In her first year as assistant principal, Ms. Smith wanted to find her niche, serving her new high school. Then, she got the news she was not expecting: Her main job would be supporting the math department. All her district colleagues almost always handled discipline in their first year; student discipline had become a rite of passage for assistant principals. Her principal, however, had other plans and assigned her oversight of the math department’s eight teachers.

Although Ms. Smith considered herself a “go with the flow” kind of person, she felt tense and lost in her new role. While the principal provided some guidance, many decisions were Ms. Smith’s alone to make. She sought help from her principal coach, Mr. Jones. Together, they developed a plan of action and a vision for improved performance. Having just left the classroom, Ms. Smith was relieved to have someone with experience guide her through the process while having opportunities to reflect on her leadership.

An Overview of Principal Coaching

Principal coaching can be facilitated by a few sources, including district offices, universities, and nonprofit organizations. Although this type of professional development can help principals and assistant principals develop their leadership skills, improve their school’s performance, and support the success of all students, not all school leaders have access to it. Such support is paramount given that research shows principal performance is second only to teacher quality in impacting student achievement.

If you need to advocate for coaching in your district and there is an expense, cite the cost of principal turnover.

A former principal himself, Mr. Jones served as one of the district principal coaches, scheduling weekly meetings with new assistant principals and principals across the district. Using his knowledge and experience, Mr. Jones prepared learning experiences for each leader, leveraging evidence from across the school to set appropriate priorities. School leaders face a wide range of challenges, and must think strategically, manage people, and communicate effectively. To that end, principal coaches help leaders narrow down the most important things to tackle at a specific time.

Like teacher coaching, principal coaching is centered on a bar of excellence for the principal role. New principals are often introduced to Professional Standards for Education Leaders or McRel’s Principal Evaluation System but do not have the time to internalize the elements described. Unfortunately, there is no manual for being an effective principal.

Once a coach has determined the bar of excellence to aim for, they will use the evidence from a leader’s particular school context to select priorities, or action steps, for the principal to practice. Evidence can include classroom observations, student data, survey results, principal reflections, or observations of the principal in numerous situations. Coaches synthesize this evidence and determine a path to develop competencies and student outcomes.

Action steps are the driving force of principal coaching, establishing a clear direction for the principal to follow. Action steps can be described in the following ways:

  • Highest leverage: The action step that means the most for student learning.
  • Narrow: The action step that can be mastered or practiced within a week.
  • Connected to evidence: The action step that should be grounded in evidence for specific context rather than based on district-level assumptions.
  • Transferable: The action step that should translate outside of a situation or can help in gleaning reflections.

Below are concrete examples of principal coaching action steps:

Action steps can vary in scope and focus. Principal coaches must pre-plan these action steps to make every conversation matter.

Like many administrators, Ms. Smith struggled to navigate long-term goals with immediate needs but always knew who to talk to about them. For instance, she called Mr. Jones when the math teacher refused to let students into the classroom after the bell rang. She called him about the parent who wanted to pull her son from his math class after a disagreement over a discipline decision. And she called him after a professional development session blew up in her face. During each conversation, Mr. Jones and Ms. Smith carefully solved each problem while discussing lessons for the future.

Why Leaders Should Seek Coaching

Because the learning curve for a new school leader is steep, they should consider seeking out a coach—if their district does not already provide one—for the following reasons:

  • A coach can help develop leadership skills, such as communication, problem-solving, and decision-making.
  • A coach can provide support and guidance as school leaders navigate the challenges of leading a school.
  • A coach can help build relationships with other school leaders and learn from their experiences.
  • A coach can help focus on goals and make progress toward their vision for the school.

While there are many benefits to coaching, there are limitations. Coaching can be costly and hard to measure in terms of direct impact. Coach quality also matters tremendously. Coaches must conduct thorough needs assessments to ensure their coaching is aligned and relevant. Otherwise, principal coaching can become an investment with a limited impact on a school’s culture and outcomes.

If you are new to leadership, and interested in pursuing a coach, consider the following:

  • Look inside: Ask your district for a mentor. This person does not need to be in a formalized coaching role.
  • Look outside: Examine the school community for individuals who may have the skills or knowledge that you lack. For example, if you have never managed adults, seek a coach with expertise in that area, even in fields other than education.
  • Look broadly: Explore online coaching available for school leaders. Programs such as New Leaders, CT3, and the Leadership Academy offer coaching. Local nonprofits that offer coaching may also be available in your community.

If you need to advocate for coaching in your district and there is an expense, cite the cost of principal turnover. Not only is there a cost to the school community that cannot be measured, but there is also a financial cost, averaging $75,000 per principal lost in onboarding, preparation, and recruitment expenses.


As for Ms. Smith, her journey as a new school leader shows the transformative power of principal coaching. Thanks to her coach, Mr. Jones, who provided invaluable guidance and support, Ms. Smith developed her leadership style, overcame her insecurities, and gained the necessary skills to lead the math department and fulfill her responsibilities effectively.

For new school leaders, principal coaching is an essential form of professional development that supports them in their roles. It provides personalized, evidence-based guidance to principals and assistant principals, helping them narrow their focus and tackle the most critical aspects of school leadership, ultimately leading to improved student outcomes.

Jo Lein is a leadership development coach with Tulsa Public Schools and an adjunct professor of education at Johns Hopkins University. She also founded the Teaching & Learning Initiative of Oklahoma.


Culbertson, J. (2017, September 6). 7 reasons why districts need to invest in principal coaching. K12 School Improvement, Leadership & Coaching.

New Teacher Center. (2018). Churn: The high cost of principal turnover.

Reid, D. B. (2019). How school principals enable instructional coaches: Evidence from New Jersey. ICPEL Education Leadership Review, 20(1).