Seize the Initiative, Take Care of the Teachers

The assistant principal’s job doesn’t come with a manual. Some APs thrive under the tutelage of their principals, and with district support; others find that assistance elsewhere.

As schools head into the third academic year colored by the pandemic, APs are entering a position that includes traditional job duties as well as new ones that emerged during the health crisis.

In this second of two articles, current APs and one who recently became a principal share tips for their colleagues who are just starting out.

Collaborate with the community inside and outside school

APs should put a premium on collaboration, said Dana Perez, an assistant principal at Rogers Park Middle School in Danbury, Conn.

“Just because I am an AP does not mean I know more,” she said. “ You need to collaborate with your community, not just your staff members. Collaborate with your students, collaborate with your parent community, collaborate with your district office. To do this job well, for our stakeholders, our students, it takes more than yourself. I don’t know everything. That’s something I’ve learned over time. The best way to solve anything is with your community members.”

Obviously there are decisions that the school leader has to make, said Perez, the state’s 2022 Middle School Assistant Principal of the Year.

The bus is running late? The school leader can make a call on what to do next because that problem needs immediate action.

But a decision as consequential as how the school might use its social-emotional-learning block or the components to include during that period can benefit greatly from the insights of students and staff, she said.

“I think that collaboration is huge, and it goes a long way as far as creating staff buy-in and more support amongst your community,” Perez said.

It’s beneficial to the school leader when communities “know that we are in it together versus you are not doing something to them, [but] you are doing something with them,” Perez said.

Be present for those you work with and supervise

Don’t hole up in the office, said Holly Langley, an assistant principal at Sussex Technical High School in Georgetown, Del. Instead, spend time in the hallways, cafeterias, and at the school dances, she said.

“Proximity breeds empathy,” according to Langley. “So, physically get near [your teachers]— get to know them, talk to them, know if they have a sick child, if they need to leave a little bit early, so that you can make that connection.”

Teaching can be incredibly taxing, so remember that teachers need a break. Find ways to show them that you care.

Holly Langley is the assistant principal at Sussex Technical High School in Georgetown, Del.

“Teachers love time,” said Langley who lets teachers know that she can fill in for them for short periods while they take a mental health break or grab a cup of coffee, and who writes them appreciative cards.

“Listen,” she said, “with the same passion with which you’d like to be heard.” That’s one of the best pieces of advice she’s gotten in her career.

Randy Oliver, an associate principal at Van Horn High School in Independence, Mo., and one of the three finalists for this year’s National Assistant Principal of the Year, stops whatever he is doing whenever someone enters his office so that he “can really listen to what’s going on.”

Make sure that people feel seen, said Kristin Eng, an assistant principal of CICS Bucktown Chicago, an elementary charter school.

Eng ensured that she knew her teachers’ interests and favorite snacks. Noticing that many liked sparkling water, she stocked her fridge with LaCroix, and encourages her staff to, “Come in and get a LaCroix.”

Queesha Tillman, the principal of 71st Classical Middle School in Fayetteville, N.C., and a former assistant calls it sharing the love.

“You have to care for the folks that you are serving,” said Tillman, who relied on her background as a mental health professional to develop extracurricular programs, an ambassadorship, and other after-school activities for students.

“Noticing those who are working in your building, in your classrooms,” is paramount, she said. “Help the community. It truly takes a village…. Reach out, network, connect and help the community. It’s not a one woman or one-man show. We need the love to be spread, and it’s in effort to help our scholars, our families.”

Focus on relationships

“Know your people, not just as teachers,” said Oliver, the Missouri associate principal. “Know all your people, know who you are working with every day. Know your kids. Know the relationships. Get out from behind your desk. Get in the hallways. Do all those things so that people see you as more than just the [assistant] principal. They’re going to need you as much as you’re going to need them, and you’ve got to be there, and be available, and be present.”

The bulk of the assistant principal’s job is centered on instructional leadership, so it’s essential to build and nurture connections with teachers, Eng said. Doing so pays off in spades, she said.

Kristin Eng

“You want them to see you as a partner,” Eng said. “You want them to see you as a collaborator and someone they can come to. I think that is really important because the teachers are the ones who are on the ground, and in order to move their practices, in order to move anything to better our students, to make sure that our students are reaching a high level of mastery and standards, you want to make sure that your relationship with teachers is strong.”

The pandemic made it hard for Eng to first connect with teachers, but she dropped in during Zoom and Google classroom meetings to ensure that she was visible. She unmuted herself to interact with teachers and students—asking questions and commenting in the online chat.

Once school reopened, she met with teachers individually to get to know them: learning their favorite foods and interests, for example.

At work, Eng ensures that teachers are included in planning, where she prioritizes the teachers’ voices. She said she’s “led them in a way that’s facilitative.”

“I just listened,” she said. “I was able to give ideas. I was able to give short-term and long-term strategies.”

Be a ‘go-getter,’ and seek outside support

APs should also be their own advocates. If they eventually want to become a principal, they should find opportunities that will give them the edge when they’re ready to apply for the principalship. Share short-term and long-term goals with your principal, Eng said.

If APs are not getting support at their school, look beyond the school, she advises.

“Seek out other assistant principals,” said Eng, who trained as a teacher-leader with New Leaders, the New York City-based leadership development program, which provides access to a network of assistant principals and professional development opportunities. Similar opportunities are also available through her charter school network.

“You have to be a go-getter. You have to think outside of the box. If you want to do a PD or you need support, lean on other folks.”

Queesha Tillman is an assistant principal at 71st Classical Middle School in Fayetteville, N.C.

Tillman, of 71st Classical, is a big believer in making things happen.

She knew she wanted to be a principal, so she sought out people and experiences that would help her grow beyond the duties she was assigned at Loyd Auman Elementary School, where her responsibilities as an AP included overseeing transportation, discipline, and testing.

With a background working with exceptional children, Tillman ensured she got exposure to other areas such as managing facilities and budgets, and developing instructional expertise to work with all students.

Tillman advises APs to look to the central office for openings to understand how the entire school system works and then find ways to participate.

If the district needs help with parental involvement, for example, work with that department and learn about communicating with parents, she advises.

Tillman worked three summers with the district’s associate superintendent in charge of student services and federal programs on a summer program for at-risk students, coordinating interventions for students and principals from several schools. That experience gave her a rare look into student support services on a district level, something she would have missed if she had confined her AP tenure to her school building.

It was akin to a small school system, she said.

“It did afford me an opportunity to be visible, for others to see my work, notice my skill set, and then other opportunities started presented itself,” said Tillman, who was named the state’s Outstanding Elementary Assistant Principal of the Year.

“My perspective was widened because I was able to see all aspects of school leadership,” Tillman said. “It really graced me to be a phenomenal assistant principal.”

Tillman credits those experiences with paving the way for the county, state, and national recognition she’s since received.

But even within her school walls and with a supportive principal, who invited her to be part of data meetings and professional learning communities, Tillman created avenues to learn more.

When Tillman’s principal asked her to assist with classroom observations, she asked whether she could conduct more classroom walkthroughs and designed a schedule that allowed her to do so.

“You don’t wait to be asked,” Tillman said. “You take the initiative to create a seat at the table.”

“Not all principals are accommodating,” she continued. “You have some that would like to or enjoy doing a vast array of scheduling themselves. But to me and with my personality I don’t want to wait to be told. … I want to show my worth. I want to show that I am your second in command. I am capable and competent enough to help you out, to lighten the load.”

Further, she stressed, “If you’re seeing yourself in the role as a principal, then you take on principal tasks.”

Be vulnerable, and let people know it

Get feedback from your staff and those around you. It will make you a better school leader, advises Langley, the Delaware assistant principal.

It took Langley a while to understand just how much school leaders can learn and grow from being vulnerable with those they oversee.

As part of the summative (end-of-year) teacher evaluations, Langley often asks teachers to reflect on the year, how they measured up against the goals they set, and their objectives for the following year.

A light bulb went off for her this year.

“I thought, here I am, sitting here giving them advice and feedback on what I’ve seen in the classroom, how they’ve been as teachers this year, and I should be asking the same,” Langley said.

So, she created a survey and solicited feedback from teachers on how she was doing—her strengths and weaknesses and what she can do to improve.

“You know what the number one thing they said was?” she said. “They want to see me in the classroom. And so I am going to use that next year as my goal.”

Langley, who tries to see every teacher during every marking period, said she would have increased the number of classroom walkthroughs during the year if she’d had that information beforehand.

“What I learned from that is that it’s great for me to see all of the teachers, but what I really want to focus on is being in the rooms of the teachers I supervise so that I can give them more feedback— especially instructionally,” Langley said.

Vulnerability also goes beyond getting input, said Langley, who is participating in a “Dare to Lead” workshop based on the work of Brené Brown on how showing vulnerability can be a strength as a leader.

It’s also about understanding your own strengths and weaknesses.

“It doesn’t have to have a negative connotation,” Langley said. “Vulnerability does not equal weakness.”

Carve out regular time for reflection

Whether daily or weekly, assistant principals should set aside time to reflect on the decisions they’ve made, why they made them, and what they could have done differently.

Part of the reflection process is constantly asking for feedback, both formal and informal, and using that to improve processes going forward, Perez said.

“Something that I try to consistently do is reflect on decisions and write out what was I feeling in that moment, why did it make me do that, and what could I have done differently,” Perez said.

And sometimes it’s really the small things that causes one to think.

During the pandemic, Perez’s school asked teachers to increase communications with parents. But in a follow-up email to get teachers to further step up those efforts, the administrative team inadvertently included information that showed how teachers had responded to the directive.

Some of the teachers were upset that identifiable information had been shared, Perez said. “It also obviously made people feel uncomfortable,” she said.

In reflecting on the process, Perez realized that the administrative team had unintentionally created an awkward situation for some teachers.

Perez and her team took the time to reflect on what the teachers had said and to improve communication efforts going forward, including excluding identifiable information when sending mass communication.

“We are still holding people accountable, but just in a different way,” she said.

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