It’s an often quoted statistic in education, but it bears repeating: Leadership is second only to classroom instruction as an influence on student learning. A school with a strong principal has a higher chance of success for its students.

Current literature points to leadership coaching of principals—whether it is an extension of principal preparation programs or a stand-alone model—as an effective way to provide this kind of ongoing, one-on-one support.

Coaching relationships are intended to bridge the gap between the critical leadership role of the principal and a lack of available support and guidance. As a retired administrator with 38 years of experience in a large school district, I coach school leaders with the hope of improving their practices. Here, I showcase the coaching relationships of four principals in the Los Angeles area over a three-year period, using evidence-supported practices.

The four high school principals highlighted here had a wide range of experience, displayed very different personal styles, possessed a variety of gifts and skills, and brought a range of issues and challenges. All struggled with the complexities of being a principal. All had only minimal support from their immediate supervisors.

Driven Visionary

Principal A was a driven visionary principal at a large, traditional, comprehensive high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) with a very recalcitrant unionized teaching staff. She had high expectations and wanted to translate them into her work with her teams and the teachers. She was impatient and felt disappointed when many of the staff did not respond as quickly as she hoped with a readiness to do all she requested. This principal struggled to pull her team along with her.

We worked on translating her high expectations to simple action steps that would enable others to find a pathway to the work. We began using a group memory on the whiteboard for all to see, developing protocols to elicit needed information, and focusing on improving group-member capabilities. We worked on community building to get all the participants on the same page and to increase their sense of “team,” and she has since broadened her use of “building community” to apply to other meetings with other stakeholders, such as community members and parents.

Now in her fifth year, Principal A is having difficult conversations with employees who need focused help. She has learned how to separate the practice or acts of her staff from the people they are, and she’s set clear written expectations for them. There are many at her school who need this help; she has started with a few. Unsatisfactory employees are feeling increasingly uncomfortable, and for the first time this year, five very difficult veteran teachers made the decision to transfer to other schools.

Condescending and Polarizing

Principal B is now a fourth-year principal at a large high school. Her boss identified her as someone who could benefit from coaching in communication, as some employees perceived her as condescending and polarizing.

I spent seven months building trust with her, after which I was able to help her see how the impact of her words and gestures created a negative distance. I provided consistent feedback to increase her awareness of how others perceived her and identified other kinds of communication patterns. I employed active listening using paraphrasing, a technique that would let the speaker know she is listening by organizing what she hears and restating it.

As she became more comfortable in her role, she was more willing to see her own “leading from the front” practice as a need to be in control. The development of her willingness to relinquish some control evolved slowly over a three-year period. While her communication and leadership style with adults has improved, she can easily revert to managing from the front.

Lacking Instructional Acumen

Principal C, an experienced principal at a charter school, had built strong relationships with community and staff, but lacked instructional acumen. I trained him with walk-throughs and by using a feedback process with teachers. During the following year, he visited at least four classrooms daily and provided feedback to the teachers. He trained his staff in the walk-through process and began a program of peer observations.

Principal C was able to acknowledge his difficulty in ceding control, recognizing that this was a necessity to enabling growth in his administrative team. I suggested that he initiate a weekly bulletin to his staff that would allow the entire team to hear a common message. He published only one such bulletin. I realized that without consistent and persistent monitoring and direct coaching, he could initiate, but not continue implementation of, the new practices he was learning. Left to his own devices, any new learned practice fell away.

Although there were glimmers of improvement and capacity for reflection, Principal C’s need for control often reasserted itself.

Time-Management Issues

Principal D had just started his first year as a principal in a charter school—which was in crisis. He had minimal skills in time management and seemed unfocused, but nevertheless built a strong team and excellent relationships with his students quickly. He engaged in too much multitasking, reducing the necessary focus on discrete tasks.

As his coach, my role was to help him increase his focus on classroom supervision and to improve his delegation skills. He was extremely intelligent and could entertain many ideas simultaneously, but others might not be able to follow the rapid transitions from one subject to another.

Principal D and I worked on holding regular meetings with his administrative and office teams to begin to delegate tasks. All principals face numerous distractions and concerns each day; I modeled ways to maintain focus on the work with teachers in the classrooms.

Evaluating Outcomes

For two of the four principals I coached, change resulted from the coaching experience. For one, the coaching relationship had a major impact because the principal had a growth mindset and was able to learn from every situation. For the second, much more time was required before growth occurred. Of the two principals who did not benefit, one has left the system, and the other continues to struggle and wishes to continue the coaching relationship. I believe all four would say that coaching helped them grow, and student outcomes in their schools did, in fact, improve.

One last important lesson: A leader must be sufficiently self-actualized so that he or she can manage personal issues separately from the workplace. Leaders must be able to establish boundaries that prevent personal triggers from impinging on professional behavior. This type of self-awareness and containment allows a leader to be fully professionally present and available, thereby increasing his or her ability to develop the capacities of the team. Given the critical role of the principal in providing leadership, educational institutions and systems must provide the resources and support that enable and empower school leaders. Without strong support for principals, public education cannot flourish.

Roberta Benjamin-Edwards served as a principal and as director during her 38 years with the Charter Schools Division of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). Following her retirement from LAUSD, she served as superintendent for Aspire Public Charter Schools for six years. She is now a professor of school leadership for California State University–Dominguez Hills.

Making It Work

Why support and coach principals?

  1. Principals are often placed without sufficient support and training.
  2. Systems and school districts need to recognize to a much greater degree the significance of providing support and coaching not only at the cognitive level, but also based on the context of the principal’s situation.
  3. The work of supervising leaders is complex and entails the following: knowledge of the personality of each principal, knowledge of the context of that individual’s practice, and time to develop the kind of relationship through which effective coaching can occur. Often, the support does not go far enough to be able to change practice because supervisors do not take the time needed to deepen the relationship.