The value of individual, job-embedded support for teachers and principals, both novice and veteran, is well established. Such support has been demonstrated to improve retention, job performance, and student achievement. In one recent and powerful example, the Rand Corporation evaluated The Wallace Foundation’s Principal Pipeline Initiative and found that the program produced highly significant positive impacts. Job-embedded induction support and executive coaching make up the heart of the interventions.

In our work in many districts across the country, we’ve observed some significant variability in the quality and impact of job-embedded support being provided to our professional colleagues. Budget and staffing constraints are certainly at the root of many of these disparities, but another factor involves confusion between mentoring and coaching—and the need for a solid understanding of what characterizes high-quality coaching.

Defining Roles

District A tells us that they are providing intensive support to new principals. Each principal is provided with a mentor—a practicing, successful principal. The principal and their mentor meet initially at the beginning of the school year and are expected to touch base a few times a month, perhaps over coffee or during site visits. Many new principals in District A receive valuable support from their mentors; they call their mentors to vent, seek advice, or ask questions about district processes and politics. However, in other cases, the novice/mentor relationship fails to take off, and there is not a lot of interaction during the course of the school year.

District B makes a more substantial investment in coaching for its new principals. This district recruits a small cadre of coaches from among a select group of retired principals and superintendents. These coaches have been trained in a coaching model that utilizes a systemic process grounded in goal setting that ensures continuity and accountability. They participate in a professional learning community of other coaches. Their work is monitored and evaluated by the district, and they are paid for their efforts.

We can equate these two situations to learning to play golf: District A represents a day on the course and receiving a few tips from a more experienced friend. The novice in District B, however, has the benefit of learning from and being supported by a pro—someone who is dedicated to their growth and who has a deep understanding of the coaching process.

In the book Blended Coaching: Skills and Strategies to Support Principal Development, author Gary Bloom outlines the distinction between coaching and mentoring:

  • Mentoring is an informal relationship, often between peers, while coaching is a formal relationship between a client and an individual trained in the coaching role.
  • Mentoring is often unstructured and driven by the mentee’s need of the moment, while quality coaching is built around a standards-based structure and accountability.
  • Mentors are typically volunteers for whom the role is an add-on responsibility, while coaches are dedicated to and compensated for their role.
  • Mentors are expected to be nurturing and supportive. While coaches are charged with providing support, effective coaches are bold in providing feedback and in challenging their clients to improve their performance in ways that push comfort levels.
  • Mentors are typically senior to their mentees, while coaches typically qualify for the role because of their expertise and may or may not be senior.
  • We all need mentors, multiple mentors, around many dimensions in our lives. Professional coaches meet a similar but more compelling need as educators face their day-to-day and longer-term challenges.

In working with hundreds of principals and coaches, we’ve had the opportunity to observe the professional growth that can occur when a principal is paired with a coach who has been trained to listen and ask the right questions. In Blended Coaching, Bloom recommends that effective coaches move between facilitative and instructional approaches in their practice. Using a facilitative approach means coaches listen intently and question systematically in order to build an understanding of the recipients and their perspective in order to help those recipients clarify their own thinking. Facilitative coaching supports novice principals in developing habits of mind and internal capacity. Instructional coaching uses consultative feedback and/or collaborative techniques to share expertise, advice, and resources. Blended coaching also provides approaches to supporting the development of positive dispositions and emotional intelligence.

Voices of Experience

States and districts recognize the importance of coaching as they invest in principal pipelines. The Every Student Succeeds Act provides flexibility, allowing states and districts to use federal funding to support educational leaders. Six districts in Delaware have invested in coaching as a professional growth and retention strategy for principals and assistant principals. The Delaware Academy for School Leadership (DASL)—a professional development, policy, and research center in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Delaware—partners with school districts and provides experienced leadership coaches who are matched with principals and assistant principals.

Districts usually identify a particular focus for coaching based on district priorities. For example, the Caesar Rodney School District partnered with DASL to provide 14 principals with coaching that was focused on improving the principal’s knowledge and skills to supervise, evaluate, and provide feedback to teachers using the state evaluation system. “Our administrative team is the foundation on which our school district is built. Principals and assistant principals are responsible for hiring teachers, ensuring that our students’ educational needs are met, and establishing a culture in which all students can learn. While professional development is essential to developing great teachers, I believe strongly that the same type of support is needed to strengthen our administrative team,” says District Superintendent Kevin Fitzgerald, who notes that administration has become more challenging over the last 10 years. “I have found that the key to retention is making sure that administrators are not overwhelmed, and they have the support they need. The most effective support has been having a coach like those from DASL. These coaches have helped [our administrative team] develop skills, work on evaluations, and answer those questions they don’t want to ask their supervisor. The principals who have had coaches establish a strong network of support tend to be the most successful and have had the greatest job satisfaction.”

In the Laurel School District in Laurel, DE, Superintendent Shawn Larrimore decided that the best way to support new and reassigned principals was to provide an experienced coach who would meet with the principals twice a month to review the principals’ performance goals, conduct school walk-throughs, and focus on instructional improvement. “Principals who lack self-confidence in their skill set lack longevity in leadership. This particularly befalls early career principals,” Larrimore says. “Constant principal turnover has a huge ripple effect, resulting in low teacher retention rates, low student achievement, and low expectations.”

The formula for getting on the road to success can be quite simple. “Districts that invest in principal coaching—specifically at the early career stage—equip their building leaders with the skill sets necessary to command confidence, trust, and—ultimately—success,” Larrimore says. “Many districts which initially attempt to invest in principal coaching often foolishly believe it’s something that can be done in-house at the district level. However, many districts do not have the capacity or the wherewithal to appropriately identify and address the diverse strengths and weaknesses of their building leaders. Often, external experts are better suited for the task of principal coach.”

Personalized attention can make all the difference. “A one-on-one coach is able to accelerate the experience of novice principals, yet also solidify the thoughts of more seasoned administrators,” says Dave Santore, senior leadership specialist for DASL. “Coaching gives targeted, differentiated assistance to maximize individual growth as leaders, while simultaneously assisting them with their issues in real time.”

And districts are not the only organizations to invest in coaching for principals. Recently, Santore and Jackie Wilson from DASL partnered with Bloom to provide a workshop for university faculty who teach and coach students participating in Georgia’s Principal Preparation Professional Learning Community supported with funding from The Wallace Foundation. Faculty from 12 universities in Georgia and one university in Tennessee participated in a two-day blended coaching workshop. The consortium of districts works regularly with educators from the Georgia Department of Education and Professional Standards Board to make program improvements as one of the initiatives supported by The Wallace Foundation’s University Preparation Program Initiative (UPPI) for Albany State University.

Faculty recognized the need to improve their coaching skills as they worked with aspiring principals.

The two-day workshop provided faculty with opportunities to learn new strategies, practice coaching with a colleague, and receive feedback from Santore, Wilson, and Bloom. The faculty engaged in discussion groups and role-play to learn coaching strategies for providing support to aspiring principals during their internship placements in school districts. This group is engaged in the UPPI.

As we move forward, it is important to acknowledge that mentoring and coaching are not equivalent and that, in many situations, mentors may be necessary but may not be sufficient. Coaching is a valuable and essential element of virtually any induction and professional development initiative.

Jackie Wilson is the executive director of the National Policy Board for Educational Administration and co-chair of the committee that developed the Professional Standards for Educational Leaders. She is also director of the Delaware Academy for School Leadership. Gary Bloom is a former superintendent and co-founder of the New Teacher Center at the University of California in Santa Cruz, CA. He is the lead author of Blended Coaching and Powerful Partnerships and has authored many other articles and publications.