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Rethinking the Role of the Assistant Principal

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This is a guest post by Dr. Jared Bigham, Director of College & Career Readiness for SCORE, which supports Tennessee's work to prepare students for college and the workforce. He is a former Supervising Principal of Copper Basin Schools in Polk County, TN, and he also taught elementary language arts and middle school science.

Amid all the education reforms over the past five years, there is a group of educators that we have done a great disservice to: assistant principals. We have set them up for failure based on perceptions of the job and the career trajectory of the people hired for the position.

Historically, the position of assistant principal has been seen as a stepping-stone to being a principal, and with the longevity of principals decreasing yearly (20% leave their school at the end of the year), in many cases that step happens sooner rather than later. The problem is we often place people in the position of assistant principal because of a certain skill set, but those skills don't necessarily align with the skills needed in the evolving role of the principal as an instructional leader.

Our current expectation for principals is much different today than it was even five years ago. In the past, a principal was supposed to be a good building manager who occasionally dipped his or her toe into the realm of instruction. Now, we require principals to be instructional leaders and have an in-depth understanding of pedagogy for evaluation purposes, professional learning communities, purchasing quality instructional materials, and designing building-level professional development.

Despite the evolving role of the principal, managerial duties have not gone anywhere. Therefore, the position of assistant principal has become even more important in making sure the school is run efficiently by taking some of these duties off the plate of the principal. Good assistant principals have a unique and pragmatic skill set they employ to manage facilities, logistics, and resources, and we hire people who we know have an aptitude for these responsibilities. Then, just as they are mastering the job, we typically move these folks to the principal's office upon the first opening and expect a completely different skill set to blossom forth.

Why do we belittle this position by looking at it only as a stepping stone? Why can't the role of the assistant principal be esteemed as an actual position rather than a transition? Primarily because we undervalue the job of building management. We must acknowledge the vital role a building manager plays so that others can support instruction. In order to do this, we must change some current perceptions:

  1. Acknowledge that it takes a different skill set to be a building manager than an instructional leader, and not everyone has the skill set to do both. This isn't a matter of ability to do a job as much as a matter of affinity for a job.
  2. Stop viewing the position of assistant principal as a career stepping-stone and stop assuming the assistant principal automatically becomes a principal.
  3. Rethink the title of Assistant Principal as an Operations Manager or Director of School Operations to more accurately communicate the expectations and long-term value of the job.
  4. Develop separate pathways of training for educators interested in building management and those interested in becoming an instructional leader.

When I was a high school principal, I re-titled my assistant principal as the Operations Administrator. He handled the majority of the building management, and I handled the majority of instruction-related responsibilities. I even went so far as to change his stationary and business cards. It was a great balance for running the school, but it took some getting used to for faculty, students, parents, and other stakeholders who had traditional perceptions of the role of school administrators. If we are going to dramatically improve student achievement, we have to radically change the perceptions of leadership within our schools.

I increasingly see outstanding assistant principals thrust into the role of principal through the ingrained rules of ascension, only to see them struggle to find success because they are completely out of their comfort zone and skill set. Am I saying that assistant principals can't make good principals? No. But, I am saying we need to stop viewing the position as a waypoint and start viewing it as a destination.

Jared can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Twitter at @JaredBigham.

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