Leadership coaching isn’t ‘one size fits all’

Fulcrum: noun. The supporting point of a lever.

Fulcrum Education Solutions is a figurative fulcrum, an organization that leverages school principals’ leadership by providing holistic support to maximize instruction.

Co-Founder Chris Carlson came to the idea after his own experience as a principal at Chicago Collegiate Charter School. He loved his faculty, staff and students, and he wanted to spend most of his time focusing on instructional leadership.

But he continually found himself exhausted with the sheer number of things he had to do.

“After being a principal for a couple of years, it became very clear to me that while my school was very successful, the scope of responsibility is so overwhelming that I didn’t know how a principal could do it alone,” Carlson said.

As educational practices change to accommodate society’s fast-paced development, schools and their leaders are increasingly held accountable for student success – both while in the classroom and after.

Fulcrum was born out of a simple idea: Add capacity. Carlson wanted to give principals the support they needed to evolve alongside the wider education field. In particular, he and his fellow co-founder, Cal Wysocki, wanted to help principals focus their time where it is most needed: in classrooms, observing and coaching teachers.

They started small, launching pilot programs in three schools, one of which was Jose de Diego Community Academy in Ukrainian Village, in 2014. Chicago had just closed 50 public schools, and de Diego was one of the largest welcoming schools in the city. There was a huge influx of new students and families.

It would have been a challenging situation for any principal to navigate; de Diego’s new principal saw Fulcrum as an opportunity, and she worked with Carlson and Wysocki to empower other leaders in her school building.

“The first year at de Diego, we coached teachers,” Carlson explained. “The second year, we coached a select group of teachers. By the third year, we were just coaching teacher leaders who would carry on coaching after we left.”

The approach worked. Over the years, students – and teachers – at de Diego have continued to grow and improve. The school has reached a Level 1 rating, one of the district’s highest school performance ratings.

Since 2014, Carlson, Wysocki and their team have refined their approach to supporting instructional leaders.

The first step with any new school is to get to know the lay of the land. Fulcrum team members visit the school for a “full-day diagnostic” where they interview staff members and observe classes. The point is to get a stronger sense of what the school’s needs and how Fulcrum can best support its educators.

Fulcrum coaches don’t use one-size-fits-all plans; they tailor their programs to the needs of each individual school.

“We might do a variety of things, like problem-solving protocols and walkthroughs,” Carlson said. “We might work with instructional leaders, grade-level chairs, classroom leaders, and the principal or assistant principal.”

Team members work with school leaders throughout the full school year. That consistency is key; it helps the Fulcrum team build relationships with the people in the building. In every interaction, Carlson explained, Fulcrum team members approach educators with empathy, authenticity, rigor and nerve, which all lead toward “earning” trust.

Once they’ve established trust, Fulcrum team members really dig into the work of coaching and developing school leaders at all levels. Coaches will sometimes work with a school for years, as in the case of de Diego.

But ultimately, the organization’s model is meant to build sustainable systems within the school.

“I hope a time comes when school support matches the level of accountability,” Carlson said. “Fulcrum wants to help build that support sustainably, so it lasts far beyond our partnerships.”

Fulcrum Education Solutions is partnering with The Fund during the 2019-20 school year to support principals in the Summer Design Program and the South Side Education Alliance