Growing From the Seeds of Leadership

Assistant principals must develop self-awareness and a support network of “marigolds” to succeed.

Topics: Assistant Principals

Whether you’ve had the opportunity to hold multiple leadership roles or just one, each is different. In the role of assistant principal, you learn and grow while leading, says “The Role of Assistant Principals: Evidence and Insights for Advancing School Leadership,” a research review commissioned by The Wallace Foundation and published by Vanderbilt University/Mathematica.

Whether or not you aspire to be principal, much of that growth will occur on the job, and at least some of it will be self-directed. Rarely are standardized systems in place to help APs build their leadership skills, principals aren’t always coached to develop apprentices, and evaluation of performance isn’t sufficiently differentiated, “The Role of Assistant Principals” says.

To grow, you’ll need to identify your own strengths, growth areas, opportunities, and possible risks while increasing your experience as a leader. And you’ll want to surround yourself with individuals who cheerlead and support you as you develop into the leader you hope to be.

Writer and literary critic Ralph Ellison once said, “When I discover who I am, I will be free.” To learn, effective leaders do more listening than talking. They learn about the school community. They learn about their staff. They learn about their students and their families. They learn about their role and about themselves.

Start With Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is required to learn and grow, according to The Daily SEL Leader by James Bailey and Randy Weiner. Having awareness of your actions, words, and feelings as you interact with others will aid in reflection and the development of positive relationships. And you can be a leader only if you establish positive relationships; without them, you won’t have anyone to lead.

Humility and being able to admit when you make a mistake also requires self-awareness. Brené Brown encourages readers to “embrace the suck” in Dare to Lead, saying that vulnerability is the beginning of positive emotions such as joy and acceptance. Show vulnerability, she writes, and you will be able to develop trust and a sense of safety with your team over time.

Self-awareness also helps you acknowledge your own emotions and process how they impact you, your team, and your job performance. Increased self-awareness leads to increases in situational awareness, since you are more present in the moment. If leaders can’t let go of the past or the future, says blogger Dan Rockwell in “Situational Awareness: How to Stop Hitting People With Bats,” it is impossible to be aware of the now.

Dealing With Decision-Making

Leaders must be decisive. Some decisions will have to be made be immediately, and some will allow time for more reflection. Self-awareness will give you the confidence you need to make those decisions before your team puts them into action.

Organization is also important: You’ll need to manage significant amounts of incoming and outgoing information in your role as AP. There isn’t a right or wrong strategy; the key is that the strategy needs to work for you. Knowing when your method of organization isn’t working is essential to your success.

Being an assistant principal can be isolating. It’s essential to surround yourself with people whom you can lean on and who will lift you up. Jennifer Gonzalez calls these people “marigolds” on her Cult of Pedagogy website, because marigolds are “companion” plants that have a beneficial effect on nearby garden crops. APs need marigolds in their professional circles.

Seeking Out Support

The impact of professional circles of supportive, positive, and passionate individuals improves job satisfaction and success. Each person in your circle might have a different way of showing their support for you, but the important part is that the team supports you.

When looking for people to be a part of your circle, have an open mind—they can be anywhere and anyone. With the internet, individuals in your circle could be across town or across the ocean. Once you find your marigolds, Gonzalez says, spend quality time with them.

Not only does the virtual world expand opportunities to create a support network, it also opens opportunities to learn from resources such as thought leaders, webinars, and virtual trainings. Searching without narrowing your focus, however, can easily steal time you don’t have. Use your marigolds. What are their go-to resources? Who do your experts follow on social media, discuss, or share? What do state and national associations offer? Ask others for recommendations, then create your path.

As an AP, you learn on the job continuously. Accept this opportunity to learn and grow as a leader by identifying the priorities you’ll focus on to increase your success and the success of your school community. With confidence and self-awareness, you can put your priorities into action.

Katy Kennedy is principal of Washington Middle School in Glendive, Montana.