Cover Page

The Art of Coaching

Effective Strategies for School Transformation


Wiley Logo



“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way.
On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

—Arundhati Roy (2003)


Some years ago, during a very difficult time in my coaching career, I was coached by Leslie Plettner, who was then with the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools, a nonprofit organization supporting school transformation. It was hard to describe what happened when we met for our sessions at a café, but I always left renewed and empowered, bursting with new understandings about myself and my work. Sometimes Leslie asked provocative questions, other times she guided me in looking at situations from a perspective I'd never considered, and often she pushed me to try something different in my work—I usually felt stretched, but supported; my coaching improved quickly. After a while, I realized that I could express my fears and expose my worst flaws, and Leslie would still believe in me and work with me. Leslie communicated an unconditional acceptance that I had never encountered in schools.

During the time I worked with her, I found it hard to identify what Leslie “did” as a coach. I couldn't identify the specific “coaching moves” she made, I couldn't figure out how she was thinking or how she made decisions about what to ask me. She was an amazing coach, and I wanted to be just like her.

In the following years, as my coaching practice developed, I explored the complicated processes that result in effective coaching and learned how to see the elements that made up Leslie's coaching. This book is an attempt to make what goes on in an effective coach's mind visible—to make a coach's thoughts, beliefs, knowledge, core values, and feelings explicit so that they can be replicated by others. Coaching is an art, and just as the process of producing a piece of art can be broken down, so can coaching.

Art is a useful metaphor to help us understand coaching. Consider, for example, just a sliver of what a visual artist must know in order to produce a painting: how the chemical elements in the mediums he's working with interact with each other, how they are affected by humidity, and the order in which they need to be applied. A musician plans a piece of music, then carefully crafts and rehearses it many times before it is performed. Although art may seem magical, sometimes effortless, and perhaps impossible to replicate, it requires scientific knowledge and skills and an ability to precisely use a range of available tools and materials. The end product may be a delightful surprise, different perhaps from the artist's original vision, but a great deal of intention, planning, thought, and knowledge lie deeply embedded within the outcome.

Coaching can be perceived as a mysterious process, but in fact it requires intention, a plan, and a lot of practice; it requires a knowledge of adult learning theory and an understanding of systems and communication. An effective coach must possess certain analytical capacities and an ability to think sequentially. Coaching, like creating art, requires intuitive capacities, an ability to see something that is not yet—but could be—in existence, and the willingness to surrender to the process and trust that a worthwhile product will emerge. Like any visual or performing art, coaching requires attention to detail as well as an appreciation for the whole, and an understanding that the artistry is in the process as well as the product.

Although a coach plans and applies a body of knowledge and skills, an artful coach also engages in the work creatively. Our education system is a heavy and serious place these days. The need to improve our schools is urgent. But when a coach taps into and harnesses creative energy, when the process is enjoyable, even fun, the end result is more likely to be transformational.

Coaching for Transformation

I coach for transformation—transformation of the adults with whom I work, the institutions in which they work, the lives of the children and communities they serve, and our society as a whole. I coach to help teachers, principals, central office administrators, and all educators transform their behaviors, beliefs, and being. The model of coaching that I propose holds transformation as the end goal; it also assumes that to meet this goal, the process must be transformational. Transformation describes both the destination and the journey.

Transformation is a term that is at risk of being overused and drained of meaning, so a definition is necessary here. The prefix trans- means across, on the other side of, beyond—where we are going is unknown and yet to be defined. A transformation is an end result almost unrecognizable from its previous form, a change so massive and complete, so thorough and comprehensive that until we are there, it is unimaginable. For example, mist transforms when it solidifies into an iceberg; a caterpillar transforms when it becomes a butterfly. How can we create something we can barely imagine? Working toward something unclear and ambiguous can be uncomfortable. This process of creation will require us to suspend our beliefs about whether or not it can be done and to forge onward, creating and transforming in spite of our own preconceptions. Transformation, of course, can be positive or negative. The assumption in my definition is that the destination is a tremendous, positive improvement over the current state.

Coaching that is practiced as an art is coaching that has the power to transform—to completely change the substance, appearance, and even essence of one thing into another. This can be a challenging craft, at first, for those who are goal oriented, driven by strategic plans, seeking benchmarks, and secure working in a sequential, linear progression. Goals and plans will be crucial for this journey, as long as they are guides and not dictators. However, transforming individuals, institutions, student experience, and our society will require a new set of tools and some new ways of being.

What Might a Transformed Education System Be Like?

I envision an education system that is equitable for all children. Because so many definitions are used for the term equity, I would like to share mine here.

In its most simplistic definition, equity means that every child gets what he or she needs in our schools—every child, regardless of where she comes from, what she looks like, who her parents are, what her temperament is, or what she shows up knowing or not knowing. Every child gets what she needs every day in order to have all the skills and tools that she needs to pursue whatever she wants after leaving our schools, and to lead a fulfilling life. Equity is about outcomes and experiences—for every child, every day.

An equitable education system, therefore, is one in which student achievement and learning are not predictable by race, class, language, gender, sexual orientation, or other such social factors. An equitable school system will be one in which African American and Latino males do not constitute the largest groups of students who do not graduate from high school. Nor will English language learners with learning disabilities have the lowest passing scores on a high school exit exam, as they do currently in California. Equitable classrooms will be those in which boys are not routinely the students found in time-out chairs. According to a range of measurements including, but not limited to, standardized test scores and high school graduation rates, we will not be able to predict who will perform well in school. All students, regardless of family income levels, home zip codes, primary language, skin tone and gender, will have access to experiences, conditions, and support so that they can graduate from high school ready for college and careers.

This definition of equity is no small task. It describes a transformation that might be hard to imagine. It is this mind-set—that transformation is unimaginable, unattainable—that we must transform. The natural world abounds with transformation: life on Earth emerged from star dust! Human societies have undergone equally massive transformations. Consider the women's suffrage movement in the United States, Mahatma Gandhi's nonviolent resistance to British colonialism, and the end of apartheid in South Africa. We can transform our schools. It is possible.

In order to meet the needs of all students, we must also transform the experience for the adults who work in schools. Until we address the social, emotional, and learning needs of educators, we won't be able to transform the experience for students. We can start by identifying the needs that teachers and administrators have, finding ways to meet those needs, and bringing groups of educators together in different ways. In this way, together and in healthy relationships with each other, we can explore solutions to current challenges and improve outcomes and experiences for kids. This is where coaching comes in. It is a holistic approach to working with people that incorporates an understanding of how institutions and systems impact experience and learning and that fosters transformation at multiple levels.

Coaching alone, however, will not result in the kind of transformation that I envision. First of all, coaching for transformation is not possible in a vacuum—certain conditions must be established in an educational context in order for coaching to be effective. Second, coaching alone will do nothing to address the loss of funding for American schools, an issue that results in fundamentally inequitable schools. Until the current funding structure is changed, we will continue to have difficulty developing equitable schools. Finally, some educational policy and national “reform” efforts have actually made the creation of equitable schools more difficult: as long as the evaluation of a teacher's quality is reduced to a number, we will not have equitable classrooms. A single number can never encapsulate the experience and outcomes for all students.

It will take time to transform our education system. I find consolation in the Dalai Lama's advice: “Do not despair,” he counseled a group of activists. “Your work will bear fruit in 700 years or so” (Wheatley, 2009, p. 83). I also recognize that I have no choice but to engage in this process of transformation. The sages who wrote the Talmud declared, “It is not up to you to finish the work, but neither are you free not to take it up.”

While the whole system may take generations to transform, the coaching you do today can impact students immediately. The effort is well worth it for them. We cause transformation all along the road to greater transformation.

One Purpose and Two Promises

My intent in this book is to propose a model of coaching that can foster transformation in schools and beyond. This model emerges from several theoretical frameworks, proposes dozens of specific activities, and suggests belief stances and habits of mind that coaches can adopt. Coaching in schools is an emerging field. I hope to contribute to our knowledge and understanding of what coaching is and what it can do.

I make two commitments to you. First, I promise that this book will be full of immediately applicable and useful ideas and resources. I write for an audience who may not have much time to read and who may read this book in short chunks, consulting it when looking for information that might provide guidance at a specific moment. With this awareness, I promise that this book will be useful and that you won't need to read more than a few pages without getting ideas for something you can do today. At the same time, I don't want to give the impression that coaching is merely a checklist of strategies. It is much more than a set of tools, and a coach must cultivate a particular way of being—I will define this “way of being” and suggest how it can be developed.

Second, I promise to tell a lot of stories. Our brains are wired to learn through stories, we remember what we hear in a narrative, and we enjoy stories. I will use stories to illustrate theories, to provide concrete examples of the ideas I'm presenting, and to share how these coaching practices actually play out.

Where I'm Coming from and Who This Book Is For

After one year teaching high school in rural Salinas, California, I moved to Oakland (in the San Francisco Bay Area), where I have taught and coached in our public schools for seventeen years. For most of the time I've worked here, the demographics in our schools have been roughly 40 percent Latino, 40 percent African American, and the remainder divided between Asian Americans, whites, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders. About 25 percent of our students are English language learners, and over 70 percent are eligible for free and reduced-cost lunches. My stories and experiences emerge from this complicated and dynamic urban context.

I transitioned into coaching after over a decade of teaching. First, I coached teachers new to the school where I taught. Working with adults was a shift—sometimes rewarding and other times frustrating, but something about it hooked me. After a few years in the hybrid teaching-coaching role, I left the classroom for a full-time instructional coaching position in a large middle school. I knew I was in for a challenge, but assumed I'd find resources to help me.

I learn best by watching others—and as a teacher I was lucky to work with a fantastic coach, but I also learn from books. When I turned to the usual places for resources in print, I found barely a handful of books written on coaching. I read everything I could, but some of it was too specific, or not basic enough, or not grounded in an education context.

I've always heard that you should write the book you want to read. This is the book I wanted to read as a new, struggling coach, and it's still the book I want to read. I am not yet fully the artful coach I aspire to be—I have many years of practice to go to approach mastery. Writing this book is a way for me to reflect on and develop my coaching.

One note: this book focuses on coaches working with individuals. Many of the approaches are applicable to facilitating groups of educators, but the art of coaching teams is worthy of an entire volume itself.

Beyond myself, I write for three audiences:

  1. Coaches working in schools. I hope that regardless of which area a coach works in—whether beginning teacher support, math, literacy, classroom management, leadership, or school improvement—you will find relevant resources, tools, and ideas. I also hope that regardless of whether you are a brand new coach or an experienced coach, you will find something here to augment your practice.
  2. Principals and other administrators working toward school transformation. Coaching strategies can be used by anyone. Site-based leaders, central office administrators, school counselors, deans, and other educators engaged in school change will find resources for refining skills such as listening and asking questions, building trusting relationships, understanding adult learners, and more.

    In order to highlight sections that might be useful to those who are not coaches but who want to use coaching strategies—primarily principals and other site-based administrators—specific sections throughout this book have been flagged as tips for principals. Look for the circular arrow icon.

  3. The coaching community outside of education. I frequently read literature from the broader field of coaching. Regardless of where they work, the goals for many coaches are similar—the growth and development of an individual and the authentic integration of skills and passion for a greater good. I hope to share some of what has been learned in the education context with coaches who work in other fields; we have much to learn from each other.

Summary of the Contents and How to Use This Book

Even if you could read this book cover to cover in one sitting, I'm not sure I'd recommend you do so. Coaching is effective in part because it is experienced over time: you keep coming back to your coach, exploring a different aspect of your work, and then venturing out to try new approaches. In the same way, I hope this book will act as a coach—that you'll get some ideas, go try them, and then come back to reflect and learn more.

Part One, “Foundations of Coaching,” will be very useful to those new to the field. It's what I wish I could have read during my first year. This is also the information I review with principals when they're considering hiring a coach. I recommend that you read this section first.

Part Two, “Establishing Coaching with a Client” explores how to build trust, get to know a client, and determine a coaching focus. The information in this section will help a coach set up the coaching agreements and relationship.

Part Three, “The Coaching Dance” describes the listening, questioning, conversational approaches, and activities that a coach typically engages a client in. At the end of the chapters in Parts Two and Three are sections on Common Challenges that coaches experience, followed by suggested solutions.

Part Four, “Professional Development for Coaches,” is geared for coaches and those who supervise them. It proposes some structures and activities that coaches can engage in either independently or in teams to refine their practice. (See the following table of Essential Frameworks for Transformational Coaching.)

Essential Frameworks for Transformational Coaching I offer three frameworks that I suggest are essential in transformational coaching.

Framework Description
1 The Ladder of Inference (See Chapter Three) A framework to help us understand what's underneath behaviors that we observe and to help us deconstruct beliefs. This is based on the work of Peter Senge.
2 The Coach's Optical Refractor (See Chapter Four) A set of analytical tools that can help us see a situation in many different ways. There are six lenses which help us look at evidence from different perspectives. These are based on the work of the National Equity Project and Daniel Goleman.
3 Coaching Stances (See Chapters Nine–Twelve) An analytical framework for coaching conversations and activities. These can help us plan coaching conversations, make decisions during the conversation, and guide the next steps we take. These are based on the work of John Heron.

The Appendixes offer a glossary of commonly used terms and recommended resources on topics raised in each chapter. On my website,, you'll find a bank of additional tools and tips.

A Couple Notes

On Terminology

As someone very interested in the power of words, I am unsatisfied with any of the terms that are currently used to describe the person who receives coaching: the “coachee” or the “client.” Coachee sounds too cute, informal, and like a derivative of “coach.” Client references the business world, but our work in schools is about transformation, which lies too close to the heart and soul to be associated with financial transactions. As much as I dislike these two terms, there are no other alternatives currently in use, and rather than attempting to be innovative, I'm going to grudgingly settle for using these two interchangeably.

On Anonymity and Pseudonyms

To protect the privacy of every teacher and administrator I have ever coached, as well as the schools where they worked, I have changed names and most identity markers so that the people about whom I write will be unrecognizable even to themselves.

Part One
Foundations of Coaching