Professional development for superintendents should be innovative and inspiring but too often it’s limited to a workshop in a stuffy conference room with outdated ideas and even older coffee and donuts. Or it’s available through online courses that can only be accessed after a long workday.

According to Education Next, school districts spend $18 billion on professional development each year, but see little improvement in student outcomes. They tend to approach training on a macro level – viewing educators as a monolithic group that benefits from the same learning.

Instead, how much more successful would administrators be if training was specifically tailored to our own challenges, personalities, and goals, and embedded in our day-to-day?

Personalized executive coaching is finding its way from the CEO’s office to the superintendent’s, though still far too slowly. When districts remove the stigma of executive coaching and allocate a portion of professional development funds toward it and, more importantly, when administrators choose to take advantage of the opportunity, the benefits will ultimately funnel down from the district office to the classroom.

The difference between coaching vs. mentorship

Over the past few years, districts have done a fantastic job building mentoring programs for aspiring leaders and instituting instructional coaching programs. However, executive coaching and mentorship are often used to mean the same thing and they are two very different approaches to professional development.

Mentoring tends to be more instructional and guided by a content level expert who helps mentees successfully ease into their new role and provides them with support and guidance. For instance, if a new superintendent is hired and has never prepared a budget before, the assigned mentor will work with them side-by-side to help build their financial skills.

On the other hand, coaching is introspective and psychological. The goal is to help you identify and process difficult situations so that you can base decisions on what you want the outcome to be, rather than reacting in the moment. Your personality does not have to dictate your behavior. Coaching allows you to become more self-aware of your internal strengths and struggles, share ideas you’ve been hesitant to unleash, and boost your leadership skills by helping you to view the world through different lenses.

Why educators are embracing executive coaching

Professionally, superintendents are a pretty niche group with approximately 13,000 of us serving in the United States. In addition to leaning on our peers through professional organizations, like the Institute for Education Innovation and The School Superintendents Association for support, I believe we all could benefit from dedicated coaches to help us navigate a complex and emotionally-draining job.

We can find story after story qualitatively demonstrating that coaching increases one’s ability to reflect critically and increases their self-awareness and effectiveness in the business field. Studies find that when leaders collaborate with executive coaches, they experience a 70 percent increase in individual performance and a 50 percent increase in team performance. These are massive data-based outcomes!

This begs the question as to why there aren’t more superintendents taking advantage of this type of support.

As an executive coach for my fellow school leaders and someone who has different coaches of his own – I’ve seen the benefits of coaching from both sides. The number one thing I’ve learned is that if you’re willing to improve yourself personally and professionally, coaching positively impacts your relationships with your colleagues, staff, and students so you can become a more effective leader.

For example, through coaching, I’ve discovered ways to better handle conflict, which in some cases, have possibly saved my career. This benefit truly came to light when I found myself in a disagreement with school board members who violated one of our operational norms.

My frustration impacted how I conducted myself, and since we couldn’t get on the same page, I felt unable to move past the animosity. For the first time in my tenure as superintendent, I felt as though I was on thin ice unable to reconcile a once strong relationship. This is where my coach came to my rescue.

Over and over, my coach asked me, “Why are you so upset by this?” And over and over, I convinced myself that I was upset because the board members violated our norms of behavior. Finally, through hours of questioning over multiple weeks, he helped me to see that deep down, my feelings were hurt. By empowering me to recognize my true feelings and subsequently voice them to my board, our relationship was restored.

Without someone pressing me to identify the cause of my emotions, I would never have been aware enough to articulate where I was truly at to my board. Being able to do so, helped both parties change the behaviors that were holding our relationship back, and again placed me on solid footing with my bosses.

How to best take advantage of executive coaching

As an administrator, if you have the chance to build an executive coaching relationship, it’s important to truly take advantage of the opportunity and everything that comes with it. This means you will need to embrace the uncertainty and vulnerability to eventually benefit from the breakthroughs.

  • Recognize when you’re ready for a coach. Many professionals think they must jump into coaching immediately if they’re stumbling in their current role or if their stress is manifesting in negative ways. Sometimes it’s better to wait. If you feel too insecure to engage in an honest, open dialogue with a coach, the relationship won’t be beneficial. Coaching is like any relationship – it will only work when you are ready to accept everything that comes with it.
  • Look beyond the industry for help. For administrators, a mentor should be a professional peer. An executive coach, however, can come from outside the education field. In my experience, I have found that to be a tremendous plus for superintendents. Leaders from different industries bring new perspectives and skills to help you be more confident in your decision-making, seamlessly adapt to change, and strengthen your relationships with others. This assertion holds true for non-educators, as well. Some of my most successful coaching relationships exist with clients in education-adjacent fields like edtech.
  • Embrace the uncomfortable. If your coach is unwilling to make you uncomfortable, it’s not a good fit. Likewise, if you are unwilling to be a little uncomfortable, you are probably not ready for coaching. While you should feel psychologically safe in the coaching relationship, the ideal coach should also push you to challenge your beliefs and analyze your behaviors. A great coach is constantly striving to ensure a direct correlation between goals, beliefs, and behaviors. A coach that challenges you in those areas will help you take the necessary steps to become a better leader.
  • Don’t limit coaching to the administrative level. Those educators who ascend from the classroom into a leadership role aren’t just in it to chase responsibility, accolades, or paychecks – they do it because they believe what they can offer matters. In our district, we’re working on updating our strategic plans to ensure that in time, every teacher has a coach, every principal has a coach or is actively coaching someone, and I, as the superintendent, have a coach. At the core level, my philosophy is simple when it comes to growing our organization. I believe that the better our leaders, the better our organization; and that success trickles down to the kids we serve.

For too long, many school boards have viewed executive coaching as a luxury, rather than a necessity for superintendents. Moreover, many leaders felt working with a coach admitted or symbolized weakness. As a result, administrators were forced to muscle their way through overwhelming challenges on their own and feel disappointed when their efforts didn’t live up to their expectations.

Thankfully, the tide is changing. When superintendents have a coach and fully embrace the opportunity to become more self-aware as a person and professional, they will undoubtedly grow. This growth will allow them to better process situations, see issues through the eyes of different stakeholders, and clearly communicate their message to be the best leader possible for our kids and communities. All of this will ultimately lead to better schools for our kids.

About the author

Dr. PJ Caposey is an award-winning educator, keynote speaker, consultant and author who currently serves as the superintendent of schools for the nationally recognized Meridian CUSD 223 in Northwest Illinois. Dr Caposey is a member of the Institute for Education Innovation, a national school superintendent thinktank driving change in education.