Three things surprised me when I first became an assistant principal. My career transition felt like it happened literally overnight, though I had been working on my grad degree and admin. license for about three years. The young woman who was going to replace Lucy the Teacher shadowed me on a Monday. On Tuesday, the school board met and approved my move, and I became Lucy the Assistant Principal on Wednesday!
Then...surprise, surprise, surprise!
First, I was spoken to and treated with more basic respect by parents than ever before as a teacher. This was shocking to me… I mean, I was the same human being with the same way of talking to, listening to and working with parents. I just wore suits more often now and had a title of authority. I didn’t expect the change in discourse that I experienced. It actually saddened me to gain this new perspective of the level and frequency of disrespect (and even harassment) that was accepted as the norm in teaching...that I had accepted. I think it’s important for administrators to remember this, and remember that teachers face a lot of abuse from parents, more than principals do, in my experience.
The second surprise came when I realized that I could spend so much more time with kids who were struggling than I ever could as a teacher. Back in my classroom, I would try to handle social drama and most misbehavior myself for a variety of reasons. But, I rarely had more than five minutes with a student to try to work through issues, because the day was simply non-stop until the last bell. As AP, I could take all the time I needed to work with a kid. I hope I always used that as effectively as possible. Even then I could see that time to build a relationship with a student was a gift that most teachers had to scramble for.
I found that as I built relationships with and understood the whole day of a troubled student, it was increasingly difficult to manage individual teachers’ expectations of discipline for the kid. I saw terrible personality conflicts between adult teachers and students, with teachers often unwilling to take the high road, take responsibility for their part, or just cut the kid a break. In the office, we used to say “Short of murdering a student, we don’t know what we could do to satisfy the faculty.” Of course, I remembered how just one disrespectful, disengaged student could derail an entire class...but the tension between me as Asst. Principal and teachers in those situations was really hard to dispel. Many teachers dropped me as a friend, something I struggled with, but ultimately accepted as something that said more about their character than mine.
The last surprise was that my opportunities to lead and shape the school climate or policies declined greatly. As a teacher leader in the building, I chaired the school climate (or PBIS) committee for years, successfully pushed for changes in discipline policy, started anti-bullying initiatives, led Critical Friends Groups and a lot of other things I was proud of. As AP, I wasn’t used in those capacities anymore. My principal wanted teachers to lead in those areas. I felt reduced to minding detention and chasing down truants; a lot of what APs do is necessary grunt work. Yes, I believed that distributed leadership (to teachers) is effective, and it was clear I had a lot of new duties to manage, but this surprise left me without any way to enact my vision for the school anymore. I was now a police officer for the “bad” kids, and a boring old public agency representative within special education conferences. Of course, the visioning part of leadership came back to me when I became the principal at another school, but those years as an AP were draining without the ability to actually lead the faculty. I managed things, which is totally different than leadership. I know that my perspective as a teacher was what had been valuable in my prior leadership roles, but why couldn't I continue the same solid, good work? I was still me. There was very little space to be creative as AP.
Assistant principals usually get no professional development. While they’re earning their masters degree toward their administrator license, they’re thinking about how to become a principal, only to transition into a weird “halfway there” role first. Being an AP is like being in purgatory. Once, I was musing about the different philosophies between my principal and I to one of my best teacher friends. “I just feel like I don’t know what I don’t know, and [our principal] isn’t really actively teaching me anything anymore, now that I’m four years in to the AP role.”
“Well,” my friend said, “did you ever think that maybe there isn’t much more for you to learn as AP? Or did you ever think there isn’t much more that he knows that you don’t?” That conversation helped me realize that I was ready to lead my own building, and so I set about in that direction.
Before I close, though, I do want to be clear about the level of emotional and sometimes physical violence and threats Asst. Principals face. Though I experienced a different type of respect as AP than I did as a teacher, the pure vitriol shown to me was something else. This was probably because I was now the one suspending or expelling a student, calling the police or getting probation involved in a kid’s life, and those are traumatic and intense things for families to have to go through. And if they needed to blame someone for these woes, I was the easiest target. I was pretty tough with kids overall, and could be forceful and intimidating in my words and tone. That usually worked to restore safety or order, but when it didn’t, I’m afraid I escalated certain situations. You can imagine the graffiti about me, for instance. I was in my early 30’s, a single mom, attractive and friendly overall. This, and the fact that I had authority to ruin a kids’ Saturday with detention, obviously made me a target for lots of slander. In American society, the worst thing you can say about a female is that she’s a slut, and you’d better believe I got a lot of that. One time, I confronted a grandmother about her student spreading rumors that I was a stripper. I was shocked when the grandmother said quite simply, “Oh, it’s been confirmed.” And I had no recourse. Angry fathers screamed at me in my office a lot. One jumped across my desk at me.
The hard parts of being an Asst. Principal are pretty extreme. The reward is in the funny surprises each day brings and utter ridiculousness you could encounter every day. Of course, there is great reward in your relationships with colleagues who know stories so insane no one could ever make them up. And every now and then, you get to have a profound impact in a student’s life when he or she is at their worst, most destructive behavior and needs guidance to get back on track. Without working in the weeds as an AP for four years, I wouldn’t have learned what I needed to know to move on to the principalship. It was like four years of basic training - very intense and painful - but probably necessary.
My life tends to go in four-year cycles. I’m alright with that. I was a building principal for four years after my four year stint as AP, and I’m currently in year three of my post-K12 education career. I don’t think I was meant to work in building administration forever. I can look back at that work proudly, and move on, getting some balance back in my life and enjoying these moments of reflecting on my past.
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