Michelle Provo was leading her first instructional team meeting at Bleyl Middle School in Houston when a loud noise echoed in the building.
Provo, the newly appointed principal, and the school’s director of instruction rushed out of the room to find out what was happening.
Her coach, Robert Borneman, who was observing and taking notes, had a simple, but pointed, question for Provo when the meeting ended: Why did Provo feel that both she and the director of instruction—the two people leading the meeting—had to leave during the commotion?
Provo and the instructional director both had spent years as assistant principals, where putting out fires comprised a huge part of their jobs. But as principal, Provo no longer had to be the first one out the door.
“That was a time I had to reflect and think, ‘I am not the AP anymore,’ ” she said.
As one of the 14 coaches in Texas’ Cypress-Fairbanks district, a school system of some 116,000 students, Borneman’s job is to help new and early-career principals like Provo keep their eyes on the big picture as they dive headfirst into the challenges and complexities new school leaders face.
“When you step through that door of the principal’s office, you really don’t know what you don’t know,” Borneman said. “There’s so much. This program allows the new principals an opportunity to have somebody walk alongside them—[someone] who’s been there.”
While coaches can smooth the entry into school leadership, only 23 percent of elementary school leaders report having a coach or mentor, according to a 2020 report on the state of professional development by the Learning Policy Institute and the National Association of Elementary School Principals. Several factors—including funding—have inhibited school systems’ ability to provide this critical support for all school leaders.
More school districts have started relying on their principal supervisors to coach principals in recent years. Research shows that these coaches can play an integral role in supporting school leaders, regardless of where those principals are in their careers.
Districts such as Cypress-Fairbanks, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, in Charlotte, N.C., and Columbus City Schools, in Columbus, Ohio, have built up a cadre of trained coaches dedicated to helping principals navigate the early years on the job.
Cypress-Fairbanks launched its coaching program in the 2010-11 school year, when it hired 17 new principals—a crop of new hires that was beyond the capacity of one associate superintendent and two assistant superintendents to support.
While the district had a bench to draw from to fill most of the elementary school leadership slots, officials worried how they’d respond if they had such a large exodus again, said Roy Garcia, the chief officer for school leadership and associate superintendent.
The district started exploring what it would take to not only develop principals but keep them. It also saw an opportunity to capitalize on the skill and expertise of the school leaders who were walking out the door.
“We strongly encourage them to have six months off, and if they think they’d like to coach, let us know,” Garcia said.
Building a three-year relationship
New principals in Cypress-Fairbanks are matched with coaches for the first three years. (They’re also assigned a mentor, a current district principal, in their first year.) Principals meet with their coaches weekly in their first semester, with the frequency of those meetings reduced to every other week the second semester and once a month in the second and third years, depending on the principal’s needs.
The two-hour meetings involve an hourlong session, where coaches and principals discuss the school leaders’ priorities, challenges they’re facing, and upcoming projects. They also review what’s happened since the coach’s last visit.
Coaches then spend another hour with the principal in the school, walking the hallways, observing the principal’s interactions with students and staff, and attending leadership or instructional team meetings. They then debrief the principals about what they observed: what went well, what didn’t, what they would do differently, and changes they’d make the next time around.
In meetings, for example, Donna Sheppard, a former Cypress-Fairbanks assistant superintendent who now works as a coach, pays attention to things like whether the principal is including everyone in discussions, how others perceive the principal, whether the principal is listening—are they cutting off people too quickly, for example?—and whether they are lingering too long on a particular agenda item.
She also keeps an eye out for how the principal praises teachers.
“It’s amazing what you can learn just watching a principal in the classroom,” Sheppard said. “How do [kids] approach her? Are they comfortable? Is she greeting people as we walk through the hallway? … All of those things relate to your leadership skills as a principal.”
The coaches don’t direct principals on what to do. Instead, they use their wealth of experience to lead principals through a series of questions that help principals arrive at an answer, consider a different perspective, or settle on a course of action.
“We’re not here to judge their decisions,” Sheppard said. “We reflect a lot, and sometimes that works well.”
In 2019, for example, Cypress-Fairbanks asked teachers to attend two planning meetings a week, which led to resistance from some of the teaching staff at Hamilton Elementary School, where Sage Papaioannou is the principal.
As Sheppard and Papaioannou sat down for their weekly meetings, Sheppard tried to get to the root of the teachers’ objection. How could Papaioannou convince teachers that they would benefit from attending the meetings?
To answer the first question, Papaioannou fielded a survey to find out what teachers liked or didn’t like about the planning sessions. Teachers felt they had no say, didn’t get the opportunity to develop their own lesson plans, and that not everyone had the chance to participate.
More questions followed.
Papaioannou used the feedback to change how the meetings were structured, with teachers now in charge and writing their own lessons plans. Everyone is responsible for a portion of the meeting. Though Papaioannou attends some of the meetings—something she does not think she would have were it not for the feedback from the survey—the teachers hold the reins.
“They were able to buy into it because they were part of the process,” she said.
Without the weekly meetings, Papaioannou would not have taken the time to dig into the source of the teachers’ discontent.
“Let’s be honest, she would have been running around the building, running the school,” Sheppard said. “I think that’s what this weekly meeting does: It helps train the principal to stop and realize that I can’t let the pressure of the moment make me make fast decisions on things that need deep thinking.”
Coaches are different from mentors, who help principals with day-to-day challenges. Questions about paperwork and compliance are more appropriate for mentors than coaches, who focus on developing principals’ leadership skills, said Gracie Branch, the associate executive director of professional learning of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.
Coaches tend to concentrate on the big picture and the school’s continuous improvement.
The principal-coach relationship is also a judgment-free zone for principals, where school leaders know that they can vent freely, be vulnerable, and have no fear that that vulnerability would end up on an evaluation.
“When you are getting judged from the community, from the staff, from students—everybody is judging because you are the new person,” Papaioannou said. “Just to be so confident that you can go and talk to somebody without that … it’s nice to not have that judgment.”
Cypress-Fairbanks coaches are retired principals, who’ve undergone an immersion training and certification offered by the NAESP. The organization has trained mentors and coaches in districts including Prince George’s County in Maryland and in the Miami-Dade school system.
In selecting coaches, the district looks for principals who themselves have stellar records in school leadership, good communication skills, and a history of growing leaders from when they were leading schools, according to Carla Brosnahan, the assistant superintendent for school leadership.
“We are pretty specific about our expectations on how many times they meet,” Brosnahan said. “It’s a system as well—it’s not going anytime you feel like it.”
There’s also twice-a-year professional development for coaches where they review blended coaching strategies and keep abreast of district initiatives, strategies, and priorities. They’re also kept in the loop with weekly district communication. During the pandemic, for example, coaches have had to stay on top of district COVID-19 policies, so that they’re not surprised during school visits, Brosnahan said. That also positions coaches to help principals with some of the biggest challenges they face this school year.
In matching principals and coaches, the district considers a coach’s background, and the principal’s strengths, weaknesses, and areas in which they need to grow—information the district has because principal-candidates are asked about strengths and weaknesses during job interviews.
A relationship rooted in trust
The coach-principal relationship needs to be cemented in trust to be successful. And to do so, districts must ensure that principals know that there will be no ramifications for what they discuss with their coaches because the coaches have no role in their evaluations. Regular meetings at the start of the program also help to forge trust, Sheppard said.
“It allows you that time to build that relationship,” Sheppard said. “You ask about family; you ask about the balance in their lives; you help support them if they are dealing with struggles that no other position on the campus can relate to. You get to be that voice and that ear for them that says, ‘This is normal. This is what all principals feel that first semester, that first year.’”
Borneman likes starting meetings with celebrations—what’s going well—before moving to specific challenges and campus culture. They also discuss instructional initiatives and programs the campus might be gearing up to launch. Then he accompanies the principal through the building and at meetings, as an “objective third eye.”
Provo is a fixer by nature, and she and Borneman had to work on her becoming a more methodical problem-solver.
“I don’t know that I can put into words [the] value he brings to me in this role,” Provo said. “He is very good at making you think and process on what is going to be the best direction. He doesn’t tell you what direction, though. He keeps asking the questions.”
She’s become a more discerning and effective communicator, thinking through what needs to be said during a conversation and what can, and should, be held back. She also takes a more active role in building the school’s culture by leading schoolwide announcements in the mornings, and running more effective meetings by planning ahead.
Provo appreciates Borneman’s persistent questioning that leads her to answers she may not have considered.
“Even if I didn’t deal with something well, he would be like, ‘Why do you think that didn’t work?’ ” Provo said.
She can’t imagine her first year as principal without Borneman at her side.
She arrived at Bleyl Middle School in January 2020. By March, the pandemic had shut down schools across the country, and Provo, still learning the ropes, had to shift to 15-hour workdays to set up virtual schooling. Months later, in July, her son died by suicide.
It helped knowing that Borneman, whom she calls a cheerleader, was a phone call or text message away.
“You’ve got this,” Borneman would text on some of those rough days, Provo said. “ ‘It’s going to be OK.’ ”
If something doesn’t go as planned or she’s having misgivings about how she handled a situation, “I can call or I can text, and he’ll be like we’ll process through it,” Provo said.
He is very good at making you think and process on what is going to be the best direction. He doesn’t tell you what direction, though. He keeps asking the questions.
At Hamilton Elementary School, Papaioannou and Sheppard, her coach, gamed out difficult conversations that Papaioannou had to have with staff and parents to ensure that she got her message across while still preserving those relationships.
One of the key and early pieces of advice Papaioannou received from Sheppard was to slow down. That meant stopping and greeting people in the hallways and allowing others more time to speak in meetings.
“Give people time to think,” said Sheppard, who was an assistant superintendent in the district when the coaching program was developed. “You don’t want them to think you’re super-stressed because you’re wound up. Slow down.”
Those morsels of wisdom have stayed with Papaioannou, and she often repeats them when Sheppard isn’t around.
“Everyday, I would think about what would Donna do?” Papaioannou said. “Donna would stop. ... It doesn’t matter how busy you are, she would stop and take care of those things. That piece of advice, or feedback, was perfect.”
And while the coach-principal relationship can develop into a lasting one with principals continuing to seek counsel from their coaches, the formal connection still ends after three years.
“After three years, they are ready to be set free,” Brosnahan said of the principals. “We have not had anyone say, ‘Please give her to me for another year’—unless they’re just joking around.”
Coverage of principals and school leadership is supported in part by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at www.joycefdn.org/programs/education-economic. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 03, 2021 edition of Education Week as How Coaching for New Principals Can Provide a Critical Pillar of Support