Empowering Principals: Building Instructional Leadership Skills through Coaching

November 5, 2020

Empowering Principals: Building Instructional Leadership Skills through Coaching

This is the third in a multipart series of essays about empowering principals to be instructional leaders. Read the first essay here and the second essay here.

Coaching teachers effectively is the No. 1 skill that principals need to be a strong instructional leader. By asking reflective questions, seeking teachers' insights and expertise, and focusing on student work and student learning, principals show that they are a partner in efforts to improve teaching and learning.

Unfortunately, few districts provide principals with support to grow as coaches or model what effective coaching can look like in their context. Leadership coaching for principals is often informal, lacking clear and measurable goals, and infrequent or disconnected from the daily work of principals and the teachers they support. Recent surveys of principals report that 98% of school leaders desire additional professional development (Levin et al., 2020) and overwhelmingly prefer support that is individualized and relevant to their specific needs and the needs of their school. However, only about half receive mentoring, peer observation, or coaching to improve (NTPS, 2017-18).

One key resource to better support principals is already present in most districts: the principal supervisor. Principal supervisors can and should show principals what it looks like to be an effective coach. This requires being present in schools, asking reflective questions, tackling instructional challenges, and coaching principals in the ways that model how to coach and support teachers. Coaching enables principal supervisors to highlight what strong instructional leadership practice looks like – including feedback, self-reflection, and goal-setting. In this way, principals experience the kind of support and coaching they are expected to provide to teachers.

Here are four strategies that supervisors and principals can adopt to push their coaching practices to the next level.

Use a Strengths-Based Approach

This year more than ever, principal supervisors and principals need to take a strengths-based approach to coaching. Teachers have had their classroom routines completely upended, and principals can help by making connections between strong practices teachers were already using in the classroom and how these practices translate to virtual, hybrid, or other learning environments. Getting this right requires principals to spend time in classrooms and with collaborative learning teams, engaging in the specific content and classroom challenges teachers are experiencing – whether in person or virtual – and focusing their feedback on specific, detailed actions that are grounded in the curriculum the teacher is teaching, as well as their individual needs and the needs of their students.

You find that skill in teachers and you build on it. I encourage teachers to be learners themselves. Everyone can teach you something.
Bethany Loucks, Principal, Rio Colorado Elementary School, Gadsden Elementary School District #32, Arizona

One-on-one coaching is particularly important in low-performing schools, where teachers need additional support in helping students who are significantly below grade level. "You have to see potential and focus on strengths," says Bethany Loucks, principal of Rio Colorado Elementary School in San Luis, Arizona. "You find that skill and you build on it – sending a teacher to see how other teachers do something, analyzing how that skill advances student learning in the classroom, presenting on that skill in a collaborative group. I encourage them to be learners themselves. Everyone can teach you something."

Just as principals need to spend time in teachers' classrooms, so too do principal coaches and supervisors need to connect their coaching to instruction and school goals. "My supervisor wants me to run this school successfully and do my best by these students," said Dr. Roddy Melancon, principal of Gonzales Primary School in Ascension Parish, Louisiana. "She is fully invested in me as a leader and in the success of students on this campus. She comes in and supports me to get better as an instructional leader. We go into classrooms and talk about what we see. When she suggests things, she explains why, and now that is ingrained in me. When I talk to teachers, I explain the why first, just like teachers need to do with kids." Focusing on strengths and working in partnership to analyze and improve practice opens the door for principals to improve their own capacity for strengths-based coaching.

Engage in a Variety of School Settings, including Classrooms

The best thing coaches can do for principals is to deepen their analysis of what they see happening in the classroom – and what they might be missing. Why are students excelling in one classroom and not another? What are the most impactful teacher actions or instructional decisions? What are students doing?

Principal Nathan Langlois of Austin East High School in Knox County, Tennessee, describes why this is so important. "My best supports have come when my supervisor visits often and is present at key events I have with my staff or our professional development," he said. "It gives them a sense of the pulse of the school." Engaging with principals in a variety of settings enables coaches to be true thought partners, analyzing instruction with the principal and adjusting strategies as they learn together. Experiencing this instructionally focused coaching themselves provides principals with a powerful model for coaching teachers.

To respond to the needs expressed by principals around instructional leadership, Knox County Schools widened the scope of principal coaching and evaluation to include school leadership team meetings, weekly professional learning community (PLC) meetings, and classroom lessons. As a result, principal coaching and support covers multiple aspects. For example, principal supervisors might participate in a grade-level PLC and plan to observe classrooms (in-person or virtual) the next week to see how the information gained in the PLC is being put into practice. They might discuss ways principals can give teachers feedback directly or how they can support other leadership team members or teacher leaders to provide that support.

My best supports have come when my supervisor visits often and is present at key events I have with my staff or our professional development. It gives them a sense of the pulse of the school.
Nathan Langlois, Principal, Austin East High School, Knox County Schools, Tennessee

To be an effective coach, principals need to fully know the curriculum, resources, and lesson plan, and take the time to observe the flow of the lesson and key portions of the learning. Beth Lackey, a principal supervisor in Knox County Schools, said, "I am in schools every day, and when I am there, I visit classrooms, participate in PLCs, discuss school goals with principals, and plan for ways to help them support their teachers. … When we visit classrooms, we pay close attention to examples of student learning and ownership and talk to students and teachers about their goals." This demonstrates for principals that their district values instructional leadership and clarifies district expectations. An equally important benefit is that principals get individual support from a partner who knows what is happening in the school and can help to solve problems based on that knowledge.

Making Evaluations More Meaningful and Relevant

Many principals describe their evaluations as filling out paperwork. They often don't receive feedback on what is submitted, and too often there is no end-of-the-year conversation about job performance. Even where feedback is provided, it tends to be general – "You are doing a great job" – without guidance on how to make specific improvements or achieve specific goals.

A more effective approach connects evaluation with ongoing coaching and real-life scenarios throughout the year. "This year, we adopted a different model in that we focused our observations in more authentic situations where we were embedded for the day," said Julie Thompson, Knox County elementary principal supervisor. "Our focus was on developing student ownership and helping support principals to support their teachers in developing a strong understanding of what effective student ownership looked like for teachers, students, and the classroom. We did this by seeing principals in action, visiting classrooms, attending team meetings, asking questions as appropriate, working to be thought partners for principals and instructional coaches. The primary purpose is principal support for teachers and school improvement. The information and evidence gathered is used to provide feedback on areas for potential growth." This job-embedded support and feedback connects evaluation to improvement, and mirrors what the district expects principals to provide for teachers through their evaluations.

Everybody who goes into education has a desire to improve and understands the concept of being a learner. Principals want the person coaching and supporting them to understand where they are working to improve and to ensure that progress is reflected in their evaluation.
Bob Bohannon, Assistant Superintendent for Career Preparation, Perry Township Schools, Indiana

Another reason to make strong connections between evaluation and coaching is to show that evaluation processes are intended to be meaningful and supportive, rather than punitive. "Everybody who goes into education has a desire to improve and understands the concept of being a learner," said Bob Bohannon, assistant superintendent for career preparation in Perry Township Schools in Indiana. "Principals want the person coaching and supporting them to understand where they are working to improve and to ensure that progress is reflected in their evaluation. It is critical to help them make the connection between doing well on an evaluation and how changes in practice produced that result." Investing the time to ensure that principals receive feedback and guidance in connection with their evaluation builds trust and a stronger working relationship with district leaders.

Foster a Schoolwide Culture of Coaching and Professional Collaboration Tied to Teacher and Student Needs

Effective coaching helps principals to identify, plan, and implement intentional opportunities for incorporating reflective practices, both individually and collaboratively. As they analyze instructional strengths and needs, principals may want to use peer observations or incorporate video resources as part of their feedback and coaching. For example, if a teacher is working to strengthen their own practice in a specific area, the principal can suggest visiting another teacher's classroom or viewing a video and identifying techniques they could apply. By bringing a different perspective or new resources to consider, principals can open the door to a more productive, thoughtful conversation with teachers about instruction.  

Having a plan in place to help me grow is motivating and powerful. The plan for growth is so detailed and action-oriented that I am able to take a shared ownership in it with the entire school.
Brittany Anderson, Principal, Mansfield Elementary School, DeSoto Parish Schools, Louisiana

Principals want this kind of support from their own supervisors as well. "I need somebody to question and make me justify every decision I am making to make sure it isn't just my feelings and thoughts, but it is actually the right decision," said Brian Knight, principal of Southport High School in Perry Township. "The district is where I can get that. You have somebody looking at what you are doing with a different lens, working through things with you, bringing new ideas, and making you justify why you're doing what you're doing."

Reflective conversations between principals and their coach not only enhance the principal's capacity for decision-making, but also lead to collective reflection among all educators in the building. "Having a plan in place to help me grow is motivating and powerful," said Brittany Anderson, principal at Mansfield Elementary School in DeSoto Parish, Louisiana. "The plan for growth is so detailed and action-oriented that I am able to take a shared ownership in it with the entire school. Everyone at Mansfield Elementary knows what my specific refinement and action plan is. Why? Because they are a part of it, and we are all investing in it. It has allowed transparency to exist." This level of collaboration and reflection has to start with leadership if it's going to be a part of school culture.


We know that school leadership is essential to overall school success. But, principals need support in growing their capacity to be strong instructional leaders and coaches. In particular, they need opportunities to experience effective coaching themselves so they can improve in developing this critical skill.

If principal supervisors don't see themselves as coaches, districts are failing to employ a key resource that is already in place in most school systems. By intentionally focusing on the supportive aspects of their role, principal supervisors can model effective instructional coaching and create opportunities for principals to build their skills as instructional leaders. This support must be job-embedded – based in classrooms, in professional learning moments, and in the variety of settings where the work of the principal takes place. The coaching provided for principals in these settings will then shape how they coach teachers – giving them the skills and experience to use a strengths-based approach, to ensure that evaluations include meaningful and actionable feedback, and to create a culture of coaching and professional learning in their own school.

For more in the principal series, read the first two essays, "Empowering Principals: Three Ways Principal Supervisors Can Support Principals as Instructional Leaders this Fall – Whether In Person or Virtual" and "Empowering Principals: Bringing Clarity to the Role of Instructional Leader."