When the going gets tough...

7th September 2007 at 01:00
Help is just a phone call away, as one depute has found out - with relief.

CRIPPLING DEADLINES and constant interruptions are the norm for senior school managers, but Ruth Munro, just a few months into the job as depute at Dunbar Grammar, was facing a particularly stressful time earlier this year.

"It was one of those situations when a host of deadlines converged at the same time. I didn't know how I was going to get through the next two weeks," she says.

Fortunately, East Lothian was involved in the mentoring and coaching project funded by the Scottish Executive's education department, led by Learning and Teaching Scotland. East Lothian's approach had been to buy in professional coaches, provided by Nurture UK, to support senior managers. But it had taken a different approach from normal, arranging the coaching to take place on the telephone.

"I was sceptical at first," admits Ms Munro, who had just returned to the school environment after six years working as a quality improvement officer within the council. "The coaches were not educationists and, rather than meet face-to-face, we were to talk via the telephone. I tried to keep an open mind."

Each participant was to be given six one-hour coaching sessions. The plan was to deliver these once a month, but it was quickly recognised that it needed to be more flexible to work for teachers.

"We thought we could do it after school, but it never worked out like that, Ms Munro says. "You need to be flexible to support your colleagues. If you know he or she is about to do a session with his or her coach, then you have to cover for that hour. But we all helped one another."

Ms Munro soon found that being coached by a non-specialist worked well in surprising ways. The management skills targeted were common to all sectors, while the lack of knowledge about life in a school gave coachee and coach a new perspective. "I wasn't able to hide behind the excuse, 'Oh, but we don't do that in schools', and it made me look at why not."

The real crunch was when the convergence of a series of deadlines loomed. "I didn't know how I was going to get through it," says Ms Munro. "It seemed overwhelming. My coach asked me if I had a chair away from my desk I could sit on while still using the telephone. Once in that chair, my coach told me to imagine it was two weeks' time and that I had met all my deadlines. Then she asked me to imagine how I had met those deadlines. By the time I came off the phone I had an action plan."

The conversation enabled Ms Munro to step back from the challenges and find space to look at them from different angles. Two weeks later, working to timelines and her action plan, Ms Munro achieved all her targets. It is an exercise she has used consistently.

Dunbar's senior managers are considering how to expand coaching to the rest of the school. Starting this term, teachers have been asked to volunteer to coach small groups of S5 pupils through their Highers. "We want to give these teachers some training in how to coach effectively," says Ms Munro. "Then they will coach to build the capacity of the students to cope with the workload themselves."

Ms Munro is fully aware that coaching is not the panacea for all the problems facing teachers. But, after her experience, she sees it as extremely beneficial.

"It is definitely one of the most useful tools, as it really helps build capacity and confidence of all those involved," she adds.

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