Leadership Reimagined: Coaching School Principals
The idea of having instructional coaches inside classrooms or school buildings for the benefit of teachers is nothing new—yet, as Illinois school superintendent Dr. Ken Wallace phrased it, “it is more important than ever for our schools to be the best they can be, which will always be grounded in great teaching.”
In Dr. Wallace’s district, instructional coaching takes the form of teachers coaching one another in content areas such as technology and cooperative learning, all in the interest of building and sharing expertise.
But how do principals fit into the picture?
Principals can benefit from coaching, too
According to the Wallace Foundation, principals also have much to gain from on-the-job coaching. Indeed, the New York-based philanthropic group has been dedicating resources toward supporting principals for years, most notably through its six-year Principal Pipeline Initiative. Launched in 2011 and supported by $85 million in funding, the longitudinal project was built upon the foundation's theory that strengthening school leadership is an essential component of improving outcomes for students, especially those from marginalized communities.
As part of this effort, the Wallace Foundation set out to train principal candidates to work in challenging (and often under-resourced) school settings based on the following quartet of “aligned components”:
Clearly articulated job descriptions for principals that communicate high standards
Support for candidates that starts before the first day on the job and continues through “preservice preparation”
Data-informed recruitment and placement procedures
Continuous support and evaluation, especially for new principals
Embedded in the program is an important concept: Principals need ongoing support that extends beyond just completing paperwork and other daily tasks. More specifically, the Wallace Foundation placed an emphasis on helping districts rethink principal supervision by allowing administrators to “focus on coaching, mentoring and evaluating principals,” then put its approach to the test in six school districts across the country.
From theory to application
But is it realistic to expect central office administrators to strengthen principals' instructional leadership skills by taking over the lion's share of technical tasks and compliance matters?
A 2018 study by researchers from Vanderbilt University and Mathematica Policy sought an answer to this important question—and the answer, according to Jody Spiro of the Wallace Foundation, appears to be yes. In a review of the study published by the education news site The 74 Million, Spiro characterized the foundation's “important and complex work” of reconfiguring how principals are supervised as having been largely successful.
Central office administrators became “more responsive to schools’ needs”
Principal supervisors received training on both evaluation and coaching, which placed them more squarely in the school community and gave them a smaller portfolio of schools to manage
Learning was viewed as “continuous,” active, and hands-on
Principals began to be seen as leaders with the potential to transform school cultures and inspire success
Where to begin
In a 2019 blog post for Education Week, education consultant Peter DeWitt recounted the story of a new principal who soon realized he was ill-prepared for an instructional leadership role despite a previous two-year stint as an assistant principal. Digging deeper into the issue, DeWitt observed that this preparedness gap was rooted in the principal’s academic training, which focused on leadership theories much more than practice. Unfortunately, the assistant role did little to mitigate the problem, with the majority of administrative time being consumed by managing disciplinary issues or carrying out other daily tasks that did not directly involve coaching or observing teachers.
So, for principals without a strong instructional leadership background, where is a good place to begin? DeWitt pointed to the complex task of cultivating trust and collaboration among building leaders as a good starting point, noting that a healthy school culture will act as a solid foundation for future work.
According to the Minnesota Department of Education's guide to coaching school principals, “district leadership must establish a culture that values inquiry, exploration, and self-reflection to ensure that a principal evaluation system will result in meaningful change.” With this in mind, principals must be positioned not just as confident leaders, but as lifelong learners engaged in their own continuous improvement cycle—and whose reflections and growth will help guide the whole school forward.
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