School Principals: Coaching and Mentoring

5 Min Read
School Principal Leadership Coaching HERO

Being a teacher isn’t easy, and a strong instructional leader makes a great difference in creating the conditions for teaching and learning to be at their best. I found myself dreaming of becoming a principal so that I could help teachers meet the social and emotional and academic needs of all students and to help them create a community of learners that would thrive each year. What I didn’t realize at the time was how much support I would need to become a successful instructional leader in my school and district.

The Beginning of My Learning Journey

Standing at the copy machine after about three months of being a new principal, with tears streaming down my face, I thought, “Oh my gosh, all these people think I know what I’m doing!” I couldn't have anticipated the problems that would come my way: student behaviors, family needs, staff collaboration issues, and everyone thinking I had the answers. I had to find my leadership style and plan my own course forward. I was also developing processes and systems to support teachers on their learning journeys, all in service of the students in our school.

The Importance of Instructional Leadership

According to researchers and professors Dr. Meredith Honig and Dr. Lydia Rainey, “Educational research continues to reinforce the idea that teaching is the most important school-related influence on student learning and that principals’ leadership is essential to helping teachers succeed—a form of principal leadership sometimes called instructional leadership.”

Engaging principals in ongoing job-embedded learning with a coach or mentor creates a purposeful, school-based model, which can be flexible within an instructional leader framework. Those who coach and mentor school principals provide support as these educators learn to lead, resulting in excellent classroom teaching and learning for every student. “[T]he job of helping principals grow as instructional leaders is so important to students’ success that it should also be the core work of their supervisors,” say Honig and Rainey.

In the book Equity-Based Leadership, Center for Model Schools managing partner Dr. Joshua Starr states, “System leaders [or district leaders] need to see the development of instructional leadership as their most important role.” He goes on to say that system leaders need a “tight-loose” balance to support principals with their learning.

Adult learning doesn’t happen because a supervisor tells a person to do something. Adults learn by leading their own learning with a clear purpose. Principal coaching facilitates this learning based on the problem or practice a principal is working through.

Facilitated Adult Learning

When I was a principal, our superintendent engaged with an organization that employed instructional leadership coaches, and during my first year, I had a coach and mentor named Roberta.

Teacher-professional collaboration was an area my school was trying to improve. We needed a “tight-loose” process that was system-aligned with our district initiatives. I never met Roberta in person. We talked on the phone every two weeks for one to two hours. Roberta would ask me questions like, “Where are you now?” “How are teachers feeling about the process?” “Why do you think that is your best decision currently?”

She helped me think deeply and reflect on the decisions I was making. When she asked me questions, I sometimes simply said, “I don’t know why,” and she would say, “Let’s figure that out together.” She facilitated my learning but never told me what to do. I would share with her my revised plan on our next call, and she would again ask me questions.

Facilitation and reflection frame principal coaching in schools, creating purpose and developing actions to support the changes necessary to improve student outcomes. Coaching is adaptive and based on each school’s needs.

The School Leader’s Learning Journey

Currently, I have the great pleasure of coaching principals and assistant principals. These building administrators want to strengthen their instructional leadership in service of teachers and students and ultimately improve student outcomes across their schools. Some of them are new to the administrator role, and some are experienced school leaders. During one coaching session, one of the principals looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “I just want to be effective.” When I asked, “What does effective mean to you?” she answered, “Improving academic, social, and emotional outcomes for my kids.”

We continued our conversation about her goals and outcomes. Ultimately, she decided she would focus on helping teachers 1) develop actions that would improve student outcomes and 2) understand why those actions will work.

One of the most difficult challenges that school leaders face is keeping the focus on the change they want to see happen. School-leader coaching helps these leaders focus and dig deep into the changes needed to improve student outcomes.

The journey to strong instructional leadership is personal. This journey consists of change management and working to develop systems and processes that improve adult behaviors in service of students. Whether a principal is speaking with a member of their staff, community, or student’s family, striving to make student-centered decisions daily ensures that improving academic outcomes remains the ultimate goal. Who wouldn’t want a coach alongside them on this learning journey?


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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

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