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Leaders as Coaches: Empowering Professional Growth in Schools

By Kimberly Cullen
Leaders as Coaches: Empowering Professional Growth in Schools

In Spanish, there is a well-known saying - “no hay mal que por bien no venga” (which could be translated into something like “all bad things happen for the good they bring”). It’s hard to imagine good things coming from horrible events, but even the most tragic, catastrophic events have a flip side - including the Coronavirus pandemic. People all over the world have been forced to find new ways of doing old things, and in many cases, we’ve realized that the old ways needed to change. In some ways, the pandemic has done us a favor. It has forced us to have critical conversations around mental health, work-life balance, the importance of passion and purpose, and the need for choice and voice in everything we do.

The pandemic stretched most people beyond their natural limitations, with few being tested more than front line workers and educators. The tendency during a crisis is to hunker down and wait until it passes. However, as COVID quickly revealed, that wasn’t going to be enough. In school communities specifically, the pandemic highlighted the need for a different kind of leadership altogether - that which is empathic, compassionate, vulnerable, and emotionally intelligent. Schools need leaders who are adaptable, curious, and reflective, and who can tap into their greatest assets - their teachers and staff - to keep schools moving forward without burning their teachers out.

This past summer, women educators from around the world were invited to participate in a workshop series designed specifically to help school leaders to explore how they might better support the growth and well-being of their employees. Hosted by the International Schools Services Mary Anne Haas Women’s Symposium - an annual event since 2002 - this past summer’s focus was Leaders as Coaches:  Empowering Growth in Schools. The workshop series was divided into four parts - three two-hour sessions in June and July, followed by a refresher in September. With over 60 active participants across the four sessions, there was great enthusiasm around how leaders can best support educators to learn and grow while attending to their well-being and psychological safety.

The sessions were built on two main ideas:  1) the most effective leaders are shifting the balance from traditional management to a more inclusive and collaborative approach and 2) the most effective and respectful way to bring out the best in others is through coaching.

Throughout the four sessions, participants engaged in vulnerable conversations while developing the skills of compassionate listening and effective questioning. They applied these to their own professional contexts and supported one another in breakout rooms with coaching practice. They challenged their own assumptions and explored the shifts that they could make in their thinking in order to bring a coaching mindset into their own leadership. They reflected on their backgrounds and experiences in order to understand how identity plays a defining role in the way people “show up” in life and at work. They used these insights to think about empathy and how using a coaching framework in conversations could build trust and open new lines of communication. In the end, participants emerged from the workshops with a clear sense of how incorporating coaching skills into their leadership is both respectful and empowering for everyone involved.

Keys to a coaching mindset

  • Listen more, speak less
  • Be comfortable with silence
  • Ask one question at a time
  • Make space for creativity
  • Ownership = empowerment
  • Stay curious, avoid assumptions and judgement

By shifting the focus of control from supervisor to employee, coaching increases trust, self-awareness, and intrinsic motivation. For leaders focused on the bottom line - the end in increasing employee growth and satisfaction is productivity. It is true, however, that coaching is a skill that does not necessarily come naturally to everyone. Leaders at all levels are not only encouraged to use coaching, but also to be coached. In this way, leaders can help foster an environment of equity and accountability, and a culture of learning and growth at every level.

For information about the ISS Women’s Symposium, click here. For information about how coaching can support the need for transformational leadership in schools, feel free to email the author at [email protected].   


Kimberly Cullen is an international educator of 24 years. Currently based in Madrid, Kim is a U.S. citizen born in Brazil then raised in Texas and Spain, Kim is an adult Third Culture Kid who understands the unique benefits and opportunities that come from having cross-cultural experiences during the developmental years. Kim spent the vast majority of her professional life in the same international school, where she held a variety of roles in education including Head of Development, Guidance and College Counselor, Dean of Students, and High School Principal. Kim has an M.A. in Education from the University of Hertfordshire in the UK, and an M.S. from Capella University in Human Services/Counseling. She graduated from Hamilton College with a B.A. in Religious Studies. Kim received the International School Leader credential from the Principals’ Training Center (PTC), and she completed her coaching training with Coach U. Kim co-authored Raise Her Up:  Stories and Lessons from Women in International Education (to be published by Solution Tree Press in March 2022) and co-founded the Raise Her Up network - Kim is also a founding member of the International Collaborative for Coaching Professionals in Education (ICCPE) -

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