9 Career-Defining Questions

What APs can ask themselves in an effort to better manage their trajectories

Topics: Assistant Principals

The May/June 2022 issue of Principal magazine asked several longtime administrators for their recommendations on “Being Your Own Best Advocate,” seeking to find out what actions and strategies APs should pursue to continually grow their practice and move up.

Shanessa Fenner, principal of William T. Brown Elementary School in Spring Lake, North Carolina, suggested several questions APs should ask themselves to find the right career-building experiences to fit their ambitions. Here’s a breakdown of those questions and what they reveal:

What led you to want to impact a school’s culture and instructional leadership?

An AP comes into a school with a fresh set of eyes, Fenner says. “A lot of times, schools don’t realize that things need to change. It’s key for APs who aspire to be principals to come up with new things, make a name for themselves, [and] make a change in a school. What do you want to do differently in terms of impacting the school’s culture?”

Am I a career assistant principal or an aspiring principal?

APs must be honest with themselves about their career aspirations, whether they want to move into building leadership or not. Many APs are satisfied staying in a support position, and “there isn’t anything wrong with that,” Fenner says. “They’re comfortable in their skin, and they don’t want the stresses and the pressure and the political woes of being a principal.”

What am I doing well, or what are my strengths?

This requires an honest assessment of one’s own performance. Are you good at observing classrooms and mentoring teachers? Are you good at relationship-building? Are you good at creating positive behavioral interventions and supports? Ask your principal for input, too.

What are the areas in which I need improvement?

The flipside of the previous question is an equally honest assessment of the areas in which your performance needs work. Again, ask the principal for feedback: “I talk to my APs about the areas that they need to improve in, and I give them more exposure,” Fenner says. “We devise a plan for them to obtain the knowledge and the skills they need.”

What are some areas in which I would like or need more hands-on experiences?

Once identified, these areas can form the foundation of an ongoing, collaborative professional development plan. For example, Fenner includes her AP in the “sit” team, which sits down and decides how the school’s budget is allocated.

Am I getting the job done?

“You’ll know when you’re getting the job done from the results you produce,” Fenner says. “If you are not getting the right things done, your principal is going to call you in and say ‘Hey, you’re supposed to do this, this, and this, and you didn’t.’ Teachers are real quick to let you know when you’re not on your game, too.”

What do I enjoy most about my position?

Every educator needs to answer this question. It is interacting with kids? Going into classrooms to help teachers? Building a positive environment that’s conducive to learning? “What kind of satisfaction am I getting out of this other than a paycheck?” Fenner asks.

Am I dissatisfied with any aspects of the job?

Fenner has had APs go back to classroom teaching, and teachers go back to working the makeup counter at a department store. Why? They took a hard look at themselves and felt they would be happier and more fulfilled in a different role. “They took an honest look inside and said, ‘OK, this is not for me; I am not happy; I need to change it,” Fenner says.

Is this occupation part of my purpose-driven life?

“Many people know their purpose in life, whether it’s making a difference in children’s lives as an AP or as a teacher or as a bus driver,” Fenner says. “They live in it; they practice their craft and become a master. It’s what you’re passionate about—what you live for. If what you’re doing is not your purpose, you need to find out what is.

“You can give these questions to anybody in any occupation, but they have to be honest and open and have a candid conversation with themselves about the answers,” Fenner adds. “Some people don’t want to be honest—maybe because they don’t have a backup plan. Ask yourself these questions and do what you need to do to have that peace of mind.”

Ian P. Murphy is senior editor of Principal magazine.