Preparing effective principal supervisors 


The role of the principal is changing. So must the role of the principal supervisor. 


The principal’s job today is very different from 20 years ago. Yes, principals are still expected to manage building operations, but increasingly, they are also expected to be instructional leaders (Elmore, 2004).  

If the role of the principal is changing, then so too must the role of those who support and supervise principals. Recent research sheds light on the specific practices that are most essential to supporting principals’ efforts to improve teaching and learning. In particular, we have identified three key, research-based recommendations for district leaders who aim to refine and strengthen the principal supervisor role:  

Establish a trusting relationship. In the business world, executive coaches typically stay outside of the chain of command, and they tend to work  with individuals who have already shown promise for promotion (Goff et al., 2014). By contrast, principal supervisors are assigned to work with principals of all skill levels, regardless of a principal’s readiness to lead.  

In short, the principal supervisor plays a unique and often difficult role as a leader of principals’ learning and growth, while simultaneously serving as an evaluator. For this kind of tricky professional partnership to succeed, supervisors and principals must first establish a relationship built on a strong sense of trust, in which they share an equal commitment to reflecting on their work, giving honest feedback, and refining their practice as instructional leaders (Huff, Preston, & Goldring, 2013; Robertson, 2009).  

Avoid reassignment and reorganization. In some districts, ongoing reorganization in the central office contributes to frequent reassignments of principal supervisors. Such changes can put the brakes on principals’ improvement because effective learning-focused, trusting relationships require time to develop, establish, and maintain (Thessin, 2019). Districts should consider how to insulate supervisors from the effects of reorganization to prevent having to build new partnerships annually. 

Commit to systemic learning and leading. Principals who change their own instructional leadership practice articulate a clear desire to learn and improve as they grapple with becoming leaders of learning (Thessin, 2019). Principal supervisors likewise need to advocate for and lead their own learning by serving as mentors for each other and by seeking coaching from their own supervisors (Honig & Rainey, 2019). A commitment to learning by both the principal and the principal supervisor, coupled with clear structures and supports from central office, will facilitate ongoing learning improvement throughout the system — among supervisors, principals, teachers, and students. 

Our understanding of how to select, develop and support principal supervisors is still emerging. However, we do know that principal supervisors occupy a critical role in achieving district goals as they seek to facilitate ongoing learning and leadership growth for principals at all schools.


Elmore, R. (2004). School reform from the inside out: Policy, practice and performance. Harvard Education Press: Cambridge, MA. 

Goff, P., Guthrie, J.E, Goldring, E. and Bickman, L. (2014). Changing principals’ leadership through feedback and coaching. Journal of Educational Administration, 52 (5), 682-704.  

Honig, M. & Rainey, L. (2019). Supporting the success of principal supervisors: How school district central offices matter. Journal of Educational Administration, 57 (5). 

Huff, J., Preston, C., & Goldring, E. (2013). Implementation of a coaching program for school principals: Evaluating coaches’ strategies and the results. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 41 (4), 504-526.  

Robertson, J. (2009). Coaching leadership learning through partnership. School Leadership and Management, 29 (1), 39-49.  

Thessin, R.A. (2019). Establishing productive principal/principal supervisor partnerships for instructional leadership. Journal of Educational Administration, 57 (5). 

REBECCA A. THESSIN ( is an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at George Washington University, Washington, D.C.
KAREN SEASHORE LOUIS is a professor of education, University of Minneapolis, Minn.

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