More than ever, principals need support in how to navigate all the challenges they’re facing.

Last month The Wallace Foundation President Will Miller delivered a keynote where he described how increased stresses to the principalship could lead to more principals leaving the profession, a situation that underscores the need to do more to develop and support principals. Leaning into decades of Wallace-supported research on the principalship, Miller reiterated to an audience of education leaders why developing principals matters: evidence links effective principals to improved student achievement, better student attendance, less exclusionary discipline, lower teacher turnover, and higher teacher satisfaction.

Coaching should be a component of a systemic approach to supporting principals. Coaching and supporting principals is an important part of our professional services work at Learning Forward. Recently, Learning Forward senior consultant Kay Psencik and Principal Tracy Olvera, Alvin Independent School District, Texas, each captured their thoughts about a recent coaching session. Olvera is leading professional learning around a new district phonics curriculum.

The coach: Learning Forward’s Kay Psencik 

“One of the joys of coaching principals is their amazing creativity,” said veteran principal coach Kay Psencik. “When principals are coached with other principals in their own learning community, they generate ideas that may have greater impact on all their schools.

“In a recent coaching session, I had the privilege of coaching a cohort of the Alvin Independent School District, Alvin, Texas, which is one of the fastest-growing school districts in the greater Houston area. The cohort includes three learning communities of five principals in each. We meet for a couple of hours once a month. The learning community extends their work by meeting in one of the member’s schools once a month to observe professional learning, share expertise, and review progress on their problem of practice. Each team also has a district level administrator working with them as well as the principal supervisor, so that we are all working in the same direction.

“We are just beginning our journey together. We all are exploring professional learning fundamentals, Standards for Professional Learning, basic principles of adult learning, and how principals spend their time as instructional leaders. We are focused on principal as leaders of learning for adults as well as students. How do you as a principal ensure that teaching teams are taking responsibility for their own learning and the learning of all of their students? How do teachers take the lead in their learning? What is the principal’s role in this?”

After a coaching session, Psencik said one of the participating principals, Tracy Olvera, “was in a follow-up zoom session with me to reflect on the coaching time, and ask any questions about how we would all work together in a coaching framework.”

A principal: Tracy Olvera, Alvin ISD, Texas

Tracy Olvera wanted her instructional staff to be empowered to lead professional learning of their peers.

“I went back to school and really began to think about what we were exploring today,” Olvera, principal of Alvin ISD, told Learning Forward’s Psencik after a coaching session. “I felt good about the work my instructional coach and I were doing to encourage teachers to try new strategies in their classrooms. We have seen progress, but it has been really slow going. We have always known modeling was important, so we have prepared great presentations and modeled what we wanted to see in the classroom. There was really no time for them to work on how to use the strategy while they were with us and there was no commitment on their part to actually try it. Further, I realized we were doing the work.

“I called my instructional coach in and we completely revamped a session we were about to have with the teachers on the new district phonics curriculum. We explored the question you asked us: How can you turn the learning over to our teaching team so that they take ownership of the new curriculum?

“We invited teachers to take part of the curriculum and show us what they would do to use that work and model for all how they would teach it to their students. We had teachers and teaching teams searching the curriculum and volunteering eagerly to share what they would do. One teacher even modeled how she uses hand signals to help students understand letter sounds. People were so interested in what their fellow teachers were teaching that we gave them time to design a plan for using the strategies that were modeled by their peers in their own lessons.

“Several were interested in the use of hand signals, so the teacher who had modeled that went back to her classroom and made a video of herself teaching them to her students so all teachers could see.

“Most importantly, we realized we had no expectations of them to use what they were learning. We explored the power of commitment and evidence. We are working together to build in cycles of continuous improvement.

“I took that to heart. It had never crossed my mind. How simple. Expect them to commit to their work and ask them to bring back evidence of what they did – a lesson plan, student work, a video of their teaching.

“I then went to two really skillful teachers and asked them to videotape their guided reading lesson – no extra planning – just what they were going to do. They agreed and also agreed to share with the faculty their lesson plan and talk through how guided reading fit into the entire picture of the lesson.

“I then used the tuning protocol we had used with the principal cohort to examine others’ problems of practice. The response from the two teachers who had presented? We have never received such positive feedback from our peers! When I looked at the video, all I could see was what I wish I had done differently! This experience was so powerful!

“What I observed is that teachers were totally engaged; they had so much fun doing the work and sharing with each other. They reported that they have never experienced such powerful professional learning before.  The energy is high and the ownership I so wanted is there! I just want to keep this energy and momentum moving forward.”

Well-prepared principals improve schools

The Implementation standard of Learning Forward’s Standards for Professional Learning reminds us that support for principals should include mentoring and ongoing coaching (Learning Forward, 2022).

Coaching facilitates principals developing the essential skills to be instructional leaders. When coaches understand a principals’ unique role, the context in which they work, and the current expected practices, they are strategic in their coaching. Principals must develop critical skills in understanding their students’ learning needs, how to monitor student performance data from informal ongoing assessments, how to host conversations with teaching teams about student growth on critical standards, facilitate curriculum conversations to ensure alignment of what teaching teams are teaching to those standards, using informal assessments to determine differentiated teaching strategies and grouping of students, understanding the adult learning styles and needs of their staff, designing adult learning effectively, and building focused cycles of continuous improvement among learning teams.

Psencik said Olvera deserves all the credit for the positive outcome achieved. “She was grateful for the coaching, but the truth is, she took the lead in changing her own practice and within a very short time, had teachers taking the lead in their learning grounded in collaborative inquiry and shared responsibility.”

2023 Annual Conference

Learn more from Kay and Learning Forward’s expert facilitators at our 2023 Annual Conference, Dec. 3-6, which will feature more than a dozen sessions led by members of our professional services team that demonstrate the important work happening at all levels in schools and districts that improves understanding of the professional learning needs of educators and results in the design and implementation of collaborative learning. Find the sessions here.


Investments in principals are investments in teachers (F. Brown, The Learning Professional, October 2022)

Learning Forward featured leadership resources

The Principal Difference in Effective Schools (slidedeck) (Will Miller, The Wallace Foundation, keynote to Cahn Fellowship Annual Leadership Conference October 2023)