Bold Action for Challenging Times

By Michael Chirichello
Principal, September/October 2020. Volume 100, Number 1.

With school buildings closed and students remaining safely in their homes, a new paradigm for teaching and learning began to emerge. Principals became education leaders from afar, assisted by technology.

Stress levels heightened for principals, teachers, students, and parents as each deadline for home learning was stretched to a new endpoint, however. By the end of April, most states had made the decision to keep schools closed until the beginning of the 2020–2021 academic year. Adding to the uncertainty, no one could predict whether or not school as we knew it would begin again in June, July, or August. Perhaps the new beginning could be a continuation of home learning.

For many principals, it was like being pushed to the edge and hoping not to fall off. In addition to the day-to-day challenges they usually face, principals were asked to lead the way in a remote environment and oversee classrooms located in living rooms, studies, and kitchens. Talk about stress! The new environment was—and is—challenging for the entire school community.

Principals connected with one another, with teachers and support staff, with the central office, and with students and parents via video- or teleconference, often trying to satisfy their own homebound children’s needs. While the principal’s role often blends the management of daily routines with the unexpected, the uncertain and complex realities of COVID-19 challenged leadership every day. Building leadership capacity and working toward long-range goals is difficult in this new-normal world.

The challenge in these volatile and ambiguous times is to create a balance among the roles of principal as education leader, administrative manager, and work-at-home parent. To achieve this goal, district support for principal leadership in the era of COVID-19 requires bold action. Now is the time for district leaders to provide authentic, job-embedded, and individualized support to help school leaders balance their professional and personal lives and continue to strengthen their practice. Executive coaching—being a thought partner who provides space and time for reflective practice—is one way to provide principals with the support they need.

Coaching Before and After COVID

Before COVID-19 emerged as a worldwide threat, authors Kathleen Drucker, Jill Grossman, and Nikki Nagler produced a research paper, “Still in the Game: How Coaching Keeps Leaders in Schools and Making Progress.” It found that principals in the NYC Leadership Academy who committed to a leadership coach for at least five years:

  • Remained in their schools more than double the national average principal tenure (3.5 years);
  • Improved their ability to supervise staff, distribute leadership, communicate, and lead with resilience; and 
  • Avoided complacency. 

Once their schools had made some initial progress, the principals in the study didn’t coast; they worked with their coaches to continue to make improvements. In the COVID-19 era, this study advances the evidence that coaching can be a way of helping principals navigate their volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous environments while building confidence and competence.

Competent executive coaching can help relieve stress while improving a leader’s performance. However, few districts provide executive coaching for principals. Supervisors evaluate and are also expected to coach, but coaching should not be coupled with evaluation. The fine line between evaluator and coach can blur easily.

When the pandemic began, Boone County (Kentucky) public schools already had an established executive coaching process in place. It is the third-largest district in the state, with 14 elementary schools, six middle schools, and five high schools. Of almost 20,000 students in Boone County, 1,800 are English learners who together speak more than 50 different languages.

Under the leadership of then-​Superintendent Randy Poe, the district implemented a coaching process for its principals starting in 2017, with me serving as a principal coach. Although I live in New Jersey, we designed a process that would include remote videoconferences, voice conversations, and on-site visits.

Conversant at a Distance

My video and landline calls focused on individual principals’ agenda items as well as spontaneous conversation. I asked reflective questions throughout, sustaining a collaborative, self-initiated context. The conversations covered a variety of events that each principal faced on a day-to-day basis. They became opportunities for principals to get “unstuck,” take time to reflect, and strengthen their leadership capacity.

I guided the principals in choosing alternatives to their emerging puzzles of practice. “It was refreshing to have someone listen and guide me on my daunting journey,” one said. Over time, the principals developed a growth mindset as they juggled management and leadership roles. Just as teachers have instructional coaches, these principals had an executive coach.

As a result of my experiences during the three years of this process, here are eight takeaways for districts considering executive coaching:

  1. A remote, external coach can be effective and efficient. An external hire doesn’t carry any baggage from the district and might be more objective than an internal selection. A remote consultant/coach might be more affordable for school districts experiencing financial limitations.
  2. First- and second-year principals need mentors more than coaches. The coaching process should be available to principals who have three or more years of experience. Districts should support mentor programs for first- and second-year principals.
  3. An initial site visit is essential. Visits should take place early in the school year. The visit should seek to: (1) establish or reinforce trusting relationships between the principal and the coach, and (2) design long- and short-range coaching goals with measurable outcomes.
  4. Flexibility addresses individual needs. Districts considering remote coaching should arrange at least two site visits per year and offer flexibility in the approaches during those visits depending on each principal’s needs.
  5. Video conversations are encouraged. While some principals feel more comfortable on telephone conversations, others prefer FaceTime or Skype. By Year 3, all of my coaching conversations were held on FaceTime, adding dimension to the conversations.
  6. Communicate continuously. Ongoing communication between the coach and principals outside scheduled conversations is important. I sent monthly email reflections to the principals to remind them that a coach was always on call and to promote a more reflective growth mindset. Some principals shared these reflections with their staff.
  7. Confidentiality counts. Two requirements are an integral part of the coaching process: (1) confidentiality between the principal and coach, and (2) voluntary participation. The coach should meet with the central office staff during site visits but must be careful not to violate the confidentiality of the process.
  8. Successes must be celebrated. During the coaching process, principals can be open and vulnerable. The coach should remember to be a cheerleader who offers encouragement and support. At the end of each conversation, the coach should focus on the principal’s strengths and accomplishments. Celebrating successes can have an enduring and positive impact; after COVID-19 hit, principals received supportive, encouraging comments. 

What’s Next for Coaching?

Instructional coaches for teachers are common in schools. But few districts afford principals the opportunity to have leadership coaches—experienced professionals who have walked the walk and talked the talk, having spent time as school leaders.

If we want to improve upon the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous environment in which principals are functioning now, it will require bold action. Providing a coach will help alleviate stress and keep principals on the job longer. Districts must commit to a process of continuous growth and support if principals are to lead learning during the COVID-19 crisis.

Changing times require changing approaches. These times might be the wake-up call we needed to get unstuck and heed the need for principal coaches. It’s a commitment to helping principals lead the way—and their leadership matters now more than ever.  

Michael Chirichello is a former teacher, principal, superintendent, and university professor. He is currently an international consultant with Leadership Matters LLC.

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