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 principalkafele.com.

31 comments:

  1. Great Read!! I can definitely relate.

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  2. Awesome article and very true!!!

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  3. You are correct. We had over 1000 discipline slips submitted this year but there is no requirement that teachers try other measures before a write up. It has been my suggestion that teachers hold their own detention before writing a student up unless it is for something violent or they severly cursed a teacher out. I hardly wrote discipline slips when I was a teacher because I took care of things in my room.

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  4. Educational leadership requires a laser like focus on the prize- driving student achievement. There must be systems in place to ensure that educational leaders are not the sole guardians of school discipline.

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  5. Many challenges we find in our school systems today are not solely student based, they are adult-centered. If the adults who lead the school can't identify and effectively operate in their "purpose" within their school community, they will be limited in their role of providing the life changing instruction that is desperately needed in the classroom.

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  6. Your words are so spot on to everything my fellow APs and I talk about continually.

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  7. Great read. Excellent insight. I worked as a dean for many years. I soon understood my role was more than just enforcing discipline, but more of how can we change the mindsets and behaviors of our students so that they can not only feel a certain way about themselves, but also begin to have more ownership in the school they attended each and every day. I now serve as a school vendor where we offer character development and performance enrichment programs across the Chicago land as well as virtually in other states. I'm forwarding this blog to a group of leaders who love to learn and i'm sure will appreciate this as much as I did. I'd love to chat with you more about what we do and how we can help those you know that can use the added assistance. We Need More Like You!

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  8. This article speaks to the fact that many school systems are grossly ineffective in creating strong principal pipelines because they do not properly leverage the assistant principal position as a true training ground for the principalship.

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    1. Agreed. A real problem that needs to given attention.

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  9. Principal Kafele,
    This is a message that needs to be screamed from the rooftops, plastered on billboards and floating on blimps! The Principal and AP should be seen, in my opinion, as a team. If the AP is the one most often "handing down" the discipline consequences, it sets up a very unhealthy climate in the school. Cafeteria duty, while important for an admin to be present, can take up to a whole school day's worth of time over the course of one week. APs can come with the same skills sets as principals and ideally those skills sets should compliment one another for a balanced approach to how school is done. Thank you for writing this.

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    1. I appreciate all you have written. Much appreciated and agreed.

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  10. I've just finished my first year as a principal. I was not happy with the way our school had traditionally used the vice principal and reluctantly continued the pattern last year. This year we definitely have plans to change so that I work more in partnership with the vice principal and we focus on school climate and not just discipline. Thank you for this article.

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    1. I appreciate your transparency. Make it happen next year!

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  11. Sir, I have read your books, listened to your vlogs and totally put to practice all I can to aspire to AP. As an instructional coach, my administrative teams (2 schools) have used me in many ways to do duties of theirs to utilize my strengths. I am truly grateful for those experiences. However, I am very discouraged that I am good enough to do these jobs, but without getting one of these jobs. I have seen so many APs not be effective, yet hold the position for years or get promoted to Principal. It is so baffling to me why this occurs.
    As for this article, I would love the opportunity to stop doing the jobs without having the job. Discipline needs to have a pyramid to allow strong understanding of those things teachers must complete themselves to keep their own authority! We have had to do PD just on the facts of how to handle student behaviors inside the classrooms so that the administration can focus on instruction and not discipline. It is definitely a challenge. Thank you for all your marvelous experience and guidance.

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  12. Our school is so much stronger when the VP and I lead together. When we are in sync, something I notice is our after school learning conversations seem to go on for a long time...and we both look at the clock realizing we need to get home to our wives and young kids. He's entering his 3rd year as VP and is going to make an excellent principal in the very near future. Great article!

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  13. With the positive changes in my District this article is right on time! As Principal I have underutilized the role of the Assistant Principal. Thank you Principal Kafele for an interesting perspective!

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  14. This is great insight and definitely something I am struggling with! Thank you for bringing it to realization that I’m not the only one!

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  15. I am starting my first year as a principal after being a AP for 5. This article articulates so well the message I have been giving to the 2 AP’s that will be working with me. If I don’t make it a priority to prepare them to be principals in all manors of the position and not regulate them to just discipline then I have failed as leader.

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  16. Yes, I agree that this sometimes happens within schools. I have had a completely different experience being an AP. At my school, the leadership team makes decision together. We coach teachers, plan pd, weekly grade level meetings and we both handle discipline issues.

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  17. As an assistant principal on large campuses your daily routine should involve regular classroom observations and instructional coaching, however you are often viewed as the "bouncer" for the school if the campus does not view discipline as a macro issue. I agree campus leaders should realize that the assistant principal is a direct reflection of the vision of the principal and they should be trained to be the principal at anytime.

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  18. I appreciate everything you have written in this article. I remember when I entered grad school one of my advisers said don't get swallowed by secretarial duties and you should continue to grown in the profession. It hard to do when you are seen as just a disciplinarian but given duties that require you to have time to spend in classrooms however if a behavior issue appears you are called to it. I definitely have taken some notes for myself to review often.

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  19. Well said and thank you for posting this. Asst. principals are way more valuable to the culture of the school if their skillset is maximized. After all, they were instructional leaders within the classroom prior to venturing out into administration.

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