Wearing a Coaching Hat as a Principal

Collaboration Montage

Jessica Johnson is an elementary school principal and district assessment coordinator in Wisconsin. She explains how the mindset of a coach doesn't have to stop after transitioning into an administrative role and ways to achieve balance as both a principal and coach.


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ever in my life did I ever aspire to be a principal—until I became one! My first year out of the classroom was to serve as an instructional coach. I was so fortunate to have been given the opportunity and training to do so by a principal who saw strengths in me that I didn't even know I had. It was an incredible year of getting into classrooms to observe, provide feedback, and go through coaching cycles with individual teachers and groups of teachers to provide them with the support that they wanted and needed to improve the teaching and learning in their classrooms. I loved the feeling of having an impact on more than just the 30 students that had been in my classroom in each previous year of teaching and it was this experience that led me to make the decision to move into school administration.

Transitioning From Coach to Admin

I took an assistant principal position at a middle school in its 5th year of being deemed as "failing" by the state, with only one final year to "turn it around" or be taken over it. Talk about pressure! Fortunately, I had an amazing opportunity to work with a great principal who was well known for being a "turn-around" principal. To this day, he's still the most courageous and fearless leader I know—with a never-ending passion for doing right for students. I learned so much from working with him as we made significant changes in that school, like putting teachers on improvement plans, requiring detailed unit/lesson plans, moving teachers into different positions, and non-renewing teacher contracts. Long story short: the school did turn around that year and continued to rise up the ranks over the years.

Becoming a Principal

I took the experience I acquired from working with my principal into my first year in the position with the same mindset he had of wanting to turn around a school. As with any new task, mistakes were made along the way—I'm sure my teachers have a list—but fortunately I realized early on that I could not lead with the same mentality that I had with a turn-around principal. I realized that in the former school, the intent of that principal was to make quick and drastic changes before turning the school over to a new principal that would be there for the long term. I realized that if I wanted to stay in my school (I had a bought a house less than a mile down the road from our school, so I did have plans for my family to stay!) I could not lead with the same mindset and strategies that the turnaround principal and I had led with.

Remembering My Coaching Roots

While I wanted to go back to my experience as an instructional coach, I struggled initially to incorporate this as a principal. Why? Because a principal cannot just operate as an instructional coach given the many responsibilities and, of course, the ultimate role of evaluator also responsible for hiring and contract renewal. As I began having conversations with Kathy Perret and Shira Leibowitz on Twitter during our weekly #educoach chat, we came up with the concept of a coaching hat—a hat you can wear, but take off when you need to put on the evaluator's hat.

Leading With a Coaching Hat

As a principal, when you lead with a coaching hat, you're in classrooms frequently—both in getting to know all of your students and also to get to know the teaching style and strengths of the teacher. Until teachers become comfortable with your presence, you are on a treasure hunt to identify great things that you see happening in the classroom. As the teacher becomes amicable to your frequent visits, you can then begin sharing more detailed feedback with the intent of promoting teacher reflection. Your feedback, whether in dialogue or in email could include:

  • What you noticed being taught
  • What students were doing
  • Evidence of effective strategies/practices used by the teacher
  • The impact on student learning
  • End with a reflective question

During classroom visits you're able to recognize if a teacher is trying something new and it flops. An evaluator may record this as a "gotcha" moment, but a principal wearing a coaching hat will just have a reflective conversation with the teacher about what worked, what didn't work and what the next steps are.

The Principal Coach

When you are in classrooms frequently with a coaching hat, you are able to identify the strengths and areas that teachers need and want to grow in and can utilize the strengths of teachers to build others up. Instead of just telling a teacher what they should do to improve in their classroom management, a principal coach will cover their class so they can observe a few of the teachers that are strong in classroom management and then follow-up with a conversation to help them decide what their next steps are and how you can support them. Your follow-up classroom visits can continue to provide them with feedback on her goal of improving classroom management—positively supporting the changes you see taking place—while continuing to ask questions to nudge their improvement in this area.

A principal wearing a coaching hat continues to have dialogue with teachers on feedback towards their goals—not your own. With a coaching hat, you complete the district-required evaluatory forms that need to be complete, but continue to do so with coaching conversations. Just as a teacher supports students at their varied levels, a principal with a coaching hat supports teachers in the same manner, recognizing that a one-size-fits-all approach does not work.

Final Tip

When you are wearing your coaching hat as a principal, focusing on relationships, trust, and continued growth for all you'll be constantly leading your teachers to higher levels of effectiveness. More importantly, you'll be nurturing a culture of continuous growth to benefit the learners in your building.

Are you ready to put on your coaching hat?


About our Guest Blogger

Jessica Johnson is an elementary school principal and district assessment coordinator in Wisconsin, and the 2014 Wisconsin Elementary School Principal of the Year. She previously taught in Minnesota where she earned her bachelor of arts degree at Bemidji State University. Throughout her educational career, Jessica has taught and worked as an instructional coach and assistant principal in Arizona, earning her master's degree at Arizona State University. Jessica is also an adjunct professor in the Educational Leadership Department at Viterbo University.

As a continuing learner, she is passionate about literacy, principal productivity, social media, technology integration, and the concept of leading with a "coaching hat" as an administrator. She is the co-author of Balance Like a Pirate: Going Beyond Work-Life Balance to Ignite Passion and Thrive as an Educator (Dave Burgess Consulting Inc., 2018), The Coach Approach to School Leadership (ASCD, 2017)Breaking Out of Isolation: Becoming a Connected School Leader (Corwin, 2015), and has a self-published childrens novel, Adventures in Blockworld: A Novel for the Young Minecraft Fans. She is co-founder of the #educoach chat on Twitter and also co-hosts the PrincipalPLN Podcast.

You can follow Jessica on Twitter as @PrincipalJ!

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