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  • by Blaine Helwig

An Elem. Assistant Principal’s Goal – "Grow and Go!"

Updated: Feb 10

I was an elementary assistant principal for almost two years, and I repeatedly heard the AP position accurately characterized as, ‘Grow and Go.’ This description basically means after a short period of professional maturation – an assistant principal is adequately prepared and equipped to become a lead campus administrator. However, over the last two and a half decades, I am convinced that many assistant principals do NOT understand the basic areas of required ‘Growth’ to qualify for a ‘Go’ promotion to lead their own campus.


A young assistant principal often thinks their job is the traditional assignment of taking care of the three B’s – Buses, Books and Butts, and indeed it is, in a pragmatic sense of the work. News Flash to all who want to be assistant principals, that part of the job is not a lot of fun, but it is a rite of passage and a valuable skill set that must be learned. However, if the three B’s was the extent of the knowledge that an assistant principal learns, then they would never be adequately prepared to transition to a lead administrator.


It is important to note that it is easier to become a principal than an assistant principal. Why? This last statement may seem odd to one outside the administrative capacity, but it is empirically valid. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of teachers vying to join the campus administrator ranks as an assistant principal. If one doubts the veracity of this assertion, then ask the Director of Human Capital of any large urban or suburban school district on the vast number of assistant principal applications and resumes on file. In contrast, if one wants to be a principal, they must first be an assistant principal with at least two years’ experience, and there are usually a handful of assistant principals in that position. Additionally, the assistant principal must be recommended for the promotion from their principal or the associate superintendent will NOT normally promote the assistant principal to a lead administrator. Finally, after learning the extent of a principal’s job, there are assistant principals that decide they no longer desire to become a school principal. They are satisfied to remain an assistant principal. All these factors limit the pool of assistant principals’ candidates from applying for the principal position. Even though there is not as large a pool of AP candidates vying for open principalships as there were for open AP positions, it is of paramount importance that an AP recognize and understand that they must have the support from their principal to possess serious promotional consideration from the principal’s superiors. More on this last statement later!


So, assuming the reader is NOW or desires to be an elementary assistant principal, let’s drill down on some important experiences and insights that must be learned as an elementary assistant principal to propel one’s career to higher level administration positions.


Judgement and Maturity


A paramount administrative area of professional growth is judgement and maturity in their decision making. When an Assistant Principal is unsure or confronted with a situation that is outside the daily norm, do not fly in the blind and make a bad decision. Do NOT wing it - ‘phone calls are cheap!’ The key point here is recognizing that a situation is different and new, and the AP should be mentally prepared to buy some time to make a phone call to procure counsel and guidance (e.g., do not get steamrolled into making a quick and rash decision).

For example, if the assistant principal is the primary administrator of record for a special education ARD (i.e., Admission, Review and Dismissal) meeting and the parent of the child attends the scheduled meeting, however, the parent(s) is/are accompanied with an advocate or an attorney, unannounced to school personnel. This situation represents a red flag of concern to any administrator with any level of experience. The assistant principal should exercise immediate caution since this situation is highly unusual for an unannounced advocate or attorney to attend an ARD meeting which by definition is a legal proceeding as well as a potential financial risk to the school/district in allocating support personnel – which may be agreed upon at the ARD meeting. Possible solution: Professionally convey to the parent and advocate that they were unaware that the parent would be represented by outside counsel, and he/she needs to speak with the principal. If the principal is unavailable or off campus, the assistant principal should immediately table the meeting for 10 to 15 minutes and telephone the district's central office for administrative and/or legal counsel. Then, after administrative and legal counsel is provided, follow that advice to the letter. Final Note: If a situation is out of the ordinary to an administrator, caution must be exercised - if the educator is unsure, (AGAIN) seek additional assistance and guidance, and above all, do not get pressed and steamrolled into a bad decision. Additionally, I have had an attorney show-up unannounced to a scheduled ARD meeting, and the parent's attorney suggested as a solution that they wait in the office and then the parent can leave the meeting and ask them questions. No, No and NO! The parent is still receiving legal counsel and the administrator is not; thus, the AP should table the meeting until school educators are also represented by an attorney.


It is also important to add that the assistant principal should follow-up with an email to all administrators and legal representatives who offered valuable advice expressing gratitude for two important reasons. First, as a professional courtesy, the assistant principal should convey the appropriate appreciation for their assistance. Second, if the assistant principal received poor advice and the ARD meeting takes a less than fruitful direction, the follow-up email will provide documentation so everyone involved in the decision and process does not develop a convenient memory of their advice or sequence of events as they actually occurred. Finally, in the subject line of the sent email, it is also recommended the administrator write, "Legal Opinion Sought." Hence, their email is not subject to general Freedom of Information (FIA) requests since it was a legally protected matter with the district's attorney office.


Understanding Professional Boundaries


Another area that the new assistant principal must fully understand is that they are no longer a classroom teacher and that their administrative supervisory capacity possesses legal repercussions. Thus, they can no longer treat their classroom colleagues as equals when it comes to various type of confidential information or communiques that they are privy to in their AP role. The AP must fully comprehend that their capacity is one of a supervisor, and that they can and will be held responsible for their actions and conversations with teachers. In short, the AP must always be cognizant of professional boundaries between the campus administration and their direct reports – campus staff capacities from custodial to instructional. For instance, not only should the assistant principal not readily share information, they must treat ALL teachers the same with regard to conduct and professionalism. They cannot visibly demonstrate favoritism. This situation may be extremely challenging for a teacher that ascends to the assistant principal position at the same campus where they were a classroom teacher the prior school year. The assistant principal has previous personal relationships that they now must distant themselves from as well as the common ‘shop-talk and gossip’ as may have been discussed in the not-so-distant past.


The author would also like to note that as an administrator it is a good idea to refrain from attending weekly Happy Hour gatherings. The comfortable environment may allow confidential information to be uttered more readily, and it may eventually lead to a career damaging conversation for the administrator. Thus, as a matter of pragmatic policy, the author chose not to attend outside campus weekly meetings in order to maintain appropriate and professional distance from staff – of course, an option not all administrators deem necessary. Finally, please remember that confidential information in any form is and is only secure when the campus administration remains the sole holder.


Professional Appearance and Demeanor


A third area of ‘promotable’ growth is the AP’s professional appearance and demeanor that must be consistently displayed as they carry out their daily duties on campus. The assistant principal is a professional and that entails acting as one at all times regardless of the situation. Listed below are specific examples of common tasks and interpersonal interactions:

  1. The AP completes their assigned tasks as scheduled.

  2. There is adequate follow-up, if needed, that ensures task completion, without a reminder.

  3. When resolving conflict and resolution between students, parents and staff, the AP must problem solve to seek mutually viable and equitable remedies.

  4. The assistant principal deescalates troubling circumstances instead of allowing an escalation.

  5. The AP uses appropriate language at all times, and they dress in professional attire.

Support the Principal’s Social and Academic Vision


All of the above aforementioned items are important, but what may ‘make or break’ an elementary assistant principal’s career is the loyalty and effort to support the principal’s educational vision. The AP may disagree with the principal on aspects of the work, but it is their job to be loyal and support their supervisor. The principal did the same as an AP with their former principal. Now, they are the instructional leader, and they want to implement their academic vision at the campus. This is the one thing that ultimately matters most to many principals. They are expecting the following from their assistant principal: That the assistant principal is loyal and keeps their professional confidence, and he or she supports their educational vision at the campus.” The AP’s overt or covert actions in this area may be the deciding factor for the principal to support their assistant principal in becoming a principal at another elementary campus. The principal views their relationship as one of trust and partnership, and an assistant principal needs to respond in kind.

This point must be reiterated for emphasis because it is the one area that I repeatedly hear principals professionally criticize their assistant principals more than any other. Thus, it is critical that an AP realize that their current principal or supervisor completed their AP responsibilities prior to becoming a principal maybe for as long as five (5) years or more. Moreover, the assistant principal must be cognizant that their current principal may or may not have agreed with all their former principal’s instructional vision; however, it is highly likely that they supported their former principal to the best of their ability - or, they would not have been promoted. Thus, the AP’s current principal expects the same professional consideration from them. If they do not receive that support, it is almost guaranteed that the principal will not provide a positive recommendation to the associate superintendent or their supervisor to promote their assistant principal to become a lead administrator at another campus.


Final Thoughts


On the first day of school, classroom teachers convey their behavioral standards and expectations to their students to provide clarity. Of course, the same is also true of any adult professional working relationship. Consequently, if the assistant principal is unsure of their principal’s expectation for their work, it is highly recommended to ask for clarification of one’s duties. The AP’s job tasks should NOT be a guessing game. Politely request that your professional responsibilities be clearly quantified and qualified from the principal. Finally, attend all meetings as a professional: Arrive on time with a notebook/journal and pen to take notes for potential deliverables on your end as well as documentation of discussion points.


There are many aspects to an elementary assistant principal’s job; however, the author believes those mentioned above are some of the most important. If the administrator can perform the job and hold true in these areas, then there is little doubt that they are adeptly prepared to be an instructional leader at their own campus. In short, the AP has satisfied, ‘The Grow’ criteria, and they are aptly prepared and ready for the ‘Go.’


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