Linchpins of Leadership

Learning on the job is imperative for assistant principals and new principals alike.

Though often share many of the same tasks, assistant principals (APs) and new principals can expect lots of on-the-job training. Even if a principal has come up through the ranks, there are probably more than a few aspects of the school’s “forest” that they haven’t seen due to the trees.

“You won’t know everything about the job until you sit in the seat,” said new leader focus group participant Farrell Thomas, second-year principal at Waterloo Elementary School in Greenville, South Carolina, and a former AP. “There is not a lot to prepare you.”

NAESP’s Pre-K–8 Principals Conference sessions offered several pieces of advice for leaders at this critical juncture in educational leadership:

Know Your Story

Anyone serious about student success should have an idea of what pushed them into educational leadership, said keynote speaker Baruti Kafele, leadership expert, author, and former principal; it might simply be the desire to look out for young students. “What is the thing that dominates your thinking? That’s probably your ‘why,’” he said.

“There should be something about you as a leader that can never be taken for granted,” he said. “One elementary school principal—just one—can alter the trajectory of a young person. As you walk into the building, you need to remember that you are the No. 1 determinant of the success or failure of your school.”

No Two Journeys Are Alike

Leaders come from a vast array of backgrounds. While the number of APs in U.S. schools has nearly doubled in the last 30 years, according to The Wallace Foundation’s new report, “The Role of Assistant Principals: Evidence and Insights for Advancing School Leadership,” there is no specific formula for AP or principal preparation.

“No matter how you got your seat as a leader, it is yours,” said Equetta Jones, an accomplished special education teacher who became AP at Highlands Elementary School in Wilmington, Delaware. “The AP role is dynamic, unique, aggravating, fantastic, awesome, needed, and appreciated. But just because someone is above you doesn’t mean they are leading you.”

APs Must Manage Their Careers

APs should be exposed to a “broad swath of leadership responsibilities” at their schools or be prepared to learn them elsewhere, said Vanderbilt University’s Dr. Ellen Goldring, leader of The Wallace Foundation’s Principal Supervisor Initiative and coauthor of the report. Seek support and mentorship through the school and district, or look to community and social networks.

“Each individual needs to take charge of their own situation and their own career, however difficult that may be,” she said. “Being open to learning is the key, both in school and outside of school in the district and community. Be ‘planful’ and clear about your goals.”

Build Trusting Relationships

One critical factor in a new principal’s effectiveness is staff support, said Perrit Primary School principal Heather Williams in the new leader focus group. She was “intentional about building staff trust” when she took on the principalship, she said. “You are not a leader if those relationships are not there and nobody follows.”

This is especially true if one of your goals is to enhance equity in your school, new principals agreed. “You have to be ready to have very uncomfortable conversations,” said Laura Gazda, principal of Ellis Elementary School in Manassas, Virginia. “You do it because you want to do what’s best for your families.”

Ask the Experts

New principals can be so eager to create change that they make unilateral moves that rankle stakeholders, said Mark Heiden, principal of Creekside Elementary School in Franklin, Indiana, in “School Leadership: Working on What Matters.” Instead, they should try to win support for any planned changes by seeking input from staff and parents.

Early in his principalship, the Minnesota transplant made an “unforced error” by deciding that children could take recess outdoors at temperatures as low as 0°F. “The blowback started immediately,” he said. “I had a few parents show up and talk to me.” Heiden enjoyed the backing of his teachers on most issues, but this wasn’t one of them.

“I learned a lot through those mistakes, so don’t be afraid to ask questions and get feedback,” he said. “There are a lot of experts in the building, and you’re just not doing a good job if you don’t get them in on it. Now, I’d meet with a group of building leaders before making a decision like that. In the end, it’s going to be your call, but you don’t have to tell them that.”

Demanding Jobs

APs seem to be influential in outcomes related to coaching teachers, cultural inclusivity, and higher evaluation scores, according to The Wallace Foundation report, and their proliferation is likely an indicator of how demanding the principal’s job has become.

“The hypothesis is that the principal role has become unmanageable,” said Goldring. “AP needs changed when principals became instructional leaders. Education is complicated and becoming more complex, and schools need more adults and leaders to manage the school environment.”

Ian P. Murphy is senior editor of NAESP’s Principal magazine.