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Planning for the Next Principal

In many schools throughout this country and beyond, there are leaders who work tirelessly to ensure that conditions exist for effective teaching and learning. They spend countless hours before at school, and are often the first to arrive and the last to leave. Their hourly pay is usually less than the teachers with whom they work, yet they are used to hearing the phrase, "Hey, that's why you make the big bucks!" Who are these tireless yet relentless leaders? Assistant principals.

I started my assistant principalship in a middle school after six wonderful years teaching elementary. Freed from my day-to-day teaching responsibilities, I had dreams of visiting classrooms and supporting teachers in their work. I assumed my love of mathematics and the special training I had received in inquiry approaches to instruction would give me an opportunity to share my expertise with teachers and students. I took all of those dreams into the first day of my new job. By Day Three those dreams were gone faster than a winning Cubs season.

I was knee-deep in discipline referrals, had already suspended a student for fighting, was confronted by several angry parents, and was bogged down with reports that needed writing. The only classrooms I visited were those where detentions were being held. Most of the conversations I had with teachers involved their pleas for me to use whatever forms of torture I had at my disposal to force children to behave. As I drove home the Friday of that first week, all I could think was, "Oh my... what have I done?"

While one would assume the assistant principal is the logical choice to replace a departing principal, often these "second in command" leaders find themselves ill prepared for the job. While the principal works with the building leadership and grade-level teams to build learning communities, the a.p. is often forced to watch from the sidelines, or worse, isn't even invited to the game. Because their jobs often keep them from focusing on the instructional core, many assistant principals find themselves deprived of the opportunity to develop the skill set required to be a true instructional leader.

Schools, districts, and divisions need to develop succession plans that maintain a steady pipeline of talent equipped to assume one of the most critical positions in education: the building principalship. Assistant principals, teacher leaders, and others who demonstrate potential for leadership must be given the opportunities to further develop their skills. Those who aspire to be principals should be strongly encouraged to actively participate on school leadership teams, lead projects that focus on teaching and learning, and participate in professional learning opportunities that strengthen their skills and prepare them for the job. In the case of the assistant principal, it's imperative that their responsibilities are structured in such a way that they have these opportunities. Drowning them in discipline and bus duty is not the way to help them develop into instructional leaders.

While not nearly enough has been written about the assistant principalship and succession planning, the Southern Regional Educator Board (SREB) will soon be releasing a report that provides more insights into how purposeful succession planning can not only mitigate the impact of principal transition, but create a true distributed leadership environment where leaders at all levels in the system take collective responsibility for effective practice and improved student results.

I also suggest you pay attention to The Wallace Foundation's recent initiative on the principal pipeline. Wallace launched a $75-million initiative to help six urban school districts develop a much larger corps of effective school principals and to determine whether a focus on the pipeline will improve student achievement across a district, especially in the highest needs schools.

Frederick Brown
Director of Strategy and Development, Learning Forward

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