Seated across from Darrell, a seasoned middle school principal with accolades on the walls and a respected reputation in his community, we were astonished to recognize the feelings reflected in his eyes above the mask that veiled his face: helplessness, inadequacy, even fear. It was clear that two years of pandemic leadership had all but erased his confidence. One can imagine why a career change suddenly seemed to him like the best — or only — option.
Darrell is not alone. (All names in this article are pseudonyms to protect principals’ confidentiality.) Even relatively early in the COVID-19 crisis in August 2020, a poll by the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) found that “forty-five percent of principals report that pandemic working conditions are accelerating their plans to leave the profession” (NASSP, 2020). By December 2021, a new NASSP poll found that more than a third expect to leave in the next three years (NASSP, 2021).
As coaches, the three of us meet regularly with principals like Darrell in one of the largest school districts in the United States and grapple daily with the urgency of addressing their needs as they lead during the pandemic. We see a need to not only help principals navigate the immediate challenges they are facing every day, but also to help accomplished leaders like Darrell find sustainable solutions so they can stay in the profession and continue to thrive.
Even before the pandemic, principal turnover was a concern. Principals have difficult jobs and often far less support than they need. Inadequate preparation and professional development are among the top reasons principals leave the profession (Levin & Bradley, 2019).
When working conditions lead to turnover, those departures then fuel myriad challenges to school and district improvement endeavors. Among other problems, turnover often results in inexperienced or underprepared leaders entering the role as districts rush to fill open positions. Without appropriate support and guidance, these individuals face numerous obstacles to success and are at even higher risk for turnover.
Given the unprecedented stresses since COVID arrived, the impact of inadequate preparation on principals has increased exponentially. Left unaddressed, this cycle of turnover, inexperience, and lack of support could produce one of the largest principal exoduses ever seen. Leaders — especially new leaders, but more experienced ones, too — cannot be expected to succeed without adequate support. If we want school leaders to remain in the profession, districts must prioritize effective practices to meet their needs.
Fortunately, job-embedded coaching offers structures that can empower principals to withstand the complex and unpredictable encounters leaders face today and create more stability in the profession. Providing support that matches the unique demands of the current education environment takes intentionality and commitment. Coaches must be thoughtful about what characterizes a partnership that provides a safe arena for pushing a school forward amid constant uncertainty.
In our work with principals, we have identified three major areas for coaches to focus their support: Build trust, differentiate support, and set goals. These themes transcend programs and frameworks for school improvement, and they are beneficial across settings and situations. Coaches who follow these principles can help principals achieve results for students and schools stem the tide of principal turnover.Here are three major areas for coaches to focus their support when working with principals: Build trust, differentiate support, and set goals. #TheLearningPro Click To Tweet
Build trust-based relationships
In any successful coaching relationship, the first order of business is to create the conditions, grounded in trust, that will fast-track the relationship-building process. As researchers Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider noted in their seminal book, Trust in Schools (2004), “Trust is the connective tissue that holds improving schools together.”
Recognizing that leaders may be experiencing increased feelings of anxiety, stress, and fragile confidence requires a coach to employ perhaps more sensitivity than is typical in early interactions to build that trust. In the district where we work, district leaders have taken effective steps to lay the foundation of coaching as a support system framed around thought partnership.
As a result, the principals we partner with — nearly all of whom say they are overwhelmed and struggling to shift from addressing only the urgent to planning for what’s important in the long term — have welcomed the coaching opportunity and developed trust more easily than they might have otherwise.
For example, when Eloise, an elementary principal, met her coach for the first time, her supervisor had already engaged her in numerous discussions that framed coaching as an opportunity she had been chosen for, not a consequence of her performance. She came prepared with questions that puzzled her and ideas for future joint classroom visits to gain feedback.
From the onset, coaches must set the right conditions to build trust. Transparency is crucial. A coach must be open and honest in their communication about the parameters of the partnership. In addition, every effort should be made to ensure initial interactions feel more relational rather than transactional. Finally, it’s important for coaches to view our work as serving clients’ needs, not the other way around. When we see ourselves as servants of our clients, we create an environment that cultivates growth and development from the participants, thus enabling them to function at their best.
With the foundation of trust established, we can begin to facilitate and collaborate as thinking partners and instructors, or guides, helping leaders clear away the chaos of daily demands. We can begin to help shift behavior, which is part of the transformational coaching process (Aguilar, 2013).
That process considers not just the overall organizational systems and structures, or the overall educational social systems we live in, but the individual, their own thoughts, ideas, beliefs, and behaviors. Allowing individuals to engage in their own learning while being authentic to themselves allows for a deeper understanding between coach and principal.
Provide differentiated support
Differentiated support is essential due to the varying educational landscapes each state, district, or school faces and the broad set of responsibilities principals are expected to fulfill. Principals are expected to be instructional leaders, business managers, security coordinators, communication facilitators for families, students, teachers, and communities, and much more.
Research shows that principals’ impact on students is second only to teachers (Grissom et al., 2021), but the pressure to perform masterfully in all areas is taking its toll on school leaders. While higher education, states, and districts have implemented systems to retain and support new and veteran teachers, they have not provided the same kind of support for principals and assistant principals. We are now seeing the effects of this in principals’ decisions to leave the profession (Levin & Bradley, 2019).
As coaches aim to fill that void and support and lift performance of school leaders, we must tailor our support, not only to individuals’ needs but to their contexts — that is, to districts’ and schools’ needs. Our coaching must align with district priorities while balancing the unique dynamics of each school community. That can help principals feel they are making progress toward system goals, which can in turn increase their self-efficacy and prevent burnout.
When starting a partnership with the district in which we work, our team spent two full days meeting with different department leadership teams seeking to understand current systems, initiatives, challenges, and district-specific goals. Collaborating with district leadership teams to learn about specific initiatives and processes has allowed for clear communication and understanding of district and school expectations, as well as their targeted improvement goals.
From there, tailored coaching and collaborative support ensures autonomy within the principal/coach partnership, allowing administrators to identify their own strengths and areas for opportunity within the scope of district expectations. Because the coaching relationship is nonevaluative, it allows principals to be vulnerable and grow in specific areas that they have identified with the support of their thinking partner.
Focus on goals
School leaders are asked to be experts in an ever-growing array of skills and competencies such that even a seasoned principal is in a continuous state of growth in some areas. The pandemic has further surfaced unforeseen skills and leadership practices required to navigate the daily work.
In an environment where stability has become an elusive notion, principals in our schools say it can feel impossible to confidently set improvement targets when the path toward the target is different every day.
These circumstances, while difficult, present a profound learning opportunity. In pursuit of professional growth for leaders, we cultivate a guided process focused on agreed-upon goals for improvement to practice. When developed in tandem between leader and coach, “goals support the journey from beginner to expert” (Nordengren, 2022), and a coach provides an objective, reflective lens on the bridge between the principal’s developmental needs and the broader vision for improvement of the school itself.
Because thoughtful goals focus on developing mastery rather than meeting a performance expectation (Nordengren, 2022), the experience of goal-setting with a coach presents an opportunity for principals to focus on personal growth free from the risk of an evaluative or supervisory framework. Principals determine the focus of a goal themselves. Supporting autonomy and engagement, we, as coaches, serve as accountability partners.
For example, during the coaching partnership with Eloise, she became aware that her efforts toward improving data use in teacher professional learning communities were facing resistance and apathy from staff. She was defeated, attributing the lack of impact to her perceived lack of authority with her teachers and other personal flaws.
This was an illustration of a common situation identified by researcher Chase Nordengren: “In an unmonitored self-assessment process, there are ample opportunities … to internalize negative or self-defeating messages about their own performance, limiting both their sense of self-efficacy and their growth” (Nordengren, 2022).
Her coach, however, supported Eloise as she analyzed the various other sources of influence on the problem, reframed the self-defeating messages, and identified areas over which she had control. Together, Eloise and the coach identified a practical goal of a multistep plan of teacher expectations for data use that she could use as to monitor progress and accountability for her team.
Through coaching work, Eloise was able to recognize, then implement in a supportive environment, processes and practices that she and her coach orchestrated together to ensure success toward her goal.
Goal-setting with the principals we support is focused on building momentum toward systemic improvement of the school, not solely growth of the leader, connecting the processes to the greater vision of enhanced student learning.
Because principals influence student achievement nearly as much as classroom teachers (Grissom et al., 2021), their skill improvement is tantamount to that of their staff. The principals’ goals are at the center of the work, but as coaches, our goal is to build their skills and capacity to embed the process of continuous improvement in all that they do.''Because principals influence student achievement nearly as much as classroom teachers (Grissom et al., 2021), their skill improvement is tantamount to that of their staff.'' #TheLearningPro Click To Tweet
Supporting principals in today’s schools is, like the role of the leader itself, a complex undertaking. The needs of schools are so vast, and the priorities that districts and schools must address are a shifting panorama of challenges, including teacher absences, political controversies, student mental health, and learning struggles.
Coaches must approach today’s problems with a new lens, one that balances meeting immediate needs with long-term growth. We can support principals’ ability to reframe problems, identify new approaches, and test those approaches with support and feedback. We do that with conversations that clarify desired outcomes, identify attainable improvement goals, strategize practical steps, and provide nonevaluative accountability toward results.Coaches must approach today’s problems with a new lens, one that balances meeting immediate needs with long-term growth. #TheLearningPro Click To Tweet
By prioritizing process over programs, coaches can help principals become empowered to make one-degree shifts in their practice. Neither we nor they can tackle everything at once or improve everything that needs fixing. But we can help them take meaningful steps that benefit staff and students and help principals develop the self-efficacy to recognize their successes, sustain their energy, and remain in the profession to continue fulfilling their important mission.
Aguilar, A. (2013). The art of coaching: Effective strategies for school transformation. Jossey-Bass.
Bryk, A. & Schneider, B. (2004). Trust in schools: A core resource of improvement. Russell-Sage Foundation.
Grissom, J.A., Egalite, A.J., & Lindsay, C.A. (2021). How principals affect students and schools. The Wallace Foundation.
Levin, S. & Bradley, K. (2019). Understanding and addressing principal turnover: A review of the research. Learning Policy Institute.
National Association of Secondary School Principals. (2021, December). NASSP survey signals a looming mass exodus of principals from schools. www.nassp.org/news/nassp-survey-signals-a-looming-mass-exodus-of-principals-from-schools/
National Association of Secondary School Principals. (2020, August). “Overwhelmed” and “unsupported,” 45 percent of principals say pandemic conditions are accelerating their plans to leave the principalship. www.nassp.org/news/overwhelmed-and-unsupported-45-percent-of-principals-say-pandemic-conditions-are-accelerating-their-plans-to-leave-the-principalship/
Nordengren, C. (2022). Step into student goal setting. Corwin.
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