Memo to Principals: C-O-A-C-H is a Five Letter Word

In my experiences as a headmaster and now as an executive coach and consultant, I have routinely encountered hesitancy amongst school leaders to pursue relationships with coaches and/or to attend robust, sustained leadership seminars and trainings (as opposed to the one-a-year variety).

I find these reactions understandable yet perplexing (let alone frustrating). On the one hand, school leaders are highly educated and seasoned educators. They are people of character and imbued with moral purpose. They understand how to engage and lead. Viewed from that perspective, why should they need to pursue coaching or leadership training?

Yet, there are many highly educated, well-seasoned leaders in the corporate and political arenas, many of them high-profile personages with extensive, successful track records that use coaches and engage leadership gurus. The process keeps them focused, goal oriented, and informed of latest market trends and research, optimizing their performance and helping them achieve greater satisfaction. If these successful men and women engage coaches why don't more principals do the same?

More importantly, we have extensive data about school leadership tenure and turnover and the numbers are far from encouraging. In Minneapolis, for example, 17 percent of the district's 165 schools have new principals this year. According to a recent article in the Baltimore Sun, Baltimore's public schools have seen more than 90 percent of school leadership change in the last six years. Similar situations exist throughout the country, such as in Texas, where the average tenure for a high school principal is three years.

A recently released RAND Corp. study reported that about 20 percent of principals new to a school leave that posting within one or two years. "The underlying idea is that churn is not good," said Gina Schuyler Ikemoto, an author of the report and the executive director of research and policy development for New Leaders, formerly known as New Leaders for New Schools. While our challenge pertaining to administrative turnover does not appear to even approach these depressing figures, we value our educational institutions enough to take little solace in qualified successes.

We can all fundamentally appreciate the importance of continuity and stability at the principal's desk. But perhaps we do not recognize just how significant it really is. Karen Seashore Louis, a University of Minnesota professor who co-authored a 2011 book that looked at the relationship between principal turnover and student achievement, suggests the principal is the second most influential factor within schools when it comes to affecting student achievement.

"Principal turnover is very strongly negatively related to student achievement," she said. "We found that turnover is only not negative when there is very strong professional cohesiveness among the teachers, who become the holders of quality within the school. That's not a characteristic most schools have."

All of the above begs the obvious question: If there principal turnover is so rampant and leader optimization is known to help schools in countless ways, why don't we see more openness towards leadership coaching in schools?

I suspect that there are a few reasons for this attitude. One is the absence of funding. Most leadership support must be funded by the leaders themselves, their schools, and/or a sponsoring agency or foundation. With perpetually tight budgets forcing administrators and their boards to make difficult fiduciary decisions, leadership-related investments tend to get placed squarely on the back burner.

Another factor is time constraints. It can be extremely difficult for school leaders to get away or to even carve out the sustained time necessary to read, engage and be thoughtful, reflective practitioners. There are countless activities for principals to attend to, not to mention the many "fires" that require routine extinguishment.

A third component is culture. The rate of coach and trainer engagement lags significantly in comparison to the broader marketplace. It is simply not done, at least not to the degree that would validate it for those who are uninformed or may have reason to skeptical.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, I think that many principals are unaware of the true benefits that such supports offer. Coaching is not therapy. It does not imply that something is wrong with the client. Coaching is a process that uses questions to help the client arrive at solutions, to dig down deep within themselves and begin to see things differently. Coaches enter the process under the assumption that clients have all of the capacity that they need to achieve clarity and growth. Their job is simply to help extract the answers and frame them appropriately.

Similarly, leadership trainings offer many benefits. They share best practice research, information that is difficult for busy administrators to arrive at on their own. They also provide opportunities for principals to share ideas, to grapple together over challenging dilemmas and hone their skills further in a promotive, collegial context, one that rarely exists on the proverbial front lines of their own institutions.

I was also once hesitant to engage a coach. When I assumed my headship, I already held two master's degrees and had participated in numerous principal in-service trainings. Between my extensive educational background and robust experiences, I thought that I knew basically all that there was to know about school leadership. Besides, if I were to hire a coach wouldn't I be suggesting that I was in some way incomplete, as if I was engaging a therapist?

At some point, however, I did bring in a consultant that also then served as a coach. The difference in personal and institutional efficacy and progress was instantly clear to me and other constituents. We were able to identify strategic goals and rally around them, giving the entire school newfound focus while reducing clamoring about what was not happening (the common reaction when uncertainty or lack of clear direction permeates).

My hope is that every principal receives similar support, so that we can speak less about turnover challenges and more about optimized schools with leaders who have the necessary vision and skills to advance the collective agenda without experiencing burnout or an untimely end to their administrative aspirations.

Naphtali Hoff (@impactfulcoach) served as an educator and school administrator for over 15 years before becoming an executive coach and consultant. Read his blog at