Making Schools More Manageable

Supporting administrators and teachers, assistant principals must be prepared to cover the shortfalls in school staffing

Topics: Assistant Principals, Principal Leadership

Concern has been brewing for years about looming staffing shortages among teachers and building administrators. But since COVID-19 started producing early retirements and staff burnout, teacher shortages and principal attrition have reached crisis levels in many localities.

Fortunately, assistant principals are in a position to help schools address such challenges, says “The Role of Assistant Principals: Evidence and Insights for Advancing School Leadership,” a 2021 Vanderbilt University/Mathematica research review commissioned by The Wallace Foundation. How? By alleviating stress on principals and staff while building positive school cultures.

“Assistant principals may help schools retain effective principals through collaborating on leadership responsibilities to make the principal role more manageable, thus reducing principal burnout and turnover,” the study highlights say. “Assistant principals may be well ​positioned to cultivate school cultures that attract and retain teachers.”

Here’s how assistant principals (APs) can keep their schools staffed:

Let culture be the compass. A strong, positive school culture helps attract and keep good teachers. “Not only are leaders seeking teachers who fit their culture, teachers are seeking school cultures that fit their needs,” says Denise Reynolds, the winner of a 2022 National Outstanding Assistant Principal Award while at Riverview Elementary School in Dawsonville, Georgia.

“My strategy for managing staffing during the pandemic was to find the right person for the culture of my school,” she says. “Instructional strategies can be fine-tuned, but values that do not align with your school’s culture can’t be easily adjusted.” Staying true to this tenet can “establish a sought-after school culture, resulting in teacher retention.”

Get creative in a crunch. While Chicago Public Schools (CPS) did a good job of supporting schools’ needs when upticks in COVID-19 produced severe, temporary teacher shortages, says assistant principal Zach Korth, Jose de Diego Community Academy “didn’t necessarily have the guest teachers—I don’t like calling them substitutes—to fill those roles.”

The fact that some guest teachers avoid schools on the less-​advantaged south and west sides of the city often makes it necessary for an AP to go hands-on with instruction. Korth stepped in to teach a special education cluster for two weeks at the onset of the pandemic and was teaching eighth grade science at the start of the 2021–2022 school year. “There’s something to be said for an AP also teaching students,” he says. “We have to remain flexible and responsive to the needs of our community. It isn’t about us; it’s about who we serve.”

Reynolds says her fast-growing district was able to maintain its instructional staffing throughout the pandemic, but she needed to think outside the box to hire sufficient nonteaching staff to cover areas such as food service and transportation. Signing bonuses are common.

Be aware of the ask. When it comes to job stresses, an AP must be able to assess how much is too much to avert teacher burnout. “We have to be extremely cognizant of what we are asking of our teachers,” Korth says. “We need to survey mentally what we have asked them to do, what is already on their plate, and when are we asking things of them. Is it making their roles easier or more difficult? If we are stressed, we recognize it, ask questions about how to remove the stress or decrease the stress, and go from there.”

APs aren’t immune to the stresses of a short-staffed school, of course—in the middle of everything, they might be the most susceptible to overwork and burnout. Korth runs to clear his head and get the blood pumping. “You need to find what will fill your cup,” he notes. “How are you taking care of yourself and those around you so you can be your best self?”

Treat the teachers. Random—or seemingly random—acts of kindness are a key strategy for creating the kind of culture that makes the staff want to come to school every day. Buy coffee or stock snacks in the breakroom, create and distribute a special recognition, or bring breakfast to a morning meeting. Acknowledge the difficulties teachers face, but celebrate victories and applaud them for their role in those wins. “Be proactive, not reactive,” Reynolds says. “Teachers want leaders to know they are doing their best; value their work and recognize them for the work done.”

Korth suggests a novel (and inexpensive) way to a create a culture in which teachers can alert administrators when they need assistance: “Coupons” for workplace favors such as leaving the building an hour early or a half-hour of classroom cover. “I’ll cover you for 30 minutes or get you a coffee,” he says. “Be in tune with your campus to understand what teachers value and need.”

APs “have the ability to create a culture where everyone is all-in,” Korth adds. “How do we do that? We ensure that everyone knows our mission and vision, they know how we take care of one another, and they know that we support one another. I am an administrator, but at the end of the day, I answer to the teachers and the community, and whatever I can do to help avoid burnout, I’m ready to do.”

Distribute and destress. The trend toward distributed leadership is helping allay the stress of leading a school. Used effectively, it matches roles and responsibilities to the administrators and staff in the best positions to satisfy them, sharing the burden while expanding aspiring leaders’ skills into new areas—both of which are assets in coping with principal attrition.

Distributed leadership “gives APs and aspiring leaders opportunities to take risks [and] try something new,” Korth says. “As I was going through my own leadership coaching this year, my principal gave me more and more responsibilities. In turn, she was able to coach cheer for the first time in a few years.”

Create capacity. APs are typically next in line if a principal does decide to retire, the study says, so it’s important that they prepare to take on those responsibilities. Reynolds’ principals worked to build leadership capacity through distributed leadership. “It may sound cliché, but educating children takes a village,” she says. “Using the strengths of the leaders in your building enhances your organization by serving the whole child while contributing to building leadership capacity.”

Underlining the power of distributed leadership, Reynolds started a new role as the district’s director of federal programs, assessment, and accountability over the summer. “Being a part of decision-making and collaborative discussions taught me about other leadership roles, in the building and at the district level, that I may not have experienced otherwise,” she says.

“Assistant principals need to be ready to step into any role at any given time,” she adds. “In order to do this successfully, schools [must] develop core leadership teams comprised of key leaders who meet consistently in a safe and trusting environment. Collective efficacy is critical.”