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Improving professional learning through coaching: the case of Tonga

Coaching as a mode of professional learning has the power to drive education performance in a variety of local settings, including in secondary schools and with senior members of staff. In Tonga, coaching was employed as a key professional development tool in the Tonga Secondary Schools Leadership Project. Education Specialist Kris Needham outlines how this method of learning can be successfully applied in the Pacific context. Her blog is the second in a two part series examining educational leadership and impact in Tonga.

Coaching as a mode of professional learning has the power to drive education performance in a variety of local settings. Credit: TSSLP.

Coaching is essentially a conversation, where the coach facilitates the self-directed learning of the coachee. Key elements of a coaching conversation are usually a sequence of steps forming a conversational framework, skilled questioning and listening, and space for both reflection and challenge. Developing a trusting relationship between coach and coachee is also vital if the coaching is to gain any real traction in achieving worthwhile goals. To this end, the coach needs to be a reflective practitioner in order to modify his or her approach to meet the needs of the coachee.

In the Pacific context, coaching was used on the Australian Aid funded Tonga Secondary Schools Leadership Project (TSSLP), to support and extend formal learning. A small team of Tongan consultants was trained as coaches, each responsible for working with five to six principals. At the same time, principals themselves were provided with coaching skills, so that they could participate knowingly in the process of their own coaching, and also use coaching strategies with their staff.

Adapting coaching to local Tongan culture
One of the main advantages of using coaching in the Pacific context is that there is already a strong oral heritage. Conversations are the preferred way of working, so a conversational model feels very comfortable. Another advantage is that, as opposed to mentoring, coaching is non-directive, with the coach acting as facilitator of the coachee’s thinking. This approach of not telling another person what to do aligns with existing conventions of humility and respect.

Given this overall compatibility, coaching becomes a sound choice of strategy for professional learning in Tonga. As coaches in the TSSLP began to work with principals, they developed some modifications to the structures and skills used by coaches in Western settings. They were aware of the need to respect Tongan values and traditions if they were to develop trust, which is a critical component of the coaching relationship. Tongans have a well documented set of core values which govern their daily interactions - respect, reciprocity, loyalty, humility and love. For the coaching partnership to gel, it is necessary for both coach and coachee to observe these values. An integral part of creating and building mutual trust is ensuring that these five core values are the foundation for the coaching conversation.

Two significant modifications found to be useful in the TSSLP were:

1. A warm up of small talk

In the Tongan context one starts building a strong relationship by getting to know the other person. A more traditional coaching conversation might be more focused on moving into identifying goals – questions such as ‘what would you like to achieve?” or “what would you like to be different” are used reasonably early in the conversation. The coaching conversation in Tonga begins by acknowledging the coachee’s worth and dignity, a show of respect. In practice this could be tuning in to what is important to the coachee –for example, family, kin, religion or work. The coach will allow the coachee to talk about things that are not related to the coaching, but are important to him or her.
The coachee may also need to know more about the coach - family, kin, religion, so that he or she feels more comfortable with the coach. This also reflects the second Tongan value of reciprocity – of mutual respect.

A warm up such as this strengthens the potential of the coaching, as it appears less abrupt than moving too soon into a discussion of the coachee’s goals.

2. Allowing time for the conversation

Being succinct is normally a key coaching skill, and most coaches seek to convey a manner which is focused and purposeful. However this is not useful in the Pacific, where it is necessary to give ample time and space during the coaching session to reflect and talk.

It is Tongan custom to talk around a topic for some time before coming to the main point, often speaking indirectly or even avoiding the main topic. It is said that Tongans can talk for two hours before they raise the topic they really want to talk about! The Western world is conscious of time as a limited and valuable asset, so most actions are targeted towards dynamism, focus and effectiveness – getting on with “doing”, or even addressing ‘time management’ as a goal area. Tongans tend to have a relaxed view of time as abundant and ascribe importance to small talk.

The coach therefore needs to be patient, and comfortable in what might appear like circularity or not being ‘on task’. Allowing extended time for the coaching session shows respect and humility, while at the same time building rapport and a trusting relationship. The humility of the coach is also apparent through body language, being encouraging and respectful, but also generally avoiding eye-to-eye contact, which can be considered rude and disrespectful.

The future of coaching in the Pacific
The best coaching approach will need to be an integrated approach – the blending of current coaching theory and practice with observance of cultural values. The coach and the coachee need to jointly shape the coaching relationship. The coach’s core practices, his or her repertoire of favourite methods and tools, need to be flexible and open to interrogation, free of assumptions. A coaching disposition that is open to analysis is the mark of a true reflective practitioner.

Training local nationals as coaches is an essential strategy. It is important that the design of the training program takes into account the need for cultural modifications to the coaching engagement. The design needs to provide time and structures for explicit discussion and exploration of local cultural issues, and then time for reflection, sharing and modification during early implementation. In doing this, the coaching team can ensure the coaching model is responsive and culturally appropriate.

In the case of the Pacific, coaching done right can help educational leaders overcome challenges, and drive learning and performance at the local school level.


About the author

Education Specialist Kris Needham.

Dr Kristine Needham is an accredited executive coach with an extensive professional background in educational leadership. She has been a secondary school principal, education consultant, researcher and advisor. Kris has a particular interest and experience in developing and facilitating professional development activities for newly appointed and aspiring leaders, combining the best of current research with a practical approach. Kris has held the position of Educational Leadership Specialist in the Tonga Secondary Schools Leadership Program, where coaching and a coaching approach were seen as valuable methodologies for educational change.