The Assistant Principal’s Field Guide
The assistant principalship is one of the most misunderstood and pivotal roles in our schools. For many assistant principals, the move to the role comes straight from the classroom, the counseling office, or a dean position. The transition is quick—in one day you move from a teacher contract to an administrative contract. Training programs for administrative positions often focus on the role of the building principal, providing minimal context to an assistant principal position. The internship in many administrative programs is completed under the guidance of a building principal, with few opportunities to see the day-to-day work of an assistant principal.
On day one, where does the assistant principal begin?
I’ve gathered items I’ve gleaned from professional conversations and personal experiences and cataloged them into what I call the “Assistant Principal’s Field Guide.” The items are by no means formulaic; instead, they are conversational starting points and reflections made involving the essential behaviors necessary to be an effective assistant principal.
Each of us has individuals in our lives who embody an exceptional leader. These individuals exhibit specific characteristics that make them experts at their craft. It is easy to be drawn to imitate those we admire. While this strategy has its advantages, it can also be a hindrance, as each of us carries strengths—and weaknesses.
Remember—you were hired for who you are. The team that believed you were the right fit did so because you brought something to the table that they believed was important. The most important lesson in leadership is, “be you.” Authenticity, including recognizing our strengths and weaknesses, makes us better leaders. Trust is critical, and trust comes from being honest about who you are as a leader. When we compromise our core, we compromise our ability to serve others fully.
Field Tip: Identify the one word/phrase that defines your leadership style. Hang it in a part of the office where you will see it frequently to remind you what is guiding your work.
Understand Your Role
Each assistant principalship carries a different set of expectations and challenges. One common role is to support the principal, which can look different in every setting. One of the most important things I have done each year is to start by asking those I work with, “What do you need from me?” Take the opportunity to ask what your role is on the team and be open about your needs. An effective team starts with knowing how you complement each other and how you fit into the system.
Field Tip: Make a list focused on your leadership responsibilities (e.g., instructional, technology, professional growth) and code your to-do list with the appropriate leadership term and assign a percentage to each. At the end of the week, check your percentages to make sure you are fulfilling your goals.
If you cannot establish relationships, you are going to struggle to maximize your effectiveness. A solid way to build relationships is what I term “Visibility 2.0.” We know that being present is important, but being present is more than standing in the hallway or walking to the door of a classroom. Visibility 2.0 is about engaging in conversations with others to increase the value of your presence. Sit with a student and do the practice problem, talk to teachers about their children, or ask parents how they feel the school year is going. Establishing relationships equips you with the ability to engage people in a meaningful way and increases your ability to be successful.
Field Tip: Try “trash can diplomacy.” At lunch, take the trash cans around the cafeteria to collect trash from students. Use the opportunity for informal conversations.
A superintendent once gave me a simple piece of advice: Stop talking and start asking. The goal was to get me away from the leadership style of guiding dialogue and toward the style of actively listening.
As an assistant principal, one of the best things you can do is listen. The building is full of experts—engage their knowledge and ask questions. Questions provide an avenue for dialogue rather than dictation. Use your opportunities in classrooms and hallways to ask for perspective and guidance.
Field Tip: Make a list of five students each week. Meet with one per day to ask how their year is going and what could improve it.
Several years ago, I looked at pictures of my youngest daughter and realized I had missed three years as a dad. My health was also heading in a negative direction. I had become the job. The brutal truth was that I did not have balance.
Being a school leader is difficult. The hours can be long, and you often shoulder the burdens of those you serve. If you do not take care of yourself, you cannot take care of others. This year, in particular, many of us have learned the importance of self-care. Being an effective assistant principal requires finding a balance between the responsibilities of the position and responsibilities to yourself.
Field Tip: Get an accountability partner. Find someone who will text you or stop by your office at the end of the day to remind you to close out the day.
Communicate Often and With Purpose
Finding the right balance for communication is critical. Balance requires creating communications that are easy to read and ensuring they have a purpose. We have all received emails that resembled dissertations or appeared to be sent just to send something. Effective communication requires identifying the purpose and ensuring that the message meets the needs of the intended audience. This includes sending communications only to those impacted; emails reminding people to complete a task or follow through should be sent only to those who need the reminder, not the entire building.
Field Tip: When you need to communicate, start by identifying the purpose and critical information. Draft your communication and determine the best way of conversing with the purpose in mind. Communicate your purpose up front.
Organize Your Priorities
The role of assistant principal comes with many responsibilities. Managing the responsibilities can become daunting, especially when pop-up items such as discipline can take large portions of your time.
It is important to prioritize your day every day. Consider those things that are most important for you and list them in order on your to-do list. As you complete them, mark them off, but make sure you keep your nonnegotiables at the top. (This also applies to your personal balance. Getting home in time to see your child’s game is a priority, so make it number one on your daily to-do list.
Field Tip: Color code your calendar. On my calendar, any item in red is considered untouchable time. This includes time each day to be present in classrooms and hallways.
Own Your Growth
One area in which I believe we often fall short is taking ownership of our professional growth. There is a massive variety of professional learning opportunities available for assistant principals—the most available and promising is the person in your very own building, your principal. Take the time to ask your principal to observe or facilitate tasks that may not be traditional to the assistant principal role. During budget season, ask to review the budget and discuss how priorities were set and allocated. If there is a staff concern that needs resolution, ask if you can observe the process to better understand the policies and procedures. When the master schedule is developed, observe the process and ask how the schedule is designed to balance needs.
Outside of school, you also have a number of options available to you. Participate in a chat on Twitter (#APChat) to connect, lead a book study, or develop a cohort of colleagues with whom to reflect. Consider participating in instructional learning opportunities so that you can continue to grow as a resource for teachers. The ceiling for your own professional growth is in your hands. You need to take the initiative to make it what you want from it.
Field Tip: Develop personal professional growth goals each year. Develop a plan for meeting them and share your plan with a colleague. Hold yourself accountable throughout the year.
The assistant principalship is incredibly rewarding. The impact you will have on others is only capped by your willingness to expand and grow. Enjoy the journey and continue to find ways to maximize your impact.
Jared C. Wastler is the assistant principal at Lower Dauphin High School in Hummelstown, PA.