Carolyn Carter Miller

Carolyn Carter Miller, EdD, is principal of Lemon Road Elementary in Fairfax County, Virginia. A former first-grade teacher, she has been an administrator for more than 20 years.

The Evolution of a Virtual Coach

So, let me get this straight. You want me to use an online web service to coach five principals who live 1500 miles away, that I don’t know, and will never meet in person. Some are participating in this activity by mandate, not necessarily by choice. Oh, and we’ll meet online for a year with the goal of the participants becoming effective school leaders as they improve the quality of learning for all students and teachers in their buildings using the Professional Learning Community at Work™ process. Sure, no problem! This was a conversation I had with Solution Tree staff over five years ago.

I was given a Framework for PLC Principals which included seven main topics which I approached as my curriculum therefore I had to be “tight” in that they must be the foundation of my sessions. How I planned each session gave me the autonomy or “looseness” to make it my own. The framework required the following elements of a PLC:

  1. Establish a Guiding Coalition Building
  2. Consensus for the PLC process
  3. Completing the Foundation of the PLC Process
  4. Creating the Structures to Support a Professional Learning Community
  5. Clarifying the Work of the Collaborative Teams
  6. Response to Intervention: Eliminating the Educational Lottery
  7. Shaping the Culture of Your School

I prepared session PowerPoints that provided a wealth of information. Our first of ten sessions began with principal/school introductions, and a discussion of the Four Pillars of a PLC: mission, vision, values, and goals. Almost in round-robin, each school talked about the process they used to create the mission, vision, shared values, and goals for their schools. As the coach, I felt obligated to ensure that the principals really understood the importance of keeping the mission as a living document; that the vision was shared; that the commitments were agreed upon and not just “lip service”; and the SMART goals were rigorous and attainable. Our conversation was enriched when we read the first chapter of The Five Disciplines of PLC Leaders by Timothy D. Kanold.

During subsequent sessions we talked about the various types of teams. We touched on what to do when teams don’t work well together and norms are ignored. RTI was very popular as the schools reached out to each other for ideas, strategies, and resources for meeting the needs of struggling and advanced students.

We ended our ten sessions with a celebration of our journey as a team and shared how they celebrate progress in their schools. We were honest when we talked about the difficulty of maintaining enthusiasm and energy for the process and staying committed to changing the culture in our schools in order to become high-performing PLC schools where all students experience success.

Even though the sessions had gone well and the principals all stated that they felt they were better equipped to lead their schools, I was not satisfied with the experience and began a quest to learn to be a better coach.

I began with an online search on coaching. A very worthwhile activity for me was to reflect on why I wanted to be a coach. I was led to understand that my ego was tied to the kind of coach I had become. I liked being a Solution Tree associate and the expectation that I was a PLC expert. Even though I regularly gave the humble statement that I didn’t possess all of the answers, I still experienced a level of pride when I knew they didn’t believe me. I liked when they called with questions or sent emails with a query. I was passing on information and acting as the proverbial “sage on the stage,” but I was not coaching. This realization was the beginning of my evolution.

Everyone has heard the adage, “If you give a man a fish, he can eat for day. If you teach a man to fish, he can eat for a lifetime.” I realized I was giving away tasty fish, but I was cheating them the experience of being able to catch their own when I was not around. Another lesson that really spoke to me was the story of the butterfly. A man passed a butterfly as it was beginning the struggle to free itself from its cocoon. As the man looked at the small hole at the bottom of the cocoon he felt the butterfly would never get free. When he returned several hours later and saw very little progress and it looked like the butterfly might give up he decided to “help” the butterfly and took scissors and cut open the cocoon to release the butterfly. Instead of seeing a beautiful butterfly emerge from the cocoon, he saw a deformed one with an engorged body and withered wings. The man did not realize that the butterfly’s struggle to emerge from the cocoon was needed for the fluid in its body to be forced into its wings, allowing them to form properly. By not giving schools the opportunity for a little struggle, I am potentially denying them the opportunity to emerge stronger and more beautiful than I could even imagine.

Instead of feeding a diet of what I felt they needed to know, I began to ask more questions to help them solve their own problems. Now when we discuss simultaneously loose and tight leadership, I have the principals survey their staffs about what each staff member felt their principal was tight and loose about, then compare their responses to what message the principals felt they were communicating. I began one session with the question, “Are there teachers in your schools you would not want for your own children?” This led to an impassioned discussion about a guaranteed and viable curriculum and supporting staff. Our sessions today often begin with a question, which could be mine or from one of the principals. I am hesitant to say my coaching has gone from “good to great,” but I am confident that I can say with pride that I have evolved from a great teacher to a very good virtual coach.

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