Thriving as an Assistant Principal

There’s a difference in feeling capable at a job and feeling that you thrive in it. I sure prefer the latter, but that isn’t something you often stumble yourself into. It takes planning and intentionality. So before the year begins, I decided to think through those things that I can be about as an assistant principal that will help me help our campus.

Assistant principals who develop lasting, trusting relationships with their staff build on a foundation created by doing their job and doing it well. An AP needs a foundation of credibility before he can earn the relational capital that creates trust. Establishing your ethos on campus comes in a variety of ways (and happens differently in each unique situation). I’ll be the first to say that each path toward trust is unique, but it’s never bad to start by managing the referrals that come your way fairly and efficiently, committing to being a learner in your leadership role, and moving toward each new year looking for ways to serve students and teachers in new ways.

Though that trust must be earned, your work as an AP is far from over when you reach that point. Having the respect of the teachers is not the same as having a relationship with them. Cultivating those trusting relationships is vital if you’re interested in creating change (and who isn’t interested in creating positive change). To do that, you have to take the time to ask good questions and put your to-do list of important things on hold long enough to really listen to what’s urgent for the teachers you serve. More often than not, those questions fall into one of these four categories:

1. Ask about the family.

We spend an incredible amount of time asking teachers to give of themselves at school. We know our students deserve the attention of their teachers, but we don’t always know how much our teachers are juggling outside of school. Asking about a teacher’s family can help us get to know teachers as a whole just like we often ask them to do with their students.

When I’m at my best, I’m often asking these questions:

    • How’s your daughter’s basketball team playing? Is she enjoying college like she thought she would?
  • So you’re son will be a freshman here next year; what’s he excited about? Worried about? Are there any questions I can answer about our school for you as a parent?

2. Ask about professional interests.

We do a lot of talking to teachers when it comes to professional development. If we’re going to ask teachers to customize and individualize learning in the classroom, we need to be ready to do the same for our staff. Matching our practice with our message builds trust with teachers.

When I’m at my best, I’m often asking these questions:

    • How’s the year going? Where are you doing your best work? What would you try if money or time weren’t barriers?
    • What if you could pick your schedule next year; what would it look like ideally? What are you doing this year that’s different/new?
  • That thing you’re trying out this year–maybe it’s stand up desks or ditching homework/the textbook–how can I help encourage others to do it too? Also, how is it different than you expected it would be?

3. Ask for input before making decisions.

All leaders know the power of buy in, but it’s not always the quickest road to a solution. However, getting buy in on the front end of change can make a profound difference on the success of any attempt at change in a large organization like a school.

When I’m at my best, I’m often asking these questions:

    • If we went from 4 to 3 lunches, where could we best use the time in our day? What could you do with 25 minutes a day?
    • What do you want to learn about during faculty meetings? What are you tired of learning about in faculty meetings?
  • What do we need to spend more time looking at?

4. Ask for critical feedback.

We provide this for teachers routinely, but we rarely ask for it in return. Hearing critical feedback makes us better at providing the same for teachers, and knowing the concerns of those we serve allows us to keep a close watch on that which impacts those activities.

When I’m at my best, I’m often asking these questions:

    • What do you think of the new schedule? What problems did it solve? What is more complicated with the new schedule?
    • Talk to me about a particular student; what’s working, what’s not, and what is the best support I can offer to help him keep learning in your classroom?
  • What do you think we are missing as administrators that you see as a teacher?

Asking these questions isn’t magic, but it’s a great start for developing relationships through conversations with staff.

Finally, as an instructional leader, you have to walk the walk. Credibility has a short shelf life. We need to keep ourselves current, and we need to keep investing in our teachers. If your professional development sessions are lifeless and flat, you’re not going to earn yourself any points with teachers. Even though faculty meetings and PD days are important arenas in which we must excel, we can’t only show up then. A trusted AP will be looking for new ways to learn on his own and will be actively seeking opportunities to bring others into his learning. Invite people to a Twitter chat, help out with an EdCamp, create a Voxer group to highlight great things happening on campus. Do something to engage in a different way. Excellence in this area alone won’t create lasting relationships and trust, but it will steadily increase your credibility you’ve developed with the staff.

If you have any other ideas for ways to thrive in the role of assistant principal, please share! We’ll get better together!

17 Replies to “Thriving as an Assistant Principal”

  1. Janet Langford says:

    Good points. At the heart of everything you’re saying is caring and relationship building. You can’t fake really caring about people and investing in their lives. Often it’s the small kindnesses that make a difference in a teachers day. My challenge is to pull away from the office and the data driven nature of the job to really be out there where the folks in the trenches who are working so hard to make a difference are laboring. That’s one of my personal goals for this next school year. Thanks for your article. A good read. Good points really care

    1. aaronhogan says:

      I definitely feel the tension between the different pulls each day. I hope you end up managing each of those pulls well this year. When you do, share how it’s going (when it’s great and when there’s room for improvement)! You never know who it might encourage!

    2. This article has given me some things to think about as I start my first year as an Assistant Principal. I enjoyed the article!

      1. aaronhogan says:

        Good luck in your first year!

  2. As a newly appointed AP, I have learned a lot by listening. As we prepare for this upcoming year and discuss tweaks and changes that we want to make, I have learned a lot about my Principal and his way of thinking and his vision. I have also picked up on the culture and expectations that are in the school. The other assistant has made comments about things that she would like to take off her plate as well. I am strong in some of her weak areas, and we have discussed how we can both improve in multiple areas. Listening is one I would add to the list.

  3. Thanks for this great post. As I embark on my first year as a vice principal, these are helpful tips!

    1. aaronhogan says:

      Good luck with it! Stay connected and find those things you really enjoy to put on a checklist every day. It will be great!

  4. Great blog post. So much uncertainty in the AP’s role. This is an encouraging blog to help assistant principals find their voice and strength in their role on campus!

  5. What a great article! You listed some key questions. This is definitely a resource to re-read and refer to in the future.

    My main takeaway is being available. We must listen to understand instead of listening to reply. Despite the many “pulls,” relationship building must be a top priority. Walking your talk is essential.

    Much respect for leading like you do and helping others become better.

  6. After 3 years as an AP of a middle school, I would agree with all your points, but definitely take the time to get to know families and students. This will come in handy when staff is struggling with a student and need support. Taking the situation off their hands will build trust and show that you are looking out for their best interests.

  7. Reid Pierce says:

    These are great. Thank you. I would add too, serving those you lead. They are on the front lines and sometimes small things can be a stress reliever to a teacher. Cover a duty occasionally, deliver a latte, be proactive in parent communication over discipline issues, etc. It pays dividends in building trust.

  8. I was an AP for 10 years, so I appreciate your perspective. And I appreciate your commitment to “thriving” in your role. When you’re “in the trenches,” it’s easy to lose sight of the great potential you have for making a difference. Well done!

  9. Really liked your post, although I’ve never been an assistant principal. (Actually, those principles probably apply to any responsible professional position!)
    I think most administrators and schools should be encouraging much more action research by teachers. (Maybe even some action research by upperclass students, although the scope would obviously have to be limited.) Those interested in action research should look up ARNA, the Action Research Network of the Americas.
    Finally, I was surprised to see that cutting a lunch period out of the schedule would produce only 25 minutes. Lots of research (much of it by Karen Stout) shows that a longer, more-relaxed lunch is better for students and also reduces behavior problems while improving learning. So it would be better to use that time to extend the other 3 lunch periods. Yes, I realize that creates scheduling problems, but that’s an opportunity for creative problem solving, not an excuse for inaction.

  10. Stu Guthrie says:

    Great article. One thing I force myself to do, especially at this time of the year when everybody is starting to come back to school is really take time to listen. Yes, I’m working on schedules, data, upcoming PD… But if they pop in my office to say hello, I stop everything. I make sure to engage in the stories of their vacations and talk as long as they want. I’m happy they want to share with me and I can always stay late if I need to.

    1. aaronhogan says:

      Taking that time to engage makes a huge difference! Thanks for offering up that reminder here.

  11. Aaron,

    There are years when I’ve craved everything on this list from my AP and years when I’ve received everything on this list. I much prefer receiving this nourishment than being starved of it. I’m still looking for my first AP leadership position. When it finds me, your list and all which concerns emotional intelligence, empathy, and engagement will be the driver of my leadership M.O. Thank you.

  12. Aron, just like always, great article!

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