Coaching Principals

CEOs do it.  Superintendents do it. Actors even do it–but birds and bees don’t do it. They don’t hire coaches.

Nor do fourth graders.

The coaching industry, originating in the private sector, has grown and spilled over schools beginning about a quarter-century ago. Distinguishing between mentors (insiders) and coaches (outsiders) who bolster failing executives from those who boost rising stars in the organization continue to plague the coaching industry in corporate America and in education.

Sorting out coaches who offer their services in peer-coaching from mentors or whatever is the catch-phrase du jour, however, is not the major issue influencing coaching especially when principals are concerned.

In the previous post, Dave Sherman described test day at his Chicago suburban elementary school. That day was mostly managerial, one of three roles that he performs as an elementary school principal. The other roles that are “must” do ones are instructional and political (see February 16, 2011 post).

Now let us suppose Dave Sherman, a veteran principal, wanted an experienced coach (like long-time surgeon Atul Gawande did–see post December 2, 2011) who could shadow him over the course of a week and then sit down with him and discuss what the coach had seen, what Sherman had done each day, and toss back and forth ways of improving his handling of the following tasks (a partial list): “test day,” visiting six classrooms each for 15 minutes during the week, meeting with a group of angry parents criticizing the bus schedule, conferring with an untenured teacher who he must let go, dealing with a fourth grade student who accused a sixth grader of bullying her, and a surprise visit from the superintendent who wanted to chat about those parents upset about the bus schedule.

Suppose further that there was enough money in the district budget to hire such a coach (I know that few school budgets could afford to pay such coaches and few coaches offer their services on a pro bono basis, but imagine it anyway). My hunch is that Sherman would want an experienced coach, not one who is flying solo for the first time. Chances are the person would come from the ranks of former principals or academics who were ex-principals. Few principals, I would guess, would find credible a person who had no principal experience.

The shadowing occurs. Debriefing conferences are over lunch or dinner away from school. Dave Sherman is surprised (as surgeon Gawande was) by how much he learned from the experienced coach and said to his superintendent that he would like to do it again in a year or two.

Now that would be a pleasant ending to this hypothetical story of Dave Sherman hiring a coach.

But there is a false note, a MacGuffin, that I inserted into this story. That MacGuffin is a coach who fully understands the three entangled roles that principals have to perform, the DNA of their position, and is unbiased toward any one of the three roles as the most important one.

An unbiased coach, well, that is an endangered species. The prevailing ideology among professional associations of principals, those who write for practitioners, policymakers, and many researchers is that the instructional role of the principal is supreme and the other roles– how shall I put this?–are important but not in the same league as being the school’s instructional leader. If you google: principal as instructional leader, you will get 6,000,000 hits. If you google: school principals as managers, you will get 1,410,000 hits. And if you do: school principals as politicians, you will get 3,360,000 hits.

Every reform wind for the past quarter-century that has blown across educators whispers: “As instructional leader you will raise student achievement”–even though the evidence is, at best, indirect (that is, principals can change the climate of a school and school culture is a contributing factor to improve academic achievement) not causal.  (See Principal Effects on Achievement). I suspect that most coaches would carry that bias and do similar whisperings.

So, I believe that in the interactions between the principal and the coach so infected by that prejudice, they would press Dave–either explicitly or implicitly–to concentrate on being an instructional leader. If I am correct, the coach would miss the complex interactions that occur between managing, politicking, and instructing even on Dave Sherman’s test day.  And that is why my pleasant, albeit hypothetical, story about Dave hiring a coach and learning from that experience contains within it a false note.

10 Comments

Filed under school leaders

10 responses to “Coaching Principals

  1. Cal

    “Every reform wind for the past quarter-century that has blown across educators whispers: “As instructional leader you will raise student achievement”–even though the evidence is, at best, indirect (that is, principals can change the climate of a school and school culture is a contributing factor to improve academic achievement) not causal. (See Principal Effects on Achievement). I suspect that most coaches would carry that bias and do similar whisperings.”

    I don’t understand why this bias. Good lord, what teacher would ever trust a principal as an instructional leader?

    Why the fantasy that principals should be instructional leaders? Where did it come from?

    • larrycuban

      Cal,
      the first principals in the mid-19th century were “principal-teachers,” that is, the school board picked out a teacher to handle the administrative tasks of running multiple classrooms in a building. These early principals taught students and, in addition, handled the attendance, purchases, discipline, evaluation of teachers, etc. So instruction was a duty of the principals at the very origin of the post.

      • Cal

        Ah, thank you! But when did reformers start returning to that idea? (I didn’t have a chance to read the larger article, still writing finals!)

      • larrycuban

        Instructional leadership was always part of the tripartite role that principals were expected to play over the past century. What has happened is that when reform-driven policymakers and administrators re-discovered the school as the primary unit of change rather than the individual teacher or the entire district–remember the Effective Schools movement in the 1980s (Oops! Sorry Cal, you would not have remembered that–then instructional leadership role of principal rose to the top of the agenda for principals. Even the managerial role was highlighted during the restructuring reforms (late-70s through mid-80s) when school site councils were organized and principals were expected to facilitate decision-making in school-site councils. At that time, instructional leadership surfaced hardly at all in the rhetoric of reform.

  2. Bob Calder

    Think of coaches as a parallel to the control mechanisms that are “guaranteed” to improve teachers’ performance…Now put one in every school.😉

    You might think realizing humans in large numbers perform in an average fashion would occur to those same humans. It’s like thinking a life coach will help average basketball players become superstars.

  3. I tried typing in “teachers as instructional leaders” in Google. It got 11.8 million hits. That’s nearly double the number of hits of “principal as instructional leader.”

    Based on that, I believe that teachers have much higher expectations as instructional leaders than school principals do. So, I’m still guarded against the idea that school principals are considered supreme as instructional leaders compared to teachers.

    Also, just for kicks, I typed in “teachers as politicians.” That got 35.1 million hits. That’s about ten times the number of hits as “school principals as politicians.” I typed in “teachers as managers.” That got 62.9 million hits. That’s roughly sixty times the number of hits as “school principals as managers.”

    By the way, is it absurd to think of school principals as supreme compared to teachers in some ways? I’m asking that because I assume that several school principals are former teachers. So, the realm of teaching should still be quite familiar to them. As such, they should be able to validly guide some of their faculty to an extent.

    • “So, I’m still guarded against the idea that school principals are considered supreme as instructional leaders compared to teachers.”

      That is, maybe that’s the prevailing assumption in the realm of the professional associations of principals, those who write for practitioners, policymakers, and researchers, but definitely not as a whole.

      • larrycuban

        Autif,
        The role of instructional leader that is so highly prized today among administrators does not mean that teachers are not leaders. Only that one of the key things that principals are expected to do is focus on instruction and work with teachers to improve instruction and students’ academic achievement

  4. Kate W

    I would be more comfortable with our principals as instructional leaders if they did a better job of Managing People first and foremost! If they don’t manage people right, leading instructionally is just not possible.

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