Collaboration Is a Two-Way Street

6 ways you can contribute to the back-and-forth that’s required for an AP to become an effective part of the leadership team.

Topics: Assistant Principals

An effective principal/assistant principal relationship requires mentorship and collaboration to succeed. And while many principals are comfortable sharing leadership, know what to ask of their teams, and want to contribute to their APs’ success, APs must collaborate with principals on leadership goals to grow their skills effectively.

Collaboration doesn’t always come naturally, of course. APs Rising recently spoke with Kelly An, director of Equity Leadership and Talent Development for the Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD), who outlined six ways in which APs can contribute to the back-and-forth required for them to become effective leaders:

1. Have humility. “Many times, folks who have been in education for a while and are looking to get into administration come in thinking, ‘I know this,’” An says. “We work with our assistant principals on the importance of humility and how they form relationships with the principals. They need to understand what it is the principal is trying to teach them.”

The district asks APs to perform self-assessments of leadership skills such as professionalism, ethics, and goal-setting. Once completed, they can talk though their goals with the principal and determine the best path toward expanded leadership skills. “It’s about the mindset,” An says. “There are different things you can learn from every principal.”

2. Manage upward. LBUSD looks for a background in coaching in AP candidates—something the district develops continuously in its 14 distinct pipeline programs. “This is a dual role: being a coach and a coachee,” An says. “The assistant principal needs one-on-one time with the principal, but they also need to be a coach and manage up.”

This means taking a proactive approach to one’s own development, she says, by scheduling goal-setting meetings, progress updates, and check-ins with the principal. “The principal is busy,” An says. “They have a lot of things on their plate, so you have to ‘own’ your development, too.”

3. Know the difference between mentoring and coaching. Both are collaborative efforts, but unlike mentoring, coaching teachers and instructional leaders allows assistant principals to customize and grow their own skill sets. Collaboration begins with APs asking their charges “How do I coach you so you can own it?” and continues from there, An says.

4. Research, plan, and contribute. Long Beach advises new APs and veteran APs who are taking on new assignments to research the school’s data, culture, and climate, and formulate questions and theories about them to discuss with the principal. “It’s not enough to simply show up and try to be the receiver of information,” An says. “You should also be a contributor.”

5. Find a project. Assistant principals can quickly get caught up in operational or disciplinary roles, letting these aspects of the position take up most of their time. “They need to find a project that they are going to see through to contribute to the leadership team,” An says, and that project may be something they see as a strength or an area needing improvement.

An AP in charge of math instruction might have had a completely different background as a teacher, for example, but work with the school’s math team to perform walk-throughs, create formulative assessments, and co-teach. “That way, I’m building my skill set and building the skill sets of those I’m supervising,” An says.

6. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Regular communication keeps leadership informed and enhances collaboration. Some APs like to do a regular Friday update that tells the principal what they’re working on and their progress toward a goal even if the principal hasn’t requested one. “The principal is in the loop, and the assistant principal is contributing to that,” An says. “And [the AP is] receiving guidance along the way, too.”

Communication and collaboration during the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging, she adds. Long Beach’s school leaders are encouraged to check in with students, parents, and staff to ensure well-being and build a sense of community. “We are using the structures we have in place to connect with others virtually,” An says. “You can’t get to any of the work unless you check in with the people and make sure they are OK first.”

When collaboration is working, she adds, you can tell. Students, teachers, and administrators will all speak the same language in terms of school goals and their commitment to them. “Then you know it’s a team effort.”

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