The Learning Accelerator Blog/Every education leader deserves expert coaching to manage through and beyond COVID-19

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Every education leader deserves expert coaching to manage through and beyond COVID-19

by Beth Rabbitt on February 24 2021

Every education leader deserves expert coaching to manage through and beyond COVID-19: Here’s what we learned from trying to deliver on this vision

When schools abruptly closed for in-person learning last spring, hundreds of thousands of district and school leaders stepped into extended periods of crisis response and change management. The last year has, for many of them, felt like navigating a game of chutes and ladders.

We can all agree that educators working to serve their communities need access to the very best expertise. Yet, the mechanisms for getting this access are often lacking or inequitable. On the district side, even during more typical periods, the costs (time, energy, financial) of finding the right partner are high, if not impossible. During crisis, it is difficult to even know where to start given changing circumstances. On the expert side (e.g., consultants, supporting nonprofits), there aren’t mechanisms or incentives for learning together or working with clients in lighter touch ways while defining needs (especially if it turns out needs don’t map well to provider capacity and capability).

Put bluntly, the breadth of need due to COVID-19 demands the sector develop better ways to improve access, lower cost, and learn together. How might we do this, and can lighter-touch supports really help?

In May 2020, The Learning Accelerator launched a pilot with 12 other national providers to try to test this idea, working together to try out a new, coaching-based model and help providers to work with greater agility and collaboration. With TLA acting as a central “concierge,” and using philanthropic support, the group launched a pro bono service to match any school or system leader with an expert, or team of experts, for sustained coaching to help them define needs, actions, and resources for implementation to address COVID-19 challenges.

Over the course of nine months, the Always Ready for Learning Coaching Network fielded requests from over 170 school systems. Roughly half of these were in urban settings, and over three-quarters classified as Title I (e.g., serve a student body where 40% come from low income households). Requests ranged from support with remote learning, to family engagement, and financial modeling. Here are four big lessons we learned from the pilot.

Lightweight, sustained coaching does appear to be a viable, high-impact way to help leaders navigate the complexity of COVID 19. A core goal of this work was to see if, by working together differently, the network could bridge the gap between “just google it” and deeper, enterprise consulting. But we wondered, “could connecting with an outside coach through ongoing calls actually help?”

Indeed, it seemed to. Participating leaders reported the program was:

  • Targeted - an average post-session rating of 4.75 out of 5 for success.
  • Sustained and deep - Leaders were at first reluctant to tap into “free” help, but once they had one call, they stuck with it (95% of participants requesting additional support after first touchpoints). Half of the relationships were sustained over four months (indeed, some leaders have now had 11 calls with coaches).
  • Meaningful - Qualitative feedback noted that coaches offered invaluable, low-risk external viewpoints during difficult professional moments. One participant said, “as a department of one and with everyone super busy, it is so helpful to have some time to think with someone outside of my context.” Another said, “The support through coaching I received was critical during an overwhelming time in my personal and professional journey.”

We also found that coaches reported working on more complex challenges with leaders over time. First calls were often about getting grounded, building trust, and identifying issues to tackle. Later on, leaders were able to bring significant model challenges, like how to address mastery-based grading policies or personalize professional learning. This change took time though, so the sustained access to a coach really mattered.

Centralizing processes were important to decreasing barriers to entry and allowing for responsive support over time. By centrally managing processes for initial needs analysis (which was tagged to TLA’s implementation framework) and having a pool of generalists and specialists to tap into, leaders were quickly and efficiently matched with partners who had the skills they were looking for.

This combination of shared process and data and resource sharing offered more flexibility, which became even more important over time as our understanding of problems evolved. We were able to pull in teams of experts around a school leader; for example, a finance or technology expert who worked alongside a teaching and learning-focused expert, to tackle coaching collaboratively and coherently. (In some cases, when we identified that a district needed deeper support than the coaching was designed to give, we referred them out to find a consultant through our partnership with Catalyst:Ed.)

One provider noted that this ability to tap into the network meant that they didn’t have to develop a new skill set to serve the client. Rather, they could lean on others to be responsive to the needs of leaders. Because all the experts had a common language, they were also able to leverage resources across the network.

Experts also need help collaborating with and learning from one another during crisis. The pace and learning curve for support professionals. Network partners met for weekly learning cycles, sharing resources, defining common needs, and helping improve processes to make it easier to connect with leaders. In addition, the time to think “out loud” with peers (people they normally might compete for business with), was helpful for professional development.

The process to match providers with school leaders also lowered delivery cost, allowing experts to spend more time coaching (an expert said “normally I’d have to spend five hours just getting introduced and then set up for a first meeting”). The networked intake also enabled experts to support leaders they’d usually be less likely to work with, learning from more schools and districts.

Finally, providers also found value in collaboration over time, learning more about each others’ approaches and resources through network meetings. Working together, the team of providers also developed a free, public central Resource Hub that brought together core guidance and tools they were using across calls and contexts.

Sensemaking is essential, but it requires additional capacity. Working together brings economies, but collaboration isn’t always natural or without cost. Through centralized data collection (e.g., intake, feedback, resource tagging aligned to our implementation framework), TLA was positioned to aggregate needs and reflect back to partners shared problems of practice and gaps.

As the pilot progressed, we learned that making the most of the opportunities rising from the patterns would likely take even more capacity to really tackle. For example, districts are facing, as one member terms it, common “hurdle challenges” that can be addressed together through pooling strategic resources. Changes also needed to be made to lower the entry burden for districts (e.g., balance the data request with the speed of submission) and the TLA team worked to identify regional opportunities to raise with stewards (other funders, nonprofit intermediaries) as well as to produce field-level resources based on learnings and coaching topics (e.g., financial tools created in partnership with Afton Partners, or the aforementioned Resource Hub).

The need to stabilize, recover, and push for greater transformation will require significant support and flexible models for delivering it. The expert sector — providers, intermediaries, and, yes, funders — will need to work differently, challenging our own models and stretching to create new market dynamics. The coaching approach seems to be one option, and we’re excited to explore it in next phases, helping leaders wherever they are in response and recovery, accelerating cross-organizational learning, and decreasing the cost of access to the tools and knowledge needed.

As a reminder, district and school leaders can still reach out for pro bono coaching. We’re also actively looking to grow the impact of this work; reach out at

About the Author

Beth Rabbitt is CEO of The Learning Accelerator and a nationally recognized expert in education innovation and blended and personalized learning.