked as a leadership and performance coach with a number of special school leaders and teams – from Executive Headteachers through to emerging leaders and classroom teams in complex needs settings. No matter their role and what faced them, each leader has displayed professionalism and resilience – ‘Grace under Pressure’. 

Thinking about coaching for a leader’s wellbeing is so important for internal and external coaches in schools, and also for leaders who adopt a coaching style in their day-to-day work. So, how can this be achieved?

The importance of context
Coaching in education is researched and familiar to many of us through the development of the national leadership programmes over more than a decade, including the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH) and National Professional Qualification for Senior Leadership (NPQSL) etc. 

Over that same decade schools nationally and internationally have developed their own internal coaching teams and structures to support their development as institutions. School leaders are also well aware that coaching is one of the two most impactful and effective of leadership styles. It is a process that has at its core, the belief that the individual already has the insights and answers to the problems they face.

A skilled coach asks those questions that help an individual find the answers they need. ‘Coaching is unlocking a person’s potential to maximise their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.’ (John Whitmore). 

Coaching in special education settings has a specific contextual dimension. It has something to do with who we are, our inclusive values and how we live them – referred to by Martin Seligman as Values In Action (VIA). Whilst leadership in our contexts is often distributed and takes the form of an interrelated  High Performing Teams, wider organisational resilience relies extremely heavily on the personal resilience of the Senior Management Team of the school. 

That resilience has been sorely tested by the events of the last few years. Leaders at all levels in special education (as in all schools) have been repeatedly impacted by change and external direction over which there has been little or no control.  

Learning about ‘good decisions’
Delivering workshops and coaching through late 2019 and 2020 helped to shape thinking about what the pressure of the pandemic was doing to our sense of being leaders. A recurring feature of the conversations was that making consistently ‘good’ decisions was becoming ever more complex and difficult despite pragmatic adaptation to different situations. 

Colleagues would come into a coaching discussion with a ‘traditional’ subject to talk through – planning, team development, student concerns, relationships with stakeholders – but were also acknowledging some level of wider concerns about their leadership environment. 

The conversations highlighted three areas where internal (school) and external (consultant) coaching could support leaders in making these ‘good’ decisions:

  • Establishing awareness around all the different factors affecting the environment and performance. This is core to any good coaching conversation
  • Providing space for self-awareness and self-care, and prioritising wellbeing so that we are being ‘who we know we are’
  • Confirming, reminding and perhaps even re-finding the school leader as an ‘expert self’. This is often called having ‘conscious competence’.

Coaching differently
As a coach there has been a value in creating a more structured form of conversation which gives space and time to look at professional wellbeing – and in supporting teachers and leaders to strengthen their sense of resilience and of being an ‘expert’. 

If you are a coach in school, or if you are a coaching leader, what could you look at doing?

  1. The most important thing is to help others – and particular leaders – to recognise that talking about themselves and putting themselves first is OK! If they are functioning well, they can help others better. The often used analogy from flights is crucial here – the ‘put the oxygen mask on yourself first’ principle.
  1. Recognise that ‘time to talk’ in a professional and supportive space is precious. It won’t be taken for granted and no one will treat it lightly. It is helpful to make sure that there is a clear understanding (contract) that talking about personal wellbeing and concerns is OK and welcome as part of the conversation.
  1. Think about the wellbeing questions and your own approach to them. Coaching conversations often start with a broad contextual question – one which shows regard for the person being coached and provides a starting point for the conversation. It is often something like ‘How are you coming into the room? What is happening for you? What is your level of resourcing/energy at the moment?’ These questions are more important than ever so consciously use them – it is worth collecting some questions that you can use and that you are comfortable with.
  1. Acknowledge when something around wellbeing and professional resilience appears in a conversation and make a clear response to it. Much of this we do naturally as part of line management – signposting to external support or HR for example – but in coaching conversations colleagues often identify small but significant actions and targets about their wellbeing that they want to achieve. They just need a positive and professional space to look at how to reach those targets for themselves – I’ve lost count of the number of ‘Dry January’ and ‘Sober October’ conversations I’ve had in the last two years!
  1. There are some really good resources which help promote clarity and focus. These range from mindfulness and meditation sessions on YouTube to structured approaches to leadership that recognise the importance of our physical self in our work. It’s a good idea to have some ideas of where you could signpost colleagues to – and perhaps also explore some of these things ourselves. Over the last few years I have used somatic and embodied leadership practices as tools to help leaders ‘listen’ to what their body is telling them (it is an incredibly valuable source of information) and to gain ‘centre’ and clearness in confusing and uncertain situations.
  1. Finally – accentuate the positive! There are some very useful models to support great conversations with colleagues that taps into their sense of ‘self as expert’ and the richness of their own experience. This allows for reflection on previous success and the translation of this into now and future actions. I use an Appreciative Inquiry Model for conversations – as teachers, it is familiar to us as the www/ebi construct:

    a. What successes would you like to acknowledge?
    b. What challenges have you encountered?
    c. What supported you in handling these challenges?
    d. How could you make the outcome even better?

If needed this can be expanded into the ‘SOAR’ framework to help colleagues manage more complex situations:

e. Strengths – what can you build on?
f. Opportunities – what are people asking you for?
g. Aspirations – what do you really care about?
h. Results – how will you know you’ve been successful?

Coaching others is an immensely powerful tool in schools and we are just beginning to really appreciate just how great the potential is. What we may have learned over the last few years is that it can be a tool that supports ‘whole person’ decision making when we face uncertainty and complexity.

Paul Keenleyside
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Paul Keenleyside is the Executive Director at Nisai Education Trust.
Paul was a key speaker at nasen live 2021, exploring neurodiversity and online education.


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