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Leadership from the Bottom Up

They say teaching is a lonely job, but I think coaching can be even lonelier. One reason that it can feel lonely is being unable to find your identity and voice. Am I teacher or a leader? The teachers see me as “one of them” (an administrator), and the principal sees me as a teacher. If I am trying to move a building by supporting growth, but it is not my building, how do I do that?

 It is not easy, but he best coaches make it work. I (Christy) have worked with Worcester County District for almost a year now, and it has been the greatest gift to me as a consultant. The district supervisor who found me and hired me is a gem, and the coaches follow her brilliant leadership style—“roll up your sleeves and get in.” At a recent principal meeting that was said with great admiration.

 Ali Giska is one of those kind of coaches. She took every suggestion I gave, and made them all better. And she is l-o-v-i-n-g her job—which is so nice to hear. Ali is an advocate for teachers and kids and principals and schools. She’s in a new position, out of her comfort zone but still giving it her all—wow. Enjoy this guest post by one great leader.

Leadership from the Bottom Up

As 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 is 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. 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.

This is what I learned when I started regular meetings with the building principals and took my first step towards leading the leader.

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 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. 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 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 is 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 agenda and many reminders that meeting with an administrator was scary but absolutely necessary. Knowing that this made other coaches uncomfortable as well somehow made it easier. This can feel like a lonely job, but a network of brilliant colleagues can create a home away form 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. See, that is the thing about great leaders. They show you that there is a light, and then they let you shine.

Ali Giska

Literacy Coach

Worcester County Public Schools


11 responses »

  1. Christy, yes I do love my job! This is because of you, and Dee, and my fellow coaches. So much inspiration from such amazing people.


    • So proud of you and so happy for your schools and teachers. You are gift to them as they are to you:) You have definitely been an inspiration to me!!!


  2. This is so, so helpful! What a concrete way to get centered as a coach. I’m sending this along to all of my coach friends.


  3. This was extremely encouraging and motivating! Thank you for writing and sharing your ideas!


  4. Thanks so much for your kind words, Lauren! It is a tough job and some days can be very hard to stay motivated. Let us know if you have tried anything and the results. Happy coaching!


  5. You were an amazing coach! I learned so much from your lab sites in an elementary school in the Bronx a few years ago. Thank You, Gina


  6. Kymberly Beyer

    Great advice – love the agenda in advance idea.


    • Hi Kim~ Yes, it really made a difference with the coaches work and guiding the principal a bit into that work. Thanks for writing!


      • Hi Christy, Congrats on your blog and new endeavor. I look forward to reading your blog and getting some great tips. I’m excited to be learning from you and your followers.


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