District Level Leaders: How to Coach Principals
Leadership Skills and Implementation

PD for Principals: How District-Level Administrators Can Coach for Results

By Terry Wilhelm

District administrators have many individual interactions with principals. In some instances, district-level leaders can use informal coaching to provide professional development for their principals.

For example, one principal may be brand new to the principalship, but as an AP, he worked for several different principals — each with a very different style. In specific situations that arise, how do you guide him toward the best, most effective style for himself as a new leader?

Perhaps another of your principals expresses a highly negative mindset about the impoverished, high-needs students and families in her school and community. Many of her statements reflect these negative beliefs, and she demonstrates very low energy for leading much-needed changes to improve teaching and learning. You have heard her making these disempowering statements in front of staff members.

Models of coaching for district-level leaders

How do you respond in these situations as a district-level leader? Sometimes you need to direct, especially in a crisis where the person obviously does not know what to do, but at other times, you are more effective if you act as a coach.

Coaching models abound. Some of the better-known models include:

Using cognitive coaching for principals

There is overlap among coaching models, and you may recognize some of these features from models you know. An assumption of cognitive coaching is that the role of the coach is to illuminate the thinking of the person being coached, who is a capable individual who already holds the answers to his or her issue.

I should note that in occasional instances, the individual may actually be completely at a loss for what to do. In such cases, the coach assumes another “stance,” and labels it as such.

The coach says something like, “Let me put on my consultant hat for a minute. Here are a few things you might consider.” In this stance, it is recommended to name three ideas, for a couple of reasons. Only one idea sounds like I’m saying it’s the one right answer. Two suggestions may confuse the coaching recipient into wondering which one she or he is supposed to choose. Three offers a viable selection, but not too many to overwhelm.

Push for future solutions and ask open-ended questions

It is more effective to coach in the future tense, not past. Asking, “What might you have done differently?” implies a judgment — something was lacking or amiss. If only I could take back the countless times I asked this question of teachers after I observed a lesson! Unfortunately, it was often my opening question, after asking the teacher how he or she thought the lesson went.

A more useful question for a coachee is, “What are some types of actions you might consider in future situations like this?” This does not imply that the recent action was bad or poor. The use of plurals also pushes thinking beyond one possible right or best answer.

Finally, questions beginning with the words “what” and “how” are the most open-ended, and thus push thinking further than questions beginning with other words. Of course, it is still possible to ask very limiting questions that begin with these words.

Avoid war stories and advice-giving

When coaching, it is also important to avoid “set-asides.” These include storytelling (don’t we all love to tell our own war stories!), giving advice (which most people neither use nor appreciate), and our own need for closure. We may very well not have the satisfaction of experiencing the lightbulb coming on, or see our coaching recipient feeling more positive about a problem during our interaction.

But then, coaching is not for our benefit. We offer our best effort to support clarification of the coaching recipient’s thinking, and his or her potential for progress toward resolution.

Key to coaching principals: Practice

This is by no means an exhaustive summary. My eight-day cognitive coaching training took place over several months’ time with practice assignments between sessions. Practice is the key to getting better at coaching. For each model I mentioned, as well as others, excellent books are available, and often training for aspiring coaches.

Whatever model you find most comfortable for your own leadership style, I recommend finding ways to advance your own practice to provide the best possible support to those you may have opportunities to coach.

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