For assistant principals, a principal pipeline is not a guarantee of
a fast track to the boss’s desk. Instead, it’s a career development tool that can teach them everything necessary to run a school—no matter where they hope to wind up. And along the way, the pipeline offers important lessons in leadership, collaboration, and information-sharing.
Prince George’s County (Maryland) is one of six large districts nationwide that participated in a six-year initiative funded by The Wallace Foundation to develop what it calls a “comprehensive, aligned pipeline.” That refers to a pipeline with seven major features that are linked to one another: rigorous leader standards, high-quality preservice preparation, selective hiring and placement, on-the-job evaluation and support through coaching and mentoring, principal supervision, data systems to track careers, and systems to sustain the pipeline. Research suggests that in large districts, at least, such pipelines can benefit student achievement and principal retention.
Principal magazine recently asked a team from Prince George’s County about the importance of “activating” assistant principals in realizing the day-to-day benefits of a pipeline program.
Why is it so important to develop APs’ leadership skills?
Maryam Thomas: You don’t exist in the work alone. In order to truly distribute the work in a way that’s sustainable, your assistant principal and the other members of your team must undergo some level of personal and leadership development. They are the copilots on the ship. We all may have different titles, but the work we do is ultimately the same—they are my equals, and development has to be democratized.
Kelvin Moore: APs are the partner to the principal, who ensures that the work is done and the outcomes are met. The pipeline allows us to “grow our own” [talent]. Otherwise, we can lose the energy and momentum of a school in transition.
How does a pipeline program help develop talent?
Moore: Being a principal is not something you do just because you are in line to do it. Pipeline programs do a great job of exposing [APs] to things they will need to be ready for. Everyone enters this work from a different place, and growth in your ability to meet goals is needed.
Thomas: What the pipeline does is create structured conversations around what the work needs to look like. When I was in it, I had to seek out my principal’s perspective on the work. Without it, you don’t have structures that force you to have these conversations.
What skills do APs need to develop in order to become effective leaders?
Thomas: Instructional leadership is critical. Relationship-building is critically important. Being able to lead change and understanding the improvement process are crucial. Seeing what your principal needs, but also seeing the nooks and the crannies and strategies and the practice and the protocols—you have to make every single thing work well.
Did you have all of these skills when you became an AP?
Mykia Cadet: No [laughs]! I knew them in theory, but it wasn’t until I started working with Dr. Thomas that I understood them. We always come back to four points: the vision, what’s best for the children, what’s the best instruction, and how we “hear” our teachers.
How do you know when an AP is ready to take on more responsibility?
Thomas: It is about personal development in leadership: I can tell their growth by how they look at situations and engage in situations—things they do autonomously of me. I really focus on empowering APs to make decisions.
Cadet: It’s what they do with the autonomy given to them—do they build people up, or do they break people down? How are the children responding? Are the parents coming to you and saying, ‘Hey, that AP right there—they’re doing a great job,’ or are you getting nothing but complaints? What is the most crucial
aspect of growing APs’ leadership capacity?
Moore: I think it’s important for them to remain a reflective practitioner. We look for people who can build great teams and build a culture based on high expectations. But for me, it’s how well you can unpack it in your head and repackage it for others.
One area in which [Dr. Cadet] needed to grow was that she was coming from being a resource teacher at the district level. I partnered with her leadership coach and her principal to set up opportunities to meet with other assistant principals and school leaders to get exposure to what the day in the life of an administrator feels like.
What supports need to be in place for the pipeline to succeed?
Thomas: Competency in the curriculum needs to be supported with clearly identified expectations for performance, [and] continuous coaching is critical in developing the sustainability of the role. Sometimes participants need somebody outside the principal—an outside lens—to look at an issue.
Cadet: One day early on, I walked into Dr. Thomas’ office and grabbed a dry-erase marker. I wrote her name in big letters on her whiteboard, and I drew a huge circle around it, and I pointed to the circle and said, “You are all I have. I need you to know the value you hold in shaping me as a professional.” And she put her hands up and said, “All right, let’s go.” I’m grateful to have a mentor who is in the work with me.
How do you divide overlapping duties or assess complementary skills?
Thomas: Last year, we joined a school that already
had an assistant principal, and the only conflict was
that both APs had backgrounds in English. Dr. Cadet ended up taking over math and asked to move to the eighth grade.
Cadet: When Dr. Thomas asked me what I wanted to do, I was a little shocked. I was waiting for the other shoe to drop—you know, you can’t be this happy at work; your boss can’t be this accommodating. I said, “Well, I really want to learn special education.” I got what I asked for!
How can activating APs aid in returning to school during the pandemic?
Moore: Our principals see their assistant principals as partners in the work. The burden is not just on the principal to return to normalcy; it is the responsibility of our assistant principals, as well. They are members of the team who see themselves in school goals and outcomes.
Cadet: There’s a saying that “hurt people hurt people.” So what do you do when you have an entire staff that has been traumatized by a virus? How do you acknowledge the trauma and still mold them to work toward a challenge? That’s the critical piece principals have to be able to do. The second piece is to teach APs that they are there to master the work of running a school—to master the work of changing and improving the lives of children and adults every day.
What benefits have you seen from investment in a principal pipeline?
Thomas: The structure of the program communicates that you can’t assume the role without a focus on leadership, personal development, and an understanding of the work. The pipeline communicates that the AP role goes beyond being an assistant to the principal. It establishes a baseline expectation for performance.
Moore: One of the things that brings joy to the work is seeing people start in a certain place and end up in another—to see their growth. It wasn’t until I came to Prince George’s County that I understood the assistant principal as being a partner in the work. Assistant principals are not just “teachers in charge,” they are individuals who share in the investment in the goals and outcomes of the school.
Maryam Thomas is principal at Ernest Everett Just Middle School.
Kelvin Moore is instructional director for Area 2 Middle Schools Office.
Mykia Cadet is assistant principal at Ernest Everett Just Middle School.
About The Wallace Foundation
This article is funded by The Wallace Foundation, which works to support and share effective ideas and practices to foster improvements in learning and enrichment for children and the vitality of the arts for everyone. Its objectives are to improve the quality of schools, primarily by developing and placing effective principals in high-need schools, promoting social and emotional learning in elementary school and out-of-school-time settings, expanding opportunities for high-quality summer learning, reimagining and expanding access to arts learning, and building audiences for the arts. The foundation seeks to generate knowledge and insights from these efforts to enhance policy and practice nationwide. For more information and research on these and related topics, please visit The Wallace Foundation’s knowledge center at www.wallacefoundation.org.