Research tells us that school leaders influence student learning, the strength of the teachers, and the health of the school environment. And it is the principal who bears the responsibility for leading a school team through the difficult process of turning around a low-performing school. What research often fails to convey is how solitary and isolating an experience this can be for a principal, and even more so when a new leader has been brought to the school to lead a turnaround effort.

One of us—Catherine Barbour—had the experience of turning around three schools, one each in an urban, suburban, and rural community, and knows what challenges school leaders confront in these settings and the difficult decisions they are required to make.

“I remember the loneliness I felt along with the tremendous burden I was carrying to ensure the children in my care received the education they deserved. And I wondered each day if I was making the best decisions to move the school forward,” Barbour says. “A leadership coach who specializes in working with principals who are leading school improvement efforts can transform this experience from one of high stress to one of feeling supported. Having benefited firsthand from this type of coaching, I chose to become a leadership coach and support the development of an effective coaching approach so that I could help others who followed in my footsteps.

“Since the time I served as a turnaround principal, the field of school improvement research has evolved, and we can now state that there are no documented cases of school turnaround absent a strong leader. When it comes to making a difference in student outcomes, leaders are second only to teachers in the impact they can make.”

Most educators understand that turning around a low-performing school is a challenging and complex process. What we at American Institutes for Research (AIR) embrace is an approach to leadership that focuses on developing a specific set of competencies that principals need to lead an organizational change process. Year after year, the lowest-performing schools continue to struggle to meet accountability requirements for student learning and achievement.

These turnaround schools require urgent, dramatic, bold change efforts driven by a specific type of leader called a “turnaround leader.” Turnaround leaders possess specific skills that help them succeed, and districts are discovering that by including an assessment of turnaround leader skills as part of the hiring process, they are able to make a stronger match between school needs and leader capability, setting the school up for success. By assessing leader competencies as part of the interview process, the district also creates a profile of leader strengths and areas around which to develop a coaching support plan.

Turnaround Leadership Coaching in Action

A competency-based coaching approach consists of several key components:

  • Trust
  • Goal setting
  • Shoulder-to-shoulder coaching
  • Monitoring of coaching plans

We see this approach in action at a school in Chinle, AZ. With seven schools and 3,600 students, Chinle Unified School District #24 is the largest school district in the Navajo Nation, a Native American territory in Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. District and school leaders recognized the need for developing and supporting turnaround leaders to address their low-​performing schools. The district held monthly on-site, shoulder-to-shoulder coaching meetings to support each principal’s leadership growth toward competency goals and implementation of effective processes and practices. Twice-monthly virtual coaching sessions provided additional opportunities for principals to discuss implementation barriers, plus the virtual sessions offered the unique opportunity to problem solve with a trusted coach who has “walked in their shoes.” One principal commented that the coaching had been invaluable in helping to focus on what matters and in addressing teacher resistance to implementing new initiatives at the school.

“Given that the quality of school leadership is a significant factor in student achievement, Chinle Unified School District strives to create conditions to systemically support, develop, and retain highly effective school leaders,” says Doug Clauschee, associate district superintendent of instruction. “The coaching support from AIR for turnaround leadership is a model for professional development and school improvement.”

Being the turnaround leader can be an isolating position with limited opportunities to learn, reflect, and share opinions with a trusted comrade. A coach can champion the development of the school leader from the sidelines, cheering and supporting his or her efforts until they reach maximum leadership potential.

Calling on an outside coach can help leaders recognize how others perceived them and help them learn new skills and practices to be as effective as possible. A turnaround coach can also help principals and other school leaders feel confident in their ability to tackle difficult challenges.

Trish Brennan-Gac is principal technical assistance consultant and Catherine Barbour is managing technical assistance consultant for school turnaround services at the American Institutes for Research in Washington, D.C.