When the call came, I was so excited. 

I had finally achieved my goal of becoming a school leader. I had observed, interned, and substituted as a school leader during my preparation program. My curriculum had prepared me for budgets, instruction, management, and technology, but dealing with students, parents, employees, colleagues, the central office, and the community would be On the Job Training 101. 

In all of my years in the classroom, I had worked with students ranging from bright-eyed freshmen to seniors who thought they could conquer the world. I had met with parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles to discuss academics and future plans. I thought being an assistant principal would be more of the same. 

My first charge as assistant principal at Logan Senior High School in Logan, WV, turned out to be a veritable carbon copy of Union High School in Big Stone Gap, VA, where I taught previously. The communities of Logan and Big Stone Gap base their economies on coal mining, with generations of families earning their income in this way. During my years at Union, I had begun to see the impact of the economic downturn in coal mining and its impact upon education. When I transferred to Logan, I found that impact to be a foundational cause of some of my first-year experiences as an assistant principal. 

New Principal on the Block 

Before arriving at Logan High, I had spent the last three-and-a-half years as a social studies teacher and school bus driver at Union. I knew 700 kids by name. I knew their families. I talked with grandparents at the grocery store who were raising their grandkids; I had worked with aunts and uncles to get students a safe place to stay. As a fresh assistant principal, I thought that I could use what I had learned at Union to develop those relationships at Logan. I quickly learned that as an assistant principal—as a member of the administration—I was often viewed with a fair amount of apprehension. Students were hesitant to ask me a question, wondering what I would say or do. 

Relationships with the instructional faculty were also eye-opening in my first year. Veteran teachers were quick to offer guidance and advice; novice teachers were quick to want guidance and advice; and every member of the staff wanted to know something. A discipline issue, a leave request, a technology item, any one of those things could be the most important thing on my schedule at any particular moment, depending on the events at hand. 

Novice teachers expected me to help them through a multitude of issues that they didn’t cover in their preparation program. Veteran teachers simply needed to know that I was there and that I would help them through the daily routine. 

Willingness To Learn

As a classroom teacher, I experienced issues such as poverty and a reluctance to allow children to grow and experience new things. I dealt with them as part of my lesson planning and as part of the social situation at my school. But when I became an assistant principal, I began to experience those issues in a much more profound way. I learned from interacting with students at Logan High School that a reluctance to gain an education is an ever-present reminder of growing up in a poverty-stricken environment. Just mentioning college to a student does not complete the process—families have to understand that education is a way out of poverty for students. 

Poverty encompasses not just Logan and Logan County, but all of Southern Appalachia. As a first-year assistant principal, I have watched students be affected by poverty through being removed from the home, having their families evicted, trying to survive without electricity and running water, and making sure that younger siblings get to school safely because their parents are working nights and weekends. 

I have listened as my colleagues have related stories of generational poverty in families that span decades. I have learned that a true educational foundation must consist of academics, extracurricular activities, and character education with real-world application. 

My first year as a school leader has been the proverbial eye-opening experience. Logan High School is a safe haven for students who need a place to feel special, to feel like they belong. I have grown to be part of the Logan High School family. I take pride in having developed the skills that I will need to excel as a school principal through having an administrative mentor who has taught me so much. 

I have learned about scheduling, personnel, listening, and mentoring. My principal has given me the “keys” to developing our Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) for our instructional staff; having an opportunity to guide instruction through teacher evaluation; planning and implementation of sound instruction based upon the West Virginia Content Standards; and the opportunity to learn about facilities management, student discipline, and community relations. 

The Real World: Not Exactly Perfect 

Many of the articles that I have read and the stories that I have heard provide a picture of the “perfect world” of education. My first year has taught me that the real word is not the perfect world. My door opens every morning at 6:30 a.m., and students start arriving shortly thereafter. They bring with them problems that I was not trained to deal with in my preparation program.Whether my day involves kids who have lived without electricity or running water, kids who have come from abusive homes, kids who are involved in the court system, or kids who are simply stressed about their grades, I’ve learned that listening is the best and most important thing I can do. I can listen before committing to an answer to their problem, which provides me with a greater range of options. The importance of listening has become a foundational aspect of my vision as an educational leader. 

Rise to the Challenge

I would like to share two things with every first-year assistant principal. First, it helps to have an excellent mentor. My principal has given me the chance to grow and to learn and prepare myself for becoming a school principal. Also, new assistant principals need to realize that every day will bring a new and exciting challenge. How you handle that challenge will determine the course of your day and may even determine the course of your year. Do not let the opportunity pass you by.

Matthew McCarty, BA, MA, EdS, is assistant principal at Logan High School in Logan, WV. 

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