The Role of the Assistant Principal in Leadership Transitions

Spring 2015

By Hope Kantor

With the growing number of principals and heads of school retiring, many schools are in transition. What factors must schools consider to ensure that the leadership transition goes well? What sources of stability can be tapped during the transition? One key to success lies in the hands of the assistant principal or assistant head.

The role of the assistant principal has expanded from that of disciplinarian, attendance monitor, and “firefighter” to one that includes staff development, instructional leadership, and curriculum development. Add to this a myriad of responsibilities — activity supervision, scheduling, input on the school calendar, building operations, and other tasks — and one can see that the assistant principal holds essential knowledge of many of the aspects of a school’s functioning, and thus is an invaluable support to an incoming head. The assistant principal can be the hidden anchor that keeps the ship in place during the storm of transition.

Assistant principals are now highly trained and often must take the same steps toward certification as heads of school and principals. For example, in the Educational Administration program at SUNY Brockport, where I am currently enrolled, courses that prospective principals and assistant principals take include Foundations of Educational Leadership, Site Management, Models of Supervision, Resource Management, Program Management and Instructional Leadership, Legal Basis for Education, and Central Office Administration, as well as required participation in extensive practicum and internship experiences. New principals and heads of school may find that their administrative team members are capable, well-prepared professionals who enjoy sharing the important work of leadership without necessarily desiring the additional responsibilities held by the main leader. While it is true that many assistant principals aspire to higher levels of leadership, many are quite satisfied and fulfilled with their role as the key “sidekick.” Assistant principals who stay at a school during a transition may have much to offer the new leader.

In smaller schools, the assistant principal might be the only person who has the complete map of the institutional knowledge. The assistant principal knows the processes, procedures, and culture and is crucial to the success of the incoming head of school or principal, especially in cases in which little communication has occurred between the former and future heads of school.

Two factors can be influenced by a supportive assistant principal: climate and a continued focus on instruction. In Change Leader: Learning to Do What Matters Most (2011), Michael Fullan describes the importance of relationship building in establishing a positive school culture. When new leaders enter a school, they must take the time to learn from those who have been there, and to gain insight into the situation through careful fact finding. A supportive assistant principal can greatly reduce the implementation dip of transition by sharing information about the various aspects of the culture and processes of the school. This is an efficient way to bring the new leader up to speed. The assistant principal can help the new leader by skillfully assisting him or her in forming new relationships. This can be as simple as ensuring that the new leader is graciously introduced to various members of the school community. The new leader will also need to know the various roles of all people associated with the school program both in and out of the building. The assistant principal can easily provide this information so that the new leader understands and can access available resources.

Once the new leader has become established, the assistant principal can help the community build trust in the leader. Stephen Uebbing, in The Life Cycle of Leadership: Surviving and Thriving in Today’s Schools (2011), asserts that leaders are often thrust into “survival” mode when their competence or character is in question. A supportive assistant principal can help smooth the waters by actively interrupting conversations and actions that undermine the new leader, and by creating a climate in which people are encouraged to refrain from spreading negativity or from making assumptions based on a lack of evidence. Because the assistant principal may already have the trust of followers, he or she has the ability and responsibility to maintain positivity and to help reduce the fear and anxiety that the staff and faculty may experience during transition. It is important for a climate of trust to continue in order for the school to be effective in realizing its mission.

In addition to helping establish a positive climate of trust, the assistant principal can maintain the instructional focus during the transition. The assistant principal must ensure that the leader has access to instructional data and information about all aspects of the instructional program. Too often, working documents such as curricula and procedural papers are difficult to access. The assistant principal can help to ensure that the new leader has all the tools necessary to begin implementing changes. If an assistant principal has a good relationship with the departing leader, he or she can proactively work to ensure that the new leader is aware of and has access to all the necessary files, password protected accounts, and other structures that are used in building leadership. This is especially important during the first weeks when the new leader is still trying to figure out the responsibilities and reporting requirements for the school.

Assistant principals can also share valuable information about targeted areas for professional development. Because assistant principals are often given the responsibility of observing and evaluating teachers, they may have information regarding areas for potential staff development. Sharing information about professional learning opportunities that have already been provided and sharing data on teacher development can reduce the time it takes for the leader to understand the immediate needs of the faculty.

Once the leader has moved out of “survival” mode, the assistant principal can help support change initiatives by taking the time to reinforce and attend to the moral purpose of the school. He or she can help keep the focus on instruction by leading conversations around the mission and by inspiring the followers to stay focused on the difference that they wish to make through meaningful work. Working “behind the scenes,” the assistant principal has the opportunity, ability, and power to keep the focus on student learning and achievement during headship transitions.

Hope Kantor

Hope Kantor is the assistant principal at Hillel Community Day School (New York). She has helped two heads with their transitions.