man with many arms holding binder, cellphone, calculator, coffee mugThe role of the assistant principal is seemingly evolving at warp speed, becoming more dynamic, more challenging, and more demanding in the 21st century. To get a better perspective on this development, we convened a roundtable in January consisting of two current assistant principals and a former AP: Beverly Hutton is deputy executive director of programs and services at NASSP and spent 12 years as an AP in New Jersey; Reed Gillespie is associate principal at Monticello High School in Charlottesville, VA; and Kristen Paul is associate principal at Caruso Middle School in Deerfield, IL. Principal Leadership Senior Editor Michael Levin-Epstein moderated the discussion.

Levin-Epstein: Do you think the role of the assistant principal has changed over the last five to 10 years and, if so, how?

Paul: Yes. As an AP, I always joke that I don’t wear just one hat, I wear at least seven. I would say the majority of my day is spent evaluating and working with teachers in developing instructional strategies. I also support the RTI [response to intervention] academic team and our RTI social/emotional team. We have a great population of students and a great community.

Gillespie: I think truthfully the new evaluations that each state has embraced—for good reason—have definitely put more on administrators’ shoulders so to speak, and we do have seven different hats to wear. We’re going to be a teacher at times, we’re going to be a guidance counselor at times, we’re going to be a disciplinarian at times—you just have to come to school not knowing what to expect. That’s one of the things I love about my job—I don’t know what I’m going to expect every day. A normal day is an unexpected day. If I’m able to get everything on my to-do list crossed off, that’s a remarkable and rare feat. 

Hutton: I would add that the role of the assistant/associate principal should have changed over the last five years. It should have become a position that’s more instructionally focused so assistant principals can operate more as instructional leaders. A principal who really wants to be successful has to really know how to distribute leadership. I also believe that assistant principals or associate principals should be considered principals who are simply not in the lead role at that particular school. 

Typically, assistant principals have the exact same credentials that a practicing lead principal has, so they should be viewed as such and prepared or given opportunities by the lead principal to develop an array of skills that prepares them for the principalship. So, while the role is multidimensional, the principal should be making deliberate, intentional strategies and/or activities to broaden the scope and the vision and the experiences of the associate and/or assistant principal. 

Paul: I think it is very interesting, too, that when the principal’s not here, I am the person who steps in as the leader of the building. I think that when you have a great rapport with your staff, you are successful as a leader and you are able to go into that position—even if it’s temporary—when the principal is not there to make decisions. I also think it is so helpful when you have a principal who is willing to give you responsibilities and talk with you; it is a collaborative process.

Hutton: Collaborative leadership is key. I often say a lead principal who is not distributing leadership is working too hard and not capitalizing on the strength of the leadership team and/or even the teacher leaders in the building. Leadership has to be horizontal now. Vertical leadership is an old model, it’s a strenuous model, and it’s a model that’s almost impossible to keep or maintain. 

Gillespie: I think for any aspiring assistant principal/associate principal, one of the things that you always want to look for—are you going to be working for someone who is going to let you take that leadership role in your school? You want to be able to have that discourse behind closed doors with the admin team, the cabinet, whatever you want to call it, to be able to challenge each other. That was the biggest change for me as an administrator—the collaborative environment with the other administrators surpasses even the best collaborative environment in the classroom, and you want to be able to challenge each other and work with a principal who’s going to trust you. I’ve been blessed—I’ve worked with two different principals as an assistant principal who have given me a tremendous amount of rope. There have been times where I’ve hanged myself with that rope, and they’re the first person there to cut me down. But you learn from it, and I’m appreciative that they allowed me to take those risks.

Hutton: It’s about empowerment, but it’s also about strengthening the district as a whole. NASSP does a lot of work with The Wallace Foundation, and their educational research is so clear around distributing leadership and strengthening the principal pipeline. So it is a matter of empowering, but it’s also a matter of wisdom and just strengthening the school district as a whole by strengthening the pipeline to leadership.

Levin-Epstein: Has the advent of new technology and the rise of social media resulted in APs being given new responsibilities?

Paul: Yes, I think that is one of the hats you’re expected to wear, depending on the school district. I know in our district right now, our belief is that technology supports pedagogy. There are definite challenges to being 1:1 as a school, and we are trying to empower and give our teachers the instructional support they need to be able to facilitate 1:1 learning in their classroom. We talk about the SAMR model [the Substitution Augmentation Modification Redefinition model for adding technology into teaching and learning] in the progression of substitution, augmentation, and modification, and that we really want to climb up that ladder to augmentation. 

It can be a challenge, as teachers are in a different spot with technology. Some teachers are really comfortable, and some people are still hesitant to dive in. When it comes to social media, we look at it as a learning moment for kids and educating them that they have a great power and responsibility in understanding their digital footprint. We use resources like Common Sense Media, and we developed a scope in sequence for sixth, seventh, and eighth grade. 

Gillespie: I think with all the different apps, we can’t be experts with everything, but we have to try to be experts with as much as possible. If we’re going to ask our staff to do something or if we’re going to ask our students to do something, we have to be willing to do it ourselves. We’re a 1:1 school as well, and I try to embrace the technology. But at the same time—we’re looking at making more and better use of portfolios—I’m not sure how students create portfolios in this county, because it’s something I’ve never done. So, I realize one of the things I want to do is create my own portfolio just as the kids would, since that’s what we’re asking our students and our teachers to do as well. 

You have to be willing to roll up your sleeves and get in the muck, but at the same time we have to realize we can’t be all things. We can’t be an expert in every subject or every single aspect of pedagogy and all those things, but we can sure as heck try. 

Hutton: I think around social media and technology you all are on the ground with it, so you would know best. But I think you’re really talking about appropriately monitoring Internet civility and promoting social responsibility, which is all about school culture, etc. Assistant principals seem to deal with every emerging topic.

Gillespie: I think that’s the way that we’re fortunate in the counties that I have worked in. We’re looking at how we can use technology to educate students so they are prepared for the next step in life—college or the workforce. If you as a principal or an administrator aren’t comfortable with technology, I think that’s something that you can distribute to somebody else on your staff so they can take on that responsibility. 

Levin-Epstein: In terms of the many hats that you wear, what are the three you wear the most? 

Gillespie: I think it’s different from school to school. At our school, we have three different assistant principals, and each assistant principal has something different that they oversee, so they will have a bit of a specialty. For me, I would echo some of the things Kristen said. RTI and special education are huge. Teacher observations, teacher leadership, instructional leadership—however you want to put that—would be another. A third bucket for me would be just classroom management and discipline that I am overseeing. 

Paul: My No. 1 priority is as an instructional leader. As a former teacher myself, I lead by teaching, coaching, and providing those resources. I started this year by creating a website of instructional resources and dividing it up by subject area because I get a lot of information from different companies and resources, online publishers. 

Another role that I have is overseeing PLCs (professional learning communities) in providing leadership and direction as an instructional leader, as well as evaluating teachers. I always share with the teachers I evaluate that I see it as a two-way opportunity where I’m giving you snapshots of what I see in the classroom, and that we are going to have a coaching conversation to help. I really do want teachers to be able to have that relationship with me to be able to try things, and talk through ideas, and brainstorm, and find different ways they can instructionally provide the most engaging environment for their students. 

The other component, too, is overseeing of RTI. This year we just started a social-emotional tiered intervention for the entire school. That’s been a huge undertaking—a lot of training going along with that and planning and working together with different teams and continually learning myself. 

Hutton: In my work with The Wallace Foundation, I’m serving on their national committee to examine the assistant principalship, so they’ve done some research with their designated pipeline districts. That research has yielded three areas for basic time spent by assistant principals: classroom evaluation, discipline, and staff development. Basically, those were the three buckets that came out of that research. I think that backs up what you have said as well. 

Levin-Epstein: What’s been your biggest surprise about being an assistant principal?

Paul: When I was a teacher, I was so used to a schedule and having a lunchtime. I always joke, “The last time I took a lunch was three years ago when I was a teacher.” I’m here to serve. I think that was probably my biggest surprise, that my schedule is not consistent and I just have to be flexible. That’s just part of the job, to juggle everything. 

Gillespie: I think that was it as well, for me. You became privy to so much information, whether it was the student in your school that went through something traumatic at home so you have to be a guidance counselor at times, to an irate parent who’s calling up and you feel like you need to be a customer service representative to defuse that situation. It’s those things that, as a classroom teacher, you don’t necessarily see. I spent 17 years as a classroom teacher, so for me that behind-the-scenes stuff was a lot of what caught me by surprise. 

Hutton: You have such a different lens as a teacher, and it’s a different world. You get a chance to see the big picture, which is the biggest surprise. Because as a classroom teacher you think you have one lens, and then you get into this position and think, “Oh my gosh, there’s a totally different perspective.” 

For me, I realized that my preparedness from my graduate program didn’t tell me any of the things that I was going to face, didn’t tell me that I was going to wear all those hats. I knew clinical supervision really well, I knew the basic tenets of leadership, but it’s when you get in the building, on the ground, and you’re dealing with people—people who have issues and feelings. Kids are not widgets, teachers are not widgets; we’re not producing a product, if you will. 

We’re trying to make people flourish in an environment that basically you have a lot of control over, as far as the protocols and the culture and the environment that you set. What you don’t have control over is what happens in people’s lives—children, parents, teachers—so it’s shocking when you first get in there that you really need to be a counselor and a social worker and all these things. Nobody tells you that when you’re in your preparation program. 

Paul: I couldn’t agree more with that, Beverly. I think what I recognized right away is how important it is to be a good listener, because often we are counseling and listening to teachers, students, parents. There are times where I’m drawing on educational psychology courses from my undergrad days. 

Hutton: I didn’t realize that the counselor needed a counselor and how unbalanced we are as school leaders. We don’t live balanced work lives because the school becomes such a part of your psyche and your life that you fight—at least I did—to try to stay balanced. I don’t know that I ever really won that battle. 

Levin-Epstein: What about balancing work and family?

Gillespie: In one of the Twitter chats I hosted in January, we talked about balance. To be an administrator you need to have a passion and be willing to invest the time; I think you sacrifice, unfortunately, and maybe I’m wrong, but I do think you sacrifice other areas of your life for the sake of however many students and staff members you have in your building. But I think there’s strength that comes from that. I would imagine anyone great in the world who became our leaders, who became presidents or became inventors, they were all in. You have to put yourself all in for the benefit of the people you’re working for, and you’re working for your students. 

Hutton: That’s tough, though, when you have a family. It’s just a very, very difficult balancing act. I want to draw your attention to the new standards for school leaders, the Professional Standards for Educational Leaders 2015 (PSEL 2015). They were just released in November and December, and specifically one of the components of the standards is around school leaders tending to their own professional learning and a healthy work-life balance. 

I co-chaired the writing committee of the standards with Dr. Mark Smiley from the University of Chicago. We had two practitioners on the committee, one representing NAESP (National Association of Elementary School Principals’ Robert Conrad) and one representing NASSP (Jayne Ellspermann), both of whom are practicing principals. They talked a lot about this issue of work-life balance and the sacrifices that we make along the way. 

As a result of that, one of the functions in one of the standards discusses how an effective leader tends to his or her own professional development and their own healthy balanced work life. Nobody’s found the formula yet, but the fact that it’s in the standards and it’s recognized as something that needs to be a part of our lives as opposed to this total sacrifice of ourselves, our families, our children, etc., for the job. This standard was put in there as a way to support principals in their quests and expectations to do so.

Paul: Work-life balance is always something I’m thinking about. Last year I got a Fitbit, and it honestly helped me stay aware of my movement. The benefit of that awareness is that I am also very visible as a leader. This year, I purchased a walking desk; I’m actually leading as I move. For example, I hold meetings in the hallway, and the kids and teachers see me around the school. 

For me, personally, the balance has to be intentional. Having a family myself (my husband is an educator), we are constantly negotiating and discussing our Monday through Friday schedules (which are planned to the minute), because we both have demands everywhere. We have shared leadership in our home so we both can be successful at our jobs. Reaching that balance is not a cakewalk, but key to our continued success. 

Levin-Epstein: How would you respond if a teacher came to you and said, “I want to be an assistant principal someday—what advice can you offer about the personality and professional skills I need to be successful?” 

Paul: If someone is coming to you and sharing their desire to be a leader, give them opportunities to practice their leadership and encourage and celebrate their desire. When I talk to people who want to be in a leadership role, these are the top two things I always say: The first thing you have to be willing to do is serve others before yourself. The other thing is that you have to have a growth mindset yourself. No one has finished learning; one has to believe that they are always growing and learning. You have that mindset that you have the ability to take risks. 

Gillespie: To piggyback on that, [I’d urge future APs to offer] the opportunity [to allow] a teacher to take risks outside the classroom. That’s one of the most difficult things I’ve done. When you put yourself out there as a leader, you’re going to face some scrutiny or criticism from people who were, at one point, your peers. If you can build that before you step into an admin role, the better strength you’re going to have. 

Hutton: I would concur with what both of you have said. I have mentored lots and lots of teacher leaders and assistant principals in my years in administration. I used to say five things to them when they had already emerged as a leader. 

  • Love kids
  • Be flexible
  • Be committed
  • Always understand that you need to continue to learn
  • Lead by example

Those five things were my mantra. I’m happy to say many of [those protégés] are lead principals, and they’re saying those five things to their assistant principals and members of their leadership teams. [Being an AP] is not for everybody. Some people get into administration for various reasons, but if you’re not getting into it because you love kids, then you’re not able to be flexible or committed or willing to learn or lead by example.