Monday, July 1, 2019

The Assistant Principalship: The Most Misunderstood and Underutilized Position in Education

“Young man, I’ve tolerated enough….it’s time for you to see the assistant principal!”

Sound familiar? Variations of these words are expressed to students exhibiting undesirable behaviors all too often in classrooms across North America daily. In turn, the assistant principals sit in their offices awaiting this youngster to arrive while simultaneously disciplining other students who were sent down ahead of him. In my conversations with countless assistant principals across the country, this is their day-to-day reality which in my estimation is just wrong, wrong, wrong! This is the reality of schools where it has become the culture of the building to utilize the assistant principal in this regard…as a full time disciplinarian. I might add that during my year as an assistant principal, this too was my daily reality. I was grossly underutilized. There was always work to do and never downtime because at any given moment, a teacher was sending a student to my office for me to discipline.

I feel strongly that with the exception of those assistant principals who have made the decision that they are content with being assistant principals…career assistant principals if you will, the assistant principalship is a stepping stone to the principalship. Yes, the principal (and the school) need this individual to assist the principal, but unless the assistant principal has no interest in one day assuming the principalship, it is not a permanent position. Instead, it is a “training ground” for that one day principalship. The problem is when assistant principals are in schools where they have been relegated to being school disciplinarians. In no way are these individuals being prepared for the principalship in this regard. At best, they may evolve into great disciplinarians but will be grossly lacking in real school leadership preparation. This was certainly my reality as an assistant principal and it is the reality of countless assistant principals in our schools. These individuals are not being adequately trained and prepared to lead their own schools one day. Both, children and staff consequently suffer because upon the assistant principal’s promotion to the principalship, all he / she will really be prepared to do well is discipline students as opposed to being trained to lead while simultaneously being exposed to all aspects of principal leadership toward a seamless transition into school leader.

The core responsibility and most significant role of a principal is instructional leadership. I once had a mentor many years ago who convinced me that the primary purpose of my supervision of teachers was the continual improvement of their instruction. In other words, it is instructional leadership that moves the “student academic needle.” Yes, teachers can seek out their own professional development independent of the leadership of the school, but it is the instructional leadership that is provided by the leadership over the duration of the school year that matters most. This is the professional development that is the most directly associated with instruction in the classroom. To that end, imagine that school where there are one or two assistant principals and the bulk of their day is spent engaging in student discipline and cafeteria supervision. Although both responsibilities are important, they are a gross misuse of the assistant principals time, energy and human capital. Let’s say for example, in this same school, the assistant principals supervise and evaluate a percentage of staff. If the assistant principals spend the bulk of their time in the non-instructional aspects school leadership, what will be the basis of their evaluation of teachers? The truth is that in this regard, the assistant principal doesn’t know the specificity of what the teacher does in the classroom and therefore doesn’t know the teacher’s classroom. The assistant principal has no “voice” in any given classroom and no academic connection to any given classroom. How does the teacher grow in this regard? How are the teacher’s deficiencies identified? How is time devoted to correction of these deficiencies? How does the assistant principal grow? How is the assistant principal in position to play a role toward helping the teacher to become extraordinary in the classroom? In this regard, the teacher loses but the teacher doesn’t lose alone….the children lose exponentially; the school loses; the parents lose and the community loses. It’s a lose – lose situation.

What can be done? Particular attention must be given to the overall climate and culture of the school and how assistant principals can be utilized optimally. Administration and staff must collectively ask the question, “What is it about the climate and culture of our school that lends itself to our disciplinary reality? Discipline is micro while climate and culture are macro. Typically in schools where discipline is a macro issue, the climate and the culture of the school are problematic if not toxic. Immediate attention must be given to the school’s climate and culture toward bringing about transformation in how assistant principals are utilized. Assistant principals are far too important to the success of every student in the building to be relegated to school disciplinarians. Their talents, abilities, skillsets and potential must be intentionally maximized always.

For further information on this topic, pick up Principal Kafele’s newest book, The ASPIRING Principal 50: Critical Questions for New and Future School Leaders (ASCD, 2019) at

The Assistant Principalship: The Most Misunderstood and Underutilized Position in Education

“Young man, I’ve tolerated enough….it’s time for you to see the assistant principal!” Sound familiar? Variations of these...