Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

How Principals Can Be Mentors Rather Than Just Superiors

6 strategies for leading your school with a coaching lens
By Lauren Kaufman & Chris Hartigan — June 04, 2024 5 min read
Conceptual image of coaching mindset with steps leading to a figure helping another one to reach the peak.
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Congratulations! You have decided to take the leap to administration. It’s possible that you have served in various teaching positions leading up to this milestone moment, or perhaps you arrived here unexpectedly. Regardless of your path, your decision to take on this role is an opportunity to be a leader of learning for your school community.

We have learned that when leaders embrace the idea of mentorship, their impact can be infinite and their legacy limitless. So, how can leaders continually build strong foundations for themselves and others to embark on long, meaningful careers?

Leading through a coaching lens means transcending traditional organizational structures to instead emphasize collaboration and teamwork. It means leveling the playing field and being a mentor to your staff rather just a superior.

About This Series

In this biweekly column, principals and other authorities on school leadership—including researchers, education professors, district administrators, and assistant principals—offer timely and timeless advice for their peers.

When leaders immerse themselves in the trenches of learning and teaching spaces, their influence extends beyond the office door. They leave a legacy of empowered individuals eager to embrace a variety of perspectives in the pursuit of enhancing student learning experiences. Coaching helps teachers leverage their unique strengths, refine instructional techniques, and discover untapped potential.

Regardless of where you are on your leadership journey, there will be a learning curve. Therefore, before coaching others, you should seek a trusted, personal network to mentor and inspire you.

In this spirit, we’re eager to share six ideas our district employs to create a culture of mentoring and coaching within our leadership team. By embracing these actionable strategies, leaders can bridge connections, enhance relationships, and ignite meaningful professional dialogue.

1. Embody the district mission and vision.

Crafting a mission and vision statement is a collaborative endeavor that engages various stakeholders, including students, teachers, building and district leadership, parents, and community members. Through strategic planning, this inclusive process should illuminate core values, beliefs, and goals, fostering a shared commitment to the organization’s purpose and direction. Leaders should make these statements visible throughout an organization and use them to guide the actions they take. The National Policy Board for Educational Administration’s professional standards for education leaders are a valuable resource when reflecting on your district’s mission and vision.

2. Create an entry plan.

An entry plan is a strategic road map for new leaders that offers a systematic approach to navigate the complexities of their positions. This plan provides a structured framework to assess the current state of the organization, understand its culture, identify key stakeholders, and establish initial goals and priorities. A thoughtful entry process not only ensures a successful onboarding but also lays the foundation for effective leadership, nurturing trust, collaboration, and long-term success within the educational community.

Upon assuming our own leadership roles, our superintendent guided our initial steps by recommending the book Entryplan Approach: How to Start a Leadership Position Successfully by Barry Jentz and Joan Wofford. The book coached us through crafting our own entry plan to both crystallize our own clear vision of the work and gather insights from key stakeholders through interviews and research.

3. Connect to core values.

Our superintendent connects newly hired administrators with a consultant who provides an assessment that helps determine their leadership styles.

This assessment proves instrumental in shedding light on who each person is as a leader, translating these insights into tangible core values that shape their professional approach and providing guidance on effective communication with others. The consultant can help explain what each component means, including who the new administrator is as a leader, what those values mean to their professional work, and how they can convey them to others.

In our district, the leadership team uses a DISC assessment to identify our dominant traits across four categories (dominance, influence, steadiness, and conscientiousness). We recommend administrators explore similar assessments for a deeper understanding of their leadership styles. Self-awareness and effective communication are fundamental to successful leadership.

4. Preserve protected mentoring time.

Our superintendent places a high priority on setting aside dedicated mentorship and coaching time for each principal and district-level leader. These sessions become vital platforms for principals to share successes and navigate obstacles.

The emphasis on human connection in these discussions acknowledges that principals as individuals are doing their best to unlock their own potential so they can do the same for their school communities. This intentional focus on mentorship not only supports professional growth but also reinforces the idea that effective leadership is rooted in authentic connections and shared experiences.

5. Select a leadership book.

When anyone on our leadership team first gets hired, our superintendent has shared the book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey. Our team then collectively decides on subsequent reads, which have included Getting to Neutral by Trevor Moawad and Andy Staples and Trust & Inspire by Stephen M. R. Covey.

These shared reading experiences give us a common language for leadership conversations. The quotes and reflective questions in these leadership books help to shape our leadership culture.

6. Treat experience as your mentor.

Every interaction big and small is an opportunity to learn, reflect, and grow. If you view every experience as a mentor, you can gain valuable insights that will help you evolve. When you think about the leader you were, the leader you are, and the leader you are striving to become, you can use those experiences to serve as guides for future conversations with colleagues, leaders, and mentors.

Coaching and mentorship is the most meaningful opportunity to build trust, inspire, and make a difference for the students, colleagues, and community you serve. This approach creates spaces for leaders to reflect on the past, confront the present, and make plans to shape the future.

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