Achieving some zen as an assistant principal

My college experience gave me an undergraduate degree, master’s degree, and administrative certificate, but I soon realized that little of what I learned prepared me for my everyday life in the trenches as a high school assistant principal.

Sure, I learned all about the Tinker test and other high-profile Supreme Court cases. I filled my toolkit with best practices in curriculum dating back to the 1970s. What I did not learn was how to manage, prioritize, analyze, and survive the everyday bombardment of communication with students, staff, parents, and community members, or how to restore myself on a daily basis with a dose of sanity. But, by having the mindset of prevention rather than reaction, I’ve learned we can be more than disciplinarians; we can serve as an example to our students, staff, and community members. We can address the social-emotional needs of the students we serve on a daily basis through innovative practices.

Mentorship Zen

In order to maintain sanity, first and foremost you need to have a professional support network—people in your same profession who understand the ins and outs of the industry. Spouses are great people to talk to, but if they are not in education themselves, it is difficult for them to truly understand. As assistant principals, we may have made 500 decisions by the time we arrive home, and when the “What’s for dinner?” question comes, decision paralysis can kick in.

We need to have a support—an accountability partner—within our professional day. Mentorship is the same as having a personal trainer at the gym. You always have a better workout when someone is encouraging you along the way. Some key strategies of mentorship zen worth considering are goal setting, mutual opportunity, commitment, passion projects, and book studies.

To continue on the path of mentorship zen, it is important to willingly participate with the mindset that each experience serves as a growth opportunity for both the mentor and the mentee. The time of an administrator is precious, so you need mentoring experiences that fulfill both partners in the process. Learn from each other.

Set Goals

In a school, goal setting begins July 1. Think about what you want to achieve in your role as an assistant principal. If you have taken any business classes or Googled “goal setting,” you may recall the strategy to set goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART). Limit yourself to three to five objectives. Using the SMART goals strategy is a helpful way to keep focused on what you hope to accomplish during the year.

Consider your deficits as well. Everyone loves to set a buffer goal—one you could attain in your sleep. But if you want to grow, you must stretch. As an assistant principal, help yourself in the areas you want to grow into—think student population, instruction, and supporting your district.

As an assistant principal, think of daily behavior issues that you address—tardiness, in-school suspension rates, or hallway passes—and set objectives that pertain to those issues. Share these goals with your mentor, and use their expertise to better develop your ideas. As an assistant principal, it is difficult to always get into the curriculum and instruction of the day-to-day operations of the school. Therefore, establishing a goal that relates to the academic growth of your building is also essential. Finally, set a goal that will better your school district. Ensure that it is in line with a district initiative or from the district strategic plan that will provide value to your school.

Take Advantage of Mutual Opportunity

Demonstrate the commitment to your mentorship by setting up a standing meeting. Perhaps embrace the ideology of never missing a Monday as a way to get the week started off right. These meetings should be a time of creativity, fun, and learning. Be consistent; choose the same time, and lock it in. The mentoring relationship is truly working if both of you are disappointed—not relieved—when a mentoring meeting needs to be cancelled.

Pursue Personal Growth Commitment and Passion Projects

Make a personal commitment to growth. Choose something that fills your time with a passion you have related to your career. My personal growth project was to write and publish on the areas of my profession I love the most—students, mentorship, and helping others.

Build on Book Studies

Choose books to read with your mentor, and then talk about what speaks to both of you. Harvard Business Review Press provides some great series, or check out Harvard Business Review’s Emotional Intelligence Series.

Proactive Zen: Student Interventions

The opportunity to be proactive comes only through hard work, observation, and a willingness to make a change in your professional practices. Imagine being able to prevent most of the issues that happen on a daily basis simply by being present and truly listening to the students.

Establish a mentor relationship with a student, then create a safe space to meet with them. In my building, the known safe space is my office. The assistant principal typically meets with a student at a low point in that student’s life, and that interaction will most likely be disciplinary in nature. Additionally, an assistant principal needs to be prepared to help the victims of the offenses committed by students. Establish a building culture in which students feel comfortable checking in with you and you checking in on them. Sometimes a serious setting is needed, where your desk is across from office chairs when you are enforcing school rules. Other times you need to sit in an open, comfortable area to allow a student to speak to you. I have an area in my office that’s like a family room. This is where I meet with victims of an offense or a student whom I have concerns about. I notice their day-to-day interactions and posture change in an atmosphere that makes them feel more comfortable.

The last space I have in my office is the family meeting table. Like a kitchen table in some homes, this is where I enjoy a meal with my students who have earned an improvement pancake breakfast or lunch for achieving a great accomplishment. This is also where I mediate issues with students or staff. When you have a variety of options within a space you can control, you have the opportunity to determine how a situation is handled by creating the appropriate setting.

Like a Boss (but Be a Teacher) Zen

We are the boss of hundreds of individuals on a daily basis, and we need to act like one, whether it’s during passing time, lunch duty, office work, or after school at a sporting event. Therefore, we need to also be a teacher of manners, civility, and etiquette.

Sometimes I find that I need to show students the value of being on time. I begin with having the student read an article on what being late says about them. If there is no more improvement and a student continues to be tardy, they are assigned a two-hour detention to read and talk about being on time. After that, behaviors begin to change. Once the behavior begins to change, then we need to show the students that we support them. At my school, we created a Tardy Party. This group of tardy students has become a support group. They check in on each other and make sure they arrive to school on time. It’s bittersweet to see students connect on this level and support one another, but overall the Tardy Party is doing well.

Behavior contracts, take-home detentions, and mindful moments sometimes work, but sometimes they don’t. For our own sanity, we have to remember that we can only provide the supports. Students control their own actions.

Reflect Zen

As we navigate both our personal and professional lives, we must acknowledge that every day is a gift. We rarely have the opportunity to redo our conversations with the students who need encouragement and tough love. Look to your change in focus to achieve some zen as an assistant principal.


Sarah Infante is the assistant principal at Tonawanda City School District in Tonawanda, NY.


Sidebar: Building Ranks™ Connections

Dimension: Relationships

You can cultivate you own relationships with various stakeholders by being visible and interacting with stakeholders on a regular basis. Accessibility enables informal communication that fosters relationships. Some actions may include establishing office hours and holding “fireside chats” with students to discuss issues of relevance in your school. In what ways do you balance the need to be accessible with the demands and time constraints of your role as a school leader?

Relationships is part of the Building Culture domain of Building Ranks.