Seven years ago, I stepped foot into my office as the assistant principal of a middle level school of 800 students. Moving from my third-grade classroom to the main office was a hard transition because, for the previous eight years, I was only responsible for the 20–30 students within my classroom. I went from a world of teaching, assessing, grading, and lunch counts to school improvement plans, state assessments, district initiatives, and free and reduced-price lunch data (to name just a few). I would not have made this transition in a positive way if it wasn’t for my secretary, Teri. She is a phenomenal woman and someone who will forever have a special place in my heart. One of the reasons I am in the place I am today and gained success is due to the work Teri did every day and her mindset to make sure that the school and I were the best we could be.
Two years ago, Teri retired from our school district. Even though I am happy for her, we lost a huge part of our family. The five years I was able to have Teri by my side showed me what attributes are needed in a principal’s secretary in order to help keep a continual mindset of growth and achievement.
I have broken down all the amazing qualities my secretary had into three main “roots.” I believe these are the qualities most needed for growth in a principal’s leadership and the school as a whole.
Root One: Empathy and Care
A secretary is the first face and voice someone encounters when they call or come into the school or the main office. The school secretary is your stakeholders’ true litmus test of the school culture and climate, as well as a reflection of the school principal’s vision, beliefs and leadership. As a school principal, it is my job to show empathy and care to every single student, parent, teacher, staff member, and member of the community. It is my job to make everyone feel as though they are the most important person at that given time. The same goes for the school secretaries.
That’s what was so amazing about Teri. When a student came in with a question, needed to use the phone, or had a bloody nose, she never made them feel they were bothering her. Instead, she gave them the attention they deserved and showed them she was there to help. It was the same for parents, guests, and our staff; Teri always went out of her way to let them know they were part of our community and that it was her privilege to help and assist them.
Along with showing empathy and care to the school, Teri was always there for me, checking to make sure I had everything I needed to be successful. From asking me if there was anything she could take off my plate to putting out fires that she could handle without me, there was never a day Teri didn’t ask me how I was feeling or give me an encouraging word. She believed her job was to care for others.
Root Two: Consistency and Resourcefulness
Being a school leader has changed tremendously over the past 10 years. The role of a principal has morphed from being a manager of the school to its “lead learner.” With that change also comes a change in where the principal spends most of their time. For a school leader to make the largest impact they can, they need to spend more time in the classrooms, hallways, and cafeteria, which means less time in their office. With this change of scenery, administrative secretaries will see less of their principals and, in return, will have to be more resourceful.
Like I shared earlier, Teri was amazing at stepping in and putting out fires so I could give my attention to the things that mattered most. From upset students and parents to jammed copiers, she would always step in and do her part to ensure the issues that could be addressed without my immediate attention were handled professionally. This consistency and resourcefulness made me feel comfortable with trusting her judgement when issues arose.
At the end of each day, she always came into my office with a list of these “small fires” to let me know which still needed my attention and then ask if there was anything I felt should have been handled differently. Teri always wanted to be the best at what she did and was always looking for guidance and feedback so she could be consistent with the vision of the school and its leadership. She was always eager to learn and lead. That mindset is what made her the best of the best.
Root Three: Shared Vision and Belief in Leadership
A school secretary can be empathetic and caring, consistent and resourceful, but none of that will matter without a shared vision. School principals need someone who not only works alongside them but also believes in the vision and the work their principal does. If you both don’t have the same mindset and vision, neither of you will ever reach your fullest potential.
I was lucky to have Teri for so many reasons, but the greatest reason was that she believed in me and the vision I had for the school. Teri was always there with an open mind and would walk through any fire or storm; she always believed we were going in the right direction. She knew that what I was doing was not what was best for myself, but best for the school. She knew that I would do anything for anyone, so she was always willing to do anything for me.
As a school leader, you have to have someone on your side who will represent you and fight for you when the going gets tough. Never once did I doubt Teri and the work she did. I was so blessed to have someone who supported me and had the attributes needed to make our students, parents, staff, and school community grow in the way that it did.
The transition to any new position is challenging, but even the toughest changes can be less stressful when you have a partner who believes in you. I am so thankful for Teri, and even though she is no longer with me daily, the confidence and growth I experienced during our time together still pushes me today.
School secretaries have the hardest and most important job in the school. Without them, the school cannot function at its highest levels. Everything they do, big or small, makes an impact. Speaking for all principals, we appreciate all you do!
This year’s National Administrative Professionals Day is April 22. What can you do to recognize your administrative assistant(s)?
Roger Gurganus is an assistant principal at Brownstown Middle School, a grade 6–7 building in Brownstown, MI. He has a passion for children and education and strives to ensure that every student is connected and feels part of the positive communities he creates. Follow his educational and leadership journey on Twitter (@RogerGurganusII), Instagram (@RogerGurganusII), YouTube (@BMSWARRIORS67), and his blog.