School & District Management

Principals Have an Increasingly Tough Gig. Enter the Principal Coach

By Olina Banerji — December 22, 2023 7 min read
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Kelly Galbraith is met with a strange sight when she visits schools these days—retired principals roaming the hallways.

“I’m always surprised to see them there. They’ve been contracted by the district to come back and coach current principals through their leadership challenges. I’ve been around for 13 years, and I haven’t seen this before. It’s amazing. It’s overdue,” said Galbraith, a program director with a regional education services agency that supports 22 school districts in two Pennsylvania counties.

Galbraith says there’s been a significant rise in coaching needs for school and district leadership. Challenges like staff shortages, a hardened political environment and academic recovery have only gotten trickier for principals since the pandemic. They’re now keen to seek help to build up their leadership chops to deal with these challenges.

Districts are trying to meet this demand through former principals, professional development for principals, and instructional coaches like her who help principals work through big teaching shifts in their schools.

Coming out of the pandemic, Galbraith said one of the key challenges for principals is how to motivate students to learn. Students aren’t engaged enough. “Students are wired differently now. Principals have to figure out what kind of instruction will engage them,” Galbraith said.

The principal exodus from the profession hasn’t been quite as large as feared. But Galbraith fears a lag effect. “There is a shortage of almost every kind of professional in schools. At some point, because of these pressures, we’re going to see principal shortages too,” Galbraith said.

Daily operations loom large

Coaches like Galbraith meet their leaders at least once a month. Districts contract coaches to work through a big change—like introducing a new instructional strategy—in a school.

“We also do small convenings of leaders, take them on field trips to other schools, followed by a 2-hour planning session for the year. Principals get a sense of how other leaders are dealing with challenges,” said Barbara Crock, an independent coach based out of Kalamazoo, Mich.

Executive coaches can also establish a longer relationship with their leaders. “I see my principals over a two-year coaching cycle, so I can really see the impact of the changes they’re making in their schools,” said Kerensa Wing, a principal-turned-coach from Gwinnett County, Ga.

The good news is that two years after principals’ roles were disrupted and remade, coaching conversations have shifted, too. More principals are now focused on their well-being, said Crock.

Coaches can create a safe space for principals to talk and reflect on problems that they don’t otherwise get, she said. “I also push these principals to share how they’re feeling when they make big changes in their schools. The focus before was more on technical tasks,” said Crock.

Principals are responsible for everything from school culture to teacher retention. It’s no surprise that the key challenge for which they seek coaching is balance.

Crock coaches principals through a number of these impossible situations. One principal, for instance, wants to improve the student experience through personalized learning. Instead of working on that goal, however, the principal has to spend time resolving disciplinary issues between students and interpersonal tiffs between teachers.

Wing has seen a hard shift in the topics that come up in her coaching sessions with principals since schools reopened. “It’s like students have forgotten how to do school in a social setting while they were remote. The principals I coach want to improve school culture and student behavior before they can get to other goals like testing outcomes,” said Wing.

Last year, students found it difficult to collaborate in groups and sit through classes when they returned to in-person learning. And principals, said Wing, had to intervene on a more frequent basis to break up student altercations. Plus, social media has made everything worse with the expectation of an immediate public response for every post, she said.

“I’m trying to get principals to react less to situations and focus more on shifting the school culture. They want to train their staff to build authentic relationships to engage students to make positive choices, we plan and simulate those conversations in our coaching sessions,” said Wing.

Crock says there’s also a lot of anxiety over student assessment data in recent years showing record slumps in math and reading achievement.

“Teachers have been teaching in one way for the last 20 years. They’ve been your colleagues. As a principal, now you have to push back. You have to hold them accountable. That’s tough,” said Peter DeWitt, a former principal who now coaches school leaders, training principals to have difficult conversations with their teachers around instructional goals.

Galbraith takes a practical approach with her principals, by walking into classrooms with them. She’s armed with a set of questions for them when they are observing students.

“If it’s about engaging students, then I ask them to focus on when they think the kids are engaged. What are the attributes of that work? Do the kids find it relevant? Do they feel they have a choice? Once principals develop a lens on what engaging classes look like, they can then train their teachers on it,” said Galbraith.

How to trigger long-term shifts

The classroom observations, said Galbraith, help principals develop their own rituals. After working with her, principals now do regular “temperature checks” and collect data from their classrooms to determine which changes worked and what needs tweaking.

“For a long-term change, principals have to bring their whole staff together regularly and check in. Are they all working toward the same goal?” said Galbraith.

Wing said she’s trying to get principals to change their planning strategies.

“January is a good time to set goals for the next two years. This gives them a longer runway for changes, and they can focus on the long term before daily operations take over again,” said Wing. She also recommends principals check in with their staff at least monthly, because it takes longer for principals to determine whether the changes their implementing school-wide are working.

“Teachers have students in front of them. They can see if their strategies work immediately. Principals have to wait, implement, collect data. It’s a years-long process for them,” said Wing.

"I get principals to make three different lists: to-do, to-do-later and not-to-do. This helps them to “de-implement” or take off practices that are getting in the way of change.

Effective delegation can bolster long-term change. Principals have to prioritize, delegate tasks, and develop leaders to take them on.

“I ask them if the tasks at hand are what they should be focused on, or is there someone who can manage these better? Principals have to bring leaders up the chain,” said Wing.

Coaches also help principals build social capital with their staff—a step that’s key before they bring in changes. This can be done, says Crock, by giving staff the necessary cover to take risks. If there’s a disciplinary matter, for instance, and parents don’t agree with a new strategy like the use of restorative practices, principals must back up their staff.

Coaching should be integrated

The benefits of coaching ripple out. As coaches develop better principals, principals can use the same strategies to develop leaders in their schools.

But personalized, executive coaching isn’t available to all principals, especially ones based in remote or smaller districts. Wing is working with the Georgia Association of Educational Leadership, a state-based organization that promotes school leaders, to raise a grant to connect remote school leaders to executive coaches. The coaching happens online, and once a semester the coaches travel to meet with the school leaders. “This is an opportunity to provide access to all school leaders across Georgia,” said Wing.

DeWitt said many districts are aware that principals need coaching but just don’t have the time.

“Principals get cycled out if they don’t work or make changes fast enough. That’s why districts are hiring people like us,” he said.

Coaches like DeWitt and Crock usually check in at least once a month with their principals.

Smaller districts may have to combine their principal supervision and coaching roles, said Crock—a tricky balance. The supervisor can’t just be focused on day-to-day implementation and not the principal’s development as a leader.

“Districts need to be creative about how they build this support for principals. The more we can wrap our arms around principals to support them right now, the better,” said Crock.

A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2024 edition of Education Week as Principals Have an Increasingly Tough Gig. Enter the Principal Coach

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