Can a Principal Also Be a Coach?

This is a question I continue to ponder, even after I have completed my Connected Coaching course through Powerful Learning Practice. The biggest issue I see is this: An administrator has to make evaluative decisions regarding staffing. This simple fact seems to lead me to believe that a principal can never truly be a coach. There is a line. In addition, in today’s political climate, how can a teacher truly take risks and embrace failure, when an attempt at innovation may lead educators to believe that it might lower students’ performance and incur instructional time lost?


photo credit: via photopin cc

However, the paths of success and failure should not be two way streets. Maybe if principals take a coaching stance with their staff, innovation can flourish. Both teachers and students can be co-learners in their classrooms.

Consider the following potential activities I discovered with Lani Ritter Hall (@lanihall) this summer:

  • Six Word Stories

I have my list of items to cover every fall with staff, along with a school kickoff that hopefully sets the tone for the rest of the school year. These are important building-wide activities. At the same time, we need to get to know each other as individuals in order to build trust and to show our creative sides. A six word story can allow everyone to express themselves and their passions in a nonthreatening way.

Here was my six word story:

This is the title of a great book on mindfulness by Jon Kabat-Zinn. The artwork is by my daughter. I used to create this image. For my teachers who all have iPads, I could see them using Skitch to share their six word stories with each other.

  • Appreciative Inquiry

I like to meet with each of my teachers in the beginning of the school year. We discuss their learning goals for the year, for themselves and their students. In the past I have prepared a list of questions to ask each teacher. Unfortunately, these conversations can become contrived, almost forced. With appreciative inquiry, it’s about focusing on the positive and helping the other person delve deeper into their own thinking.

Appreciative inquiry involves two skills: paraphrasing and questioning. When the other Connected Coaches and I started trying this out on each other, we thought it was a little hokie. But once we were on the receiving end of the coaching, we realized that appreciative inquiry is really just a framework for being an active listener when trying to find solutions to problems. This animated video shared in our group provides a nice explanation:

  • Design Thinking

We can discuss our successes, wonderings, and possibilities for as long as we want. But we also have to take action on these ideas. Design thinking is the process of brainstorming ideas, synthesizing those ideas into something tangible, and then setting up a process for testing these ideas to see if they make a positive impact on student learning. Design thinking takes what a teacher is doing well and applies it in a slightly different way within the teacher’s current context. I appreciated this interview from to help me grasp this concept:

This sent a powerful message to me. Am I hearing everyone’s story? How is it integrated with what they as teachers do everyday in their classrooms? This comes back to being an active listener and respecting the process just as much as (or even more than) the product.

  • Bringing it All Together: The Wayfinding Model

The Wayfinding Model brings together 1) trust building, 2) questioning, and 3) facilitating design thinking ( I think every powerful practice needs a structure to support it, kind of like a coat hanger. What do we hang our many instructional hats on?

This animation nicely summarizes the essentials of Connected Coaching:

So I come back to my original question: Can a principal also be a coach?

Coming into this course, my answer was no. If students are experiencing a poor learning experience, no amount of coaching may remedy this situation. They deserve the best learning environment. I try to treat each situation as if my own son our daughter were in that classroom. Knowing what I know, would I stand for this? This simple question helps guide a lot of my decision-making.

However, I also see the challenges of taking a multi-year process to ferret out poor performers. It can negatively affect both student learning and school climate. Dylan Wiliam, in his terrific book Embedded Formative Assessment, takes the approach that our time as school leaders is best spent helping every teacher become better at what they do. The students we have now deserve the very best we can offer today.

Yes, this is one of those posts that doesn’t answer its original question. Frustrating, right? Unfortunately I don’t have all the answers, but at least I know the direction I am heading. My hope is any readers here would continue this conversation in the comments…

Author: Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is an 18-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th-grade teacher in Rudolph, WI. He now serves as an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District ( Matt also teaches online graduate courses in curriculum design and instructional leadership for the University of Wisconsin-Superior. He tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD ( and Lead Literacy (

11 thoughts on “Can a Principal Also Be a Coach?”

  1. Matt,
    I love how your post provided some very detailed examples of when a principal could be “coaching” even though you feel that your original question was not answered. Can a principal be a coach? Yes, and your examples do cover many situations.

    Can a principal be a coach 100% of the time? It’s possible but perhaps not likely. If administrators focus on those situations where coaching improves learning for students, coaching may become “the new normal!”


  2. Matt, I have completed the Growth Coaching International course and so I believe that a solutions focused approach to coaching and leadership is definitely do-able! Keep seeking.


  3. Matt,
    I can appreciate the tension you’ve articulated — you want the best for students — now– and you don’t always find that in every classroom in your school and you are questioning whether a principal can really be a coach.

    I’m wondering how or if seeing yourself on a continuum can resolve or lessen some of the friction you’ve identified– sliding from an administrative zone to a mentoring zone to a coaching zone as needed? (Coaching Conversations by Cheliotes and Reilly) as you actively listen?

    You know I’m a firm believer that appreciative inquiry is the approach that can be a powerful foundation for the change we want to see and so the following. You’ve articulately identified elements you hope to integrate into your practice, and yet you have unanswered questions– as you spend time helping every teacher become better at what they do, I’m wondering how your traveling those 3 zones might be of value in your providing the best for every student?

    Matt, thank you– for your willingness to be open to new ideas, for your continued deep thinking, for your passion for doing the best for children, for contributing so much to our collective learning.


    1. Lani, I am going to need to create a Goodreads folder just for all the books you reference that I need to read. I appreciate it! Thank you for always affirming the direction, while also reminding me to stop along the journey from time to time to consider the possibilities.


  4. Great question Matt,
    I think we can answer ‘yes’ if we focus on the quote near the end of your post… ‘our time as school leaders is best spent helping every teacher become better at what they do. The students we have now deserve the very best we can offer today.’
    What has worked for you during this course that enabled teachers to become better at what they do?


    1. Thank you for commenting Fiona. What I have learned through this course to help my teachers grow is to be an active listener. I grow at the same time, because the collective expertise in my building is tremendous. My continual goal is to determine how to best align these areas of expertise to make the strongest impact on student learning. It’s a journey.


  5. Hi Matt,

    I’m new to your site, and I love it. I’m an elementary principal in Paramus, New Jersey. I’m also a former staff developer at the Teachers College Reading & Writing Project. Coaching is an important part of what I do.

    In the beginning of the year, I create a schedule of coaching cycles in which the literacy coach and I work with every teacher across a period of 6 weeks. In the beginning, it’s mostly me modeling for the teacher to establish trust, and then teachers gradually take on what we’ve been studying so I can model deeper work.

    Coaching has greatly strengthened the school climate overall. The students see me as a teacher. The teachers see me as a resource. It keeps me grounded in the real work of school, and I feel that helps me make better decisions!



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