School & District Management Q&A

A District’s Coaching Program for Principals Takes a Holistic Approach to Address the Struggle With Stress

By Elizabeth Heubeck — July 14, 2023 5 min read
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There’s no doubt that the last few years have left teachers stressed, burned out and, in many cases, ready to call it quits. But principals are stressed out, too. They ultimately shoulder the brunt of responsibilities that befall schools, and statistics prove how dire the consequences can be.

A recent nationally representative survey found that 85 percent of principals are experiencing job-related stress, 48 percent are dealing with burnout, and 28 percent report symptoms of depression. Job dissatisfaction led nearly 40 percent of school leaders to report plans to leave their jobs within the next few years, according to consecutive surveys of principals by the National Association of Secondary School Principals released in 2021 and 2022.

The School District of Philadelphia has not been immune to these challenges.

“There has been constant turnover in leadership roles over the last several years. School leaders experienced an enormous amount of stress during [recent] school years,” said Chuanika Sanders-Thomas, a leadership coach for the Philadelphia district, which onboarded more than 30 new principals during the 2021-22 school year and 20-plus this year. But these new school leaders were not without strong guidance.

The district in 2019 launched a unique leadership coaching program that pairs new and aspiring principals with one of approximately 10 district leadership coaches, each of whom previously served a successful stint as a principal in the district.

While instructional coaching programs for principals are relatively common, the Philadelphia district says that its type of leadership coaching, which focuses on leadership behaviors and dispositions, is less so.

Education Week recently caught up with principal-turned-leadership coach Sanders-Thomas to learn more about the program. She explained the core principles of the program, how it works, and what effect it’s having.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Chuanika Sanders

How does this program differ from others designed to support leaders?

The program is built on establishing trust between the coach and the ‘coachee’ and is designed to be non-supervisory and non-evaluative. Coaches are in place to support leaders as they navigate the challenges of leading their complex school organizations. One of the beliefs of our program is “principals are the most influential leaders in our organization and city.” We believe that our leaders are talented, resourceful, and fully capable of leading their buildings.

What is the district’s leadership coaching program modeled on?

Our leadership coaching program operates on principles governed by the International Coaching Federation. The program was created and tailored to meet our needs by Kirsten Olson, founder of Old Sow Consulting and a professor in the coaching program at Georgetown University.

We define coaching as the “intentional relationship between two people focused on developing a coachee’s mindsets and behaviors to achieve the coachee’s goals.” In this model, the coach focuses intentionally and specifically on the person exhibiting the issue, not only the problem they are presenting.

The program claims to produce ‘well-rounded leaders’, not just instructional leaders. Could you elaborate on this?

Instructional coaching is focused on giving the leader advice and feedback that is based on student data. This type of coaching normally involves observation of teaching and learning. While instructional coaching can help principals improve student data in the short term, it doesn’t always address underlying causes for poor performance which can impact long-term student achievement.

Leadership coaching focuses on the leader and his or her leadership behaviors. It’s about creating the space for leaders to pause and be reflective about their practice. It’s also about supporting the leader in developing awareness and allowing the leader to answer his or her own questions. Ultimately, our leadership program supports leaders in designing action steps to achieve their self-identified goals. These goals are often tied to instructional leadership, but they can also be connected to skills like relationship building.

In a nutshell, what are the specific goals of the coaching program?

To support school leaders in a non-supervisory and non-evaluative manner, to invest in our leaders by creating the space for them to be self-reflective and engage in the inner work that is required to enhance their leadership skills, and to use the leadership competencies as a guide to enhance well-rounded leadership.

Describe the role of leadership coaches and their relationship with ‘coachees.’

Each leadership coach has a caseload of 15 to 18 school leaders. Most of our time is spent in schools, where we meet with our leaders for at least an hour bi-weekly. It is common to see school leaders more often depending on their needs.

Each coaching session is unique in that coaches don’t come with an agenda. The (school leader) determines the goal and sets the desired outcome for each session.

Which school leaders does the coaching program support?

The First Year Principals Program includes all first- and second-year principals. The Aspiring Principals Academy works with select assistant principals who aspire to be principals. The Residency Program supports experienced assistant principals selected to serve a year-long principal residency under the guidance of an experienced principal.

Pathways to Leadership provides coaching support to teacher leaders and climate managers, who manage issues related to student behavior, interested in pursuing assistant principal and principal positions.

What’s been the reach and impact of the program so far?

The program has coached over 200 leaders, including 50 percent of all principals in the district, and dramatically reduced turnover. Only 5 percent of participating principals have resigned from their positions.

Among assistant principals, 50 leaders have been coached, 100 percent of principal residents have moved into principal seats, and 60 percent of assistant principals coached in the Aspiring Principals Academy are now principals.

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