Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

Principals Need Support. That’s Where Principal Coaches Come In

The four things seasoned coaches know to do
By Adrienne Battle — October 24, 2023 4 min read
Illustrated image of a  principal coach discussing game plans with a team of leaders.
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Anyone who’s ever worked in a school building knows that effective principals can accelerate student learning—by a lot. If any proof of this were needed, a systematic survey of two decades of research recently estimated that replacing a below-average elementary principal with an above-average one yields an additional 2.9 months of math learning and 2.7 months of reading learning for students each year.

The research also confirmed that effective principals accomplish student growth through strong instructional-leadership skills and the ability to coach and improve the capacity of others. According to researchers, it is difficult to envision a greater return on investment in K-12 education than the cultivation of high-quality school leadership.

Findings like this affirm the tremendous positive impact that great principals can have on their schools and their students. But who supports and cultivates this high-quality leadership? Who coaches the school coaches?

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

Too often, the answer is no one. Effective, personalized training for principals can be hard to come by.

The damage from this lack of support can be seen in the high rate of turnover among school leaders. Principals are leaving the profession or moving from one district to another—the national average tenure of school leaders is about four years. High turnover leads to “greener” school personnel. This disproportionately affects historically and currently underserved students, as schools that serve predominantly low-income students see the highest rate of principal turnover.

Before being named director of schools for the Metro Nashville district, I was a math and reading and language arts teacher, a principal, and a turnaround coach for principals of the district’s priority schools. I have worked with many site and district leaders in my career and can attest to the fact that leaders put their own needs last.

To effectively prepare principals, their supervisors and coaches need a playbook built on proven educational practices. They need to see what strong instructional-leadership practice, which requires self-reflection, goal setting, and giving and receiving feedback, looks like.

More seasoned principal coaches need to develop and support novice principal coaches and supervisors to help bridge the training gaps that exist for school principals today. By providing timely, personalized training, coaches can spark collaboration, reimagining, and rethinking of leadership practices. They can help to ensure equitable instructional opportunities for all students. And they can explore strategies for building a strong pipeline of future principals.

In my district, we are working to do just that. Earlier this year, we partnered with AVID, a national nonprofit focused on closing opportunity gaps, to launch the National Supervisor of Principals Academy. With this training, principal coaches will be able to allocate their time according to the best practice of spending 80 percent of it on instructional leadership and 20 percent on operations. Instead, the inverse is too often the case today.

Effective principal coaches should learn how to:

  • Zoom out. Principals tend to work within the bubble of their site. Their supervisors and coaches need to be able to help principals capture the bigger picture. In the Metro Nashville public schools, we convene the Principal Leadership Network at least once a month to bring all our principals together for a multiday retreat to review the year, set new goals, role-play various scenarios, and exchange best practices.
  • Operationalize the theories. We can talk about the theories of leadership, but how we operationalize them makes all the difference. We consistently provide professional development opportunities for our principals, aligned with our leadership playbook that focuses on the essential plays to drive instruction. More importantly, it is not about simply having a playbook but the ability to model the necessary leadership moves to build and maintain a thriving learning culture.
  • Build effective systems. Seeing the processes that are already in place allows district leaders to identify where there are gaps in the system and how to address them. When I was appointed as interim director of schools, I thought about what had been missing, and it was apparent that we needed to bring our principals together more often for effective coaching to expand our network of principal supervisors. Our leaders have grown in their personal practice after participating in the National Supervisor of Principals Academy, focusing on supporting site principals in developing strong systems of culture, ensuring equitable instructional opportunities for all students, and building a strong pipeline of future principals.
  • Always keep students at the center. The key to principal coaching is to give students the best environment to grow academically and as young leaders. In my district, our mantra is “Every Student Known.” Our principals, teachers, and support staff work every day to value and support every student on their path to success. Part of knowing every student requires that our staff members understand what makes students tick, what drives them forward, and what could be holding them back so we can provide personalized learning experiences that draw the most out of them. One way we accomplish this is by connecting all students to a mentor who can help build positive relationships and provide individualized support so each student can flourish.

As the research on principals has shown, the impact of school leadership can hardly be overstated. It is immense. Coaches capable of driving strong, positive growth for principals can transform schools. They can help to ignite teacher satisfaction and retention. And they can activate the ultimate goal for all educators: to significantly improve student success in school and in life.

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