principals school technology

To turn around schools, first turn around the principals

A superintendent outlines the PD plan he is using to model and support excellence for principals in failing schools.

Academic Year 1: Learning Content, Understanding Coaching

We supported each of our principals based on collaborative goals, which meant that sometimes we were doing nine different things at nine different schools. To support this personalized approach, we provided all of our principals individual coaching with consultants from Insight Education Group. Sometimes we had consultants on site, sometimes the communication was via phone or email.

We inherited our current principals from a toxic environment, and we needed the coaching relationship to be sacred and protected. We wanted someone from the outside who was not doing evaluation and who gave me no line of sight into the conversations. The focus was on building our principals’ leadership skills and increasing their familiarity with the coaching model-something they were expected to replicate with their teachers.

Very few of our teachers had been exposed to a high-performing, robust, and appropriate coaching relationship, so in our principal PD we modeled coaching for them in real time. We expected teachers to get a coaching meeting every week, and I wanted our principals to have that same sort of coaching themselves. I also checked in weekly with every principal.

During their first academic year, our principals were a leadership team of one. They had no dedicated instructional coach, instead sharing a coach with one or two other schools. The instructional coaches exposed principals to strong teacher coaching, and also spotted instructional issues that we addressed during optional evening PD sessions once or twice a month.

Like our teachers, the majority of our principals had not worked in high-performing schools, so we exposed them to the pillars of best practice through professional development and coaching. Our theory of action is rooted on the belief that principal effectiveness improves student performance, which improves enrollment, which in turn gives principals the funding they need to eventually build out their leadership team.

Academic Year 2: A Pivot to Content-Based PD

After completing a second summer institute, each principal got his or her own instructional coach, doubling the size of the building’s leadership team. Some principals responded better to structured professional development settings than coaching or mentoring, so in year 2 we used our coaching resources as part of a mapped sequence of traditional PD.

Now that our principals understood coaching and had an instructional coach at their campus, we pivoted to content-based, outcome-focused PD. I think of year 2 as a step function, with each formal PD event followed by coaching so that principals constantly build on what they learn.

Our ultimate goal is to empower each principal so that every school in the system operates on its own, financially and in terms of leadership capacity. I believe we’ve made a good start: we have delivered on the culture and curricular shifts we had promised, and we have kept nonessential tasks off our principals’ plates. Those steps have earned us their trust, and our coaching and PD is giving them the skills they need to turn their schools around.

Our principals are excited about the support and the autonomy they get—and the accountability that comes with it

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