From Firefighter Manager to Building Leader

Learn how to develop an AP, promote mentoring skills, and create a high-performing leadership team.
By Mary Cooper and Martin Chafee

April 2019, Volume 42, Issue 8

I had just been handed one of the best gifts an elementary school principal could receive—an assistant principal. Upon meeting Jamar Humphrey, newly named assistant principal of Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, asked what his hopes and dreams were for his new position. He said he was short for the world of assistant principal and a principal role was his next destination. I thought, This is good news, because I know how to be a principal, but in truth, I have no idea how to be an assistant principal. Like many elementary school principals, I never served as an assistant principal, and, as a teacher, I never worked in an environment that had both roles.

I realized my responsibilities had grown, from leading 510 students, 68 teachers and staff, 1,000-plus parents to also leading Jamar. To perform at a level commensurate from which someone else can learn and “replicate” requires the best version of yourself every day. I needed to be intentional about my intentionality.

So I asked myself: How do we shift from the firefighter manager (reactive) to the instructional building leader (proactive)?

Seeking Expert Advice

While searching for “expert” advice, the information was limited. District direction was limited, as well. “Start with discipline” was the common message. Oh, great! While I aspire to be a Level 5 Leader, all of the support I received said my assistant principal should be a “firefighter.” He’ll take care of tussles, name calling, and the occasional playground fist fight. On one hand, this would simplify my life, but it also will leave both of us unsatisfied and not optimized for the school.

For a couple of months, Jamar performed the role of the “firefighter.” It gave him a sense of accomplishment. It was tangible to help two kids together who had a disagreement identify the problem, a solution, and alternative behaviors; apologize to each other; and reach closure.

As a mentor, it was easy for me to stay attentive to what Jamar was doing and how he was doing it. Basically, I remained a manager myself, keeping my attention on the “what” and “how” of the role and responsibilities of the assistant principal. But I knew we both wanted more. We needed to shift to the disposition of leadership, the “why” of school leadership if we were both going to maximize this new partnership.

Focusing on Leadership

Leaders recognize that each day is filled with learning. Because of this, we focused our attention to our leadership by meeting a few times a week. Our quick 10-minute (or less) daily meetings serve three purposes:

  • Develop a regular dialogue;
  • Learn more about what each other is doing; and
  • Realize that some of what you do affects or is affected by others.

We hold follow-up conversations at other times when we could allot the time and attention necessary.

We held our check-in meetings in the hallways during or immediately after greeting the students and parents in the morning. There was one agenda item: What’s on your plate today? If something needed more time and attention, we always pulled out our calendars and scheduled a time to meet.

Life tends to repeat itself. Lessons learned in one role or district are transferable to other situations. Jamar needed to see that challenges we encounter now would likely be the same ones he will face as a principal in the future. When we processed our time for learning, we used the following questions to grow our leadership:

  • What did I do to support student learning?
  • What did I do to support teacher instruction?
  • What did I do to move our school improvement forward?

Shifting the Perspective

This pattern of discovering who we were in this new partnership and who we wanted to be went on for a few months. Then, as I had hoped, Jamar became anxious for more. We used three resources to dive more deeply into our work—the school district’s rubric for evaluating principals, based on the nine Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium Standards; New Principal’s Fieldbook: Strategies for Success by Pamela Robbins and Harvey Alvy; and NAESP’s Leading Learning Communities: Standards for What Principals Should Know and Be Able to Do.

Jamar began to shift his perspective from “How good am I at fighting fires?” to “Where do I need to grow to be an effective building leader?” Using the above-mentioned resources helped us identify next steps for Jamar as an assistant principal, me as a mentor, and us as a leadership team.

Being an assistant principal should never be considered the end of a career progression for an educator. It should always be a means to other leadership positions. Jamar and I agreed. If either of us saw the assistant principal position as a career end, we would have short-changed each other, our students, our staff, and our community. We would also sub-optimize a critical role that should be used exclusively for learning, development, and succession planning for future principals.

After several months, Jamar and I looked at all the roles of the building instructional leader and delegated them between us. We focused not just on our individual strengths but also on our needed and desired growth areas. His shift went from lunchroom, student drop-off/pick-up, and discipline to sharing observations, creating meeting agendas, and facilitating professional development.

As this shared leadership took hold, new questions arose in our meetings together. Jamar started asking more questions that began with “why,” which led me to become clearer and more intentional in my practice as a mentor and principal.

The goal is clear: Do not leave your assistant principal in the “fire truck;” instead be deliberate about growing a future leader.

Mary Cooper is the principal of Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Ann Arbor Public Schools in Ann Arbor Michigan.

Martin Chaffee is a leadership consultant at Oakland Schools in Waterford, Michigan.

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