“I’m on a giant Ferris wheel and I can’t get off”

Leadership learning through a coaching approach - As a coach, my work takes me into settings to work with leaders and managers juggling competing demands. Jennifer invited me in to her nursery as she wanted to discuss her new role as leader of a large nursery. She said “Everyone suddenly wants me! I’m completely exhausted and I have hardly started the things I promised myself I would do today! And then they come around again the next day. I’m on a giant Ferris wheel and I can’t get off.” One thing a coaching approach and coach can do is help leaders sort out the complex demands of the job. This article explores a first coaching session.

In “Leadership and Management in the Early Years” (2013), Jane Cook talks about the importance of effective leadership.
“Working in Early Years we know that good quality education and care makes a difference to children’s lives and that this continues to have a positive impact many years after the child has left the setting. The quality of provision and children’s outcomes are nearly always reflected through the quality of the leadership and management.” Jennifer has taken over from a long standing owner/manager, who has recently retired. The nursery has an excellent reputation and Jennifer is committed to maintaining this, but this role feels like a big jump in her career.

I drew Jennifer’s attention to the fact that most leaders and managers will have been practitioners first and this provides an excellent platform for leadership. From working with children and families, practitioners acquire a huge range of communication skills. They know how to plan and set up an inspiring learning environment. They are experienced at
making insightful observations and planning next possibilities for children’s learning. I saw a shift in Jennifer’s body language as she recognised the skill set she already brought to the role. She sat forward in her chair and became more animated.

There are a range of techniques and tools which a coaching approach and coaches can consider to match each client’s needs. In this first session I invited Jennifer to list all the jobs her role entails. She created a big pile of sticky notes, each with a different task, and I suggested she sorted these into categories. She ended up with eight key areas. Jennifer considered how satisfied she was with each area and rated them on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being not satisfied at all and 10 being completely satisfied. I then introduced the ‘balance wheel’ as it resonated so well with her image of the Ferris wheel. Jennifer created her own balance wheel as a visual representation.

Her areas and scores were as follows:

Recruitment = 9
Jennifer spends much time on recruitment as turnover is high, with the former manager moving on and the old practices under review. Jenny saw this as a great opportunity to recruit her own new team.

Safeguarding = 9
Jennifer feels confident about this complex area. She has already been a safeguarding lead and is familiar with the legislation. A local authority training session is booked for whole staff training soon.

Business/finance = 8
Jennifer has an excellent business manager and for now feels this is in safe hands.

Children’s centre = 7
There are strong links with the co-located centre and Jennifer has a positive attitude to multi agency working. She has started to have weekly catch-ups with the centre lead. Eventually she would like the centre staff to visit the nursery and invite ‘stay and plays’ with centre parents in the nursery garden.

Staff development = 5
Jennifer wants to make sure the new staff they blend with the established members in a sensitive and supportive manner. She is reticent about leading the older practitioners who are more resistant to change. She wants to think about how to manage this effectively.

Teaching and Learning = 5
Jennifer is keen to spend quality time in the rooms with the staff and children and has not yet done this enough. She is concerned there are some areas of practice that need to be developed, especially with the new EIF (Ofsted 2019) framework in place. This is a priority area for her.

Networks = 4
It is early days and apart from getting a coach, Jennifer is still wondering who can best support her in her new role. She is thinking about getting a mentor and has a couple of names to contact.

Governance/trustees = 3
As a new leader, Jennifer is anxious about her accountability role to the trustee board and has her first meeting coming up in a month’s time.

Jennifer then created an initial coaching approach plan:

  1. Teaching and learning – prioritise time in the rooms, observing practice and talking to staff about their understanding of child development and how they plan for their key children. She will do a timetable for two morning visits a week from next week and then two afternoons a week.
  2. Networks – follow up the two contacts she has to see if she can find a mentor. Contact other local nurseries and introduce herself and arrange a coffee morning with other managers, perhaps off-site to start.
  3. Governance – look at the format for previous reports and invite the Chair of trustees in for an initial meeting so she can get to know a bit more about what to expect, in advance of the full board meeting.

I clarified with her the plan and when she might do these actions and how she will review her progress. We agreed to have a follow up session in six weeks’ time.

After the session, Jennifer found the balance wheel was a very helpful visual tool. She commented: “I feel I have managed to get off my own Ferris wheel that was noisy and confusing. I can now look at it with more objectivity and clarity. And I’ve created a new wheel I can be in control of.”

Coaching approach top tips for new leaders

  1. Remember, as a practitioner you have lots of skills that can transfer into your leadership role – make a list of these or talk through with a trusted colleague
  2. Allow yourself time to get to know the setting – either because it is new to you or because you now see it through a different lens
  3. Make a list of everything you do now and try to prioritise your workload
  4. Try your own balance wheel and rate your satisfaction with each area on a scale of 1-10. What areas are you happy with and what areas need attending to? Create an action plan of first steps and set a time to review your progress
  5. Think who can best help you – and make contact soon. Remember other leaders were new to their role once, too

Did you find this coaching approach for early years leaders useful? Take a look at some of our other leadership blogs here: 

Ruth Mercer

Ruth Mercer is a coach and consultant, with a career background in early education. Ruth is committed to creating a positive learning environment for staff, children and families. She has a successful track record of 1:1 coaching for leaders and group coaching across the maintained and PVI sector. She supports leaders and managers in developing a coaching approach in their settings through bespoke consultancy and introductory training on coaching and mentoring for all staff.

Ruth is currently writing about coaching with a playful approach.


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