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Learning, to lead: How coaching has empowered one school principal

ANet Coach Tracy Glenn was between conference sessions when a school leader hurried up to her, beaming. “Tracy!” Principal Tabitha Watson* exclaimed. “I have so many new ideas. I can’t wait to bring them back to my school.”

“She was so energized from the session that she ran straight to me,” says Tracy. 

Just eight months earlier, Tracy had entered Watson’s school for the first time and found her constantly reacting to fires and struggling to focus on strengths. “I could feel her frustration,” Tracy recalls.

How did Watson move from reactive to proactive in one school year? It’s taken time—and thoughtful, intentional work.

Finding an opportunity to grow

Tracy’s first visit to Watson’s school came last August. “I knew they had the right people in place,” Tracy remembers. “I could feel the connection they had to the students and to advancing equity.”

But the school faced challenges, too. “Principal Watson had inherited a school with the lowest scores in the district,” says Tracy. “She came from a sink-or-swim environment where if you’re struggling, no one is going to give you a hand. She fell into a deficit mindset—not about her students, but about her teachers and even her leadership team. Morale was suffering as she focused on telling her teachers what to do instead of working alongside them and sharing her vision.”

Still, Tracy soon saw that Watson was committed to her students’ success. “She showed up for every meeting ready to work,” says Tracy. “I knew at some point we were going to make real progress.”

Connecting passion and leadership

Tracy figured that if she could understand what had driven Watson to become an educator, she could help connect her values with her leadership approach. As the year progressed, Tracy listened closely when Watson shared stories about her experiences.

“We had a breakthrough moment about halfway through the year when we delved into her belief in equity for all students,” Tracy remembers. “I could feel the strength of her conviction.”

“We needed to connect her passion for equity to her day-to-day work as a leader,” says Tracy.  She suggested a session at the ANet Ohio spring network meeting that might help Watson see that link “The presenter was a principal whose school had many similarities to Watson’s,” she explains. “She gave a session on setting a clear vision using text-first planning. It helped Watson find clarity on what she wanted out of text-first planning—and how to communicate that to her teachers.”

This is what professional learning is all about—spreading good ideas.

It was after that session that Watson ran up to Tracy. “How can I talk to that principal again?” she asked. “I know there’s more I can learn from her.”

“She was talking about so many great things,” Tracy recalls. “She had ideas that could move her school in the right direction. I was thrilled, because this is what professional learning is all about—spreading good ideas.”

Turning ideas into action

The two of them sat down for nearly three hours to turn her inspiration into plans. “She talked, and I took notes,” says Tracy. “When I read them back to her, she said, ‘Wow! This is terrific.’ I told her,  ‘These are your words.’”

Together, they began planning the next year’s opening meeting, focusing on how Watson would adapt her approach in interacting with her team—letting her passion and newfound energy shine through, and bringing her team into the conversation from the start. “We’re working on leading proactively and coming from the positive instead of the negative,” says Tracy.

Already, Watson is leading differently. “She’s asking more questions and she’s constantly engaged,” Tracy shares. “She’s developing a growth mindset that shows in her leadership. Recently, we created a vision for the school with equity at the core—this is a huge win! She also named her instructional priorities versus a laundry list of items. She has direction now, instead of just reacting to problems.”

Both Tracy and Principal Watson look forward to the changes Watson’s new approach will drive. “Leadership is difficult, and every leader takes a different journey,” Tracy reflects. “With patience, persistence, and professional learning, in time, you can become the leader your school needs.”

Want to learn more about the improved student outcomes that resulted from ANet’s Breakthrough Results Study?

Check out our findings from the multi-year study at

*Name has been changed due to school publicity restrictions.

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