Distributive Leadership: 5 Ways Principal Coaches Can Help Principals Execute

Principal coaches are a critical and essential support to principals. One trap that we have found in our work with district leaders in the US and abroad for the last 17 years is that the principal coach can sometimes fall into becoming a second principal in a building.

When this happens, it is neither effective for the principal nor the principal coach—and impedes the effectiveness of both and is not sustainable.

Bolman and Deal in their book, Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, discuss the idea of how managers require “comprehensive perspectives” to be successful.

Successful managers and leaders require more comprehensive perspectives. They need multiple lenses and skills in reframing—looking at old problems in a new light, as well as confronting new challenges with different tools and reactions. Reframing expands understandings, responses, timing, and styles that managers apply to problems. It helps them translate managerial good intentions into effective action.

This should be one of the primary roles of the principal coach. One of the best ways principal coaches can bring that perspective to principals is by helping them with their biggest challenge: execution.

Principal coaches play a critical role in helping principals execute on their most important priorities in the following five ways:

  1. Help principals kick off the year with a strong climate and culture with symbolic acts, such as open houses, regular communications welcoming staff to school, and laying out the vision for the year while ensuring all stakeholders understand their critical role in accomplishing the vision. Coaches can provide examples of such symbolic acts and serve as a “critical friend” by listening to principals articulate their vision, roles, and responsibilities and providing feedback.
  2. Coach principals to prioritize workable and sustainable initiatives that they can accomplish within the year. Coaches can backward-map touch points around key deliverables, do a needs assessment with principals regarding their readiness to effectively complete the deliverables, and then provide differentiated support relative to need and timing.
  3. Walk principals through the cadence of the year by helping them determine which priorities and tasks must be paid attention to during each month. This not only helps principals prioritize, maintain focus, and anticipate where extra time may be needed, but this exercise can also be used as a mechanism for providing differentiated levels of support to principals during specific times of the year.
  4. Help principals be instructional leaders, including modeling how to frame productive conversations about data-based decisions that leverage the district’s data systems, calibrating on the most powerful protocols and tools for data-based decision-making (e.g. item analysis protocols, assessment calendars), and providing effective feedback for teachers and identifying instructional gaps and improvements necessary to achieve student achievement goals. This is a key lever to improving student achievement but also serves as a mechanism for retaining effective staff and delivering on the promise of continuous professional growth that is critical for all teacher-improvement initiatives.
  5. Understand how to help principals be distributive leaders, which entails how to lead a team and how to distribute roles and responsibilities among their staff members. This includes setting up an effective Instructional Leadership Team (ILT) and putting in place systematic management practices (e.g. schedules, meeting procedures, clear goals, 45-day objectives or sprints to achieve goals, accountability and support structures for accomplishing to-do list items that come out of each meeting, etc.) to ensure the ILT truly helps the school accomplish its vision.

By staying within the role of an advisor and coach, principal coaches have a great opportunity to be that much-needed support principals need and want.

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