5 ways an instructional coach can build credibility when coaching leaders

When I reflect on my early days as an instructional coach, I recall the awkward silence that filled the room during meetings with my principal. My focus was on working directly with teachers, so I wasn’t prepared for the regular leadership meetings with her. As I faced my principal’s expectant gaze, questions raced through my mind: Who should prepare the agenda? What should we discuss? Isn’t she supposed to lead this meeting? It was clear that her trust (and patience) were diminishing as I struggled to understand her expectations of me as a coach.

Fortunately, I sought guidance from my coaching network and resources. Over time, I honed my skills in facilitating meetings with principals and central office leaders, even finding opportunities to “coach up” when appropriate. Through conversations with my fellow coaches, a recurring question also emerged: How can we build credibility, not only with teachers but also with our principals and other leaders? We settled on five strategies.

1. Demonstrate reliability

Recent years have seen higher levels of turnover and burnout among school leaders. As an instructional coach, it’s crucial to consistently demonstrate that you are not just a collaborator but also an instructional leader. Here are some simple ways to do that:

  • Show up to meetings on time, or even a little early
  • Meet your deadlines
  • Respond promptly to messages
  • Proactively address challenges

These small actions, especially when done consistently, will prove to your principal that you can be trusted in times of need.

2. Take charge

It can catch coaches off guard when they are expected to lead meetings with their principals. I encourage you to consider this an opportunity to showcase your leadership coaching skills.

Establish ongoing meetings with your principal, ideally for at least 30 minutes per week. Craft a deliberate agenda ahead of time, relieving your principal of the burden of leading yet another meeting. Doing both of these things will help establish you as a trusted collaborator.

Here’s a suggested structure for a 45-minute meeting from The EduCoach Survival Guide: Tips, Tools, Inspiration and an Occasional Escape Hatch:

  • Share successes (5 min)
  • Hear the principal’s most pressing concerns (10 min)
  • Engage in mutual problem-solving (10 min)
  • Share brief progress report (5 min)
  • Discuss teaching practices (10 min)
  • Review next steps (5 min)

3. Honor confidentiality

Just as with coaching teachers, it’s essential for principals to know that information discussed in coach–principal meetings will be kept confidential. This doesn’t mean engaging in conversations that judge or gossip about teachers. Many school leaders report feelings of isolation and require trusted advisors who can listen to their challenges. Ideally, coaches and principals should establish agreements on what information should remain confidential at the beginning of the year and revisit these agreements periodically.

4. Ask questions and listen

When coaching a principal, employ the same communication skills you use when working with teachers. This includes asking open and closed questions as well as providing space for the principal to respond.

Many coaches may feel compelled to go through a checklist during their time with their principal due to the abundance of information they want to share. However, building trust is best achieved by demonstrating coaching skills in the moment. When you transition to the second item on the agenda I shared earlier (“Hear the principal’s most pressing concerns”), start with the question, “Given the time we have today, what is most pressing for us to discuss?” Transition to your time for talking about next steps by asking, “What was most useful about our time together today?”

5. Care personally

Remember that principals are humans, too. Before diving into your agenda, take a moment to inquire about their weekend, their family, or their hobbies. By showing genuine care for your principal’s well-being, you can often find common ground.

Listening attentively is also key. Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor, explains that caring personally involves “listening to people more than anything else. Of course, listen to their hopes, their fears, their dreams, but also listen to their ideas for improving the team, the work, the environment… You just have to ask.”

Closing thoughts

By implementing these strategies, instructional coaches can effectively establish credibility not only with teachers but also with their principals and other leaders. Building strong relationships and trust is essential for fostering a collaborative and supportive school culture.

To learn more about instructional coaching services available through NWEA, visit our website.

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