Leadership From the Bottom Up

Collaboration Montage

Alison Giska, literacy coach at Worcester County Public Schools in Maryland, reflects on the importance of building a collaborative partnership with your building principal to ensure coaching success.


s a new literacy coach, I value my comfort zone. I stay safely inside unless I really, really have to step out. And even then, it's only with my big toe. So when the building principal breezed past me on my first day coaching in his school, I gave him a bright smile and quickly chirped, "Today went great!" He nodded and gave me a thumbs up. I should have felt relief—no conflict, no questions, no problem—but instead I left that day feeling nothing short of disconnected.

Three months passed before two important mentors told me, "Get close to the principal. The principal will move your work forward." I knew they were right and I knew what that meant. Goodbye, cozy comfort zone; hello, vulnerability! Here's what I learned when I started regular meetings with the school's leader and took my first step towards building a partnership with my principal.

How to partner with your principal

Set an agenda and send it before the meeting

An agenda lets a principal know that there is a purpose for the meeting, the work matters, and that I respect his or her time. I stuck to the agenda and took notes to help build a meaningful direction for the next meeting. Possible topics for the agenda can vary but here are some ideas I used to get our meetings started:

  • Artifact share: take charge of bringing the artifacts (student work, teaching charts, data collection sheets, photos, planning documents) and use them as evidence for celebrations and concerns.
  • Teach content: explain a rubric or student checklist, demonstrate a teaching point, or review the focus of your work in the classrooms.
  • Classroom tours: walk through classrooms and share compliments with the principal about what you see.
  • Next steps: where can you direct your support in the school, what goals should be the focus of the next month, and what does the principal hope to see?

Look forward and make concrete plans

I made sure I did not leave the meeting until the next meeting was on the calendar. This was as simple as saying, "Same time next month?"

Highlight future plans and what you will accomplish next time you meet. I let the principal know how excited I was to reach our goals together as well. Before leaving, I made this very clear: "I love the direction we are going, and I would love to get more specific when we meet next month!"

Find the person behind the principal

Relationships are everything. Leading a school is high-stress, demanding work. Yet, principals have families, plans to drive to Florida over winter break, hobbies outside of school.

Remembering this helped me see the person behind the desk. I asked a few non-school-related questions before jumping into the agenda. It turns out, I now know who to ask for advice when my son is ready to learn how to surf! This conversation only took a minute or two, but in the end, relationships hold up all of the other work we do as coaches.

Be kind, be positive, be assertive

When I walked in to meet with my principal for the first time, there were fires going on all around him. A critical staff member was out on extended sick leave, a new teacher had resigned, and his phone was flashing urgently. I kindly thanked him for his time and I sincerely meant it. I complimented the perseverance of his teachers and the masterful scheduling he had done to allow teachers from each grade level to collaborate weekly. And then I asked for his support in areas where we could change and grow. This was the tricky, hard part. I know he is busy, and I know this is one of many items on his plate. Maybe I shouldn't even bother him with this….

This is when I left my comfort zone completely (deep breath): "I would love to create more opportunities for teachers to see model lessons. I was thinking of mini lab sites. Do you think we could arrange coverage and make this happen?"

Kindness and respect are paramount, but it's always okay to ask for what you need if you know it is best for kids and teachers.

Dig deep and get support

While there's no doubt a principal meeting can move your practice, it still takes a vast amount of courage. I was anxious and a little fearful: would I be wasting this principal's time? Do I have anything important to say? Will I be respected and valued by this administrator? I had to really dig deep and remind myself that I am a leader, too. I also knew I needed support and validation from the people who do what I do everyday—my fellow coaches.

Through an email chain with my peers and mentors, I was able to get feedback on my agendas, acknowledgment that this work was important, and reminders that I am not doing this alone. Knowing that this made other coaches uncomfortable somehow made it easier. This can feel like a lonely job, but a network of brilliant colleagues can create a home away from home.

Once I got that first terrifying meeting accomplished, the positive feedback from my county supervisor and literacy consultant gave me the confidence to enter the second meeting with a little less anxiety. That's the thing about great leaders: they show you that there is a light, and then they let you shine.

About our Guest Blogger

Ali Giska is a literacy coach for Worcester County Public Schools in Berlin, Maryland. She began her career in education 16 years ago as an ELA teacher in middle and high school. Ali currently supports schools, teachers, and their students in literacy classrooms as an instructional coach and facilitator of professional development. She strives to support teachers in delivering meaningful and authentic instruction, and to help students emerge as readers and writers in ways that truly matter.

Be sure to check out the blog she co-authors, Leading With Imperfection, where she writes about her journey of embracing imperfection.

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