Letter To An Assistant Principal


Dear friend,

Thanks for the email letting me know that you’d been appointed as an assistant principal. Congratulations! I am not surprised that you’ve been given responsibility for discipline, and I was delighted that you asked me for some ideas as you start this new position.

As you know, I have been observing assistant principals and other school leaders for quite some time. It seems that assistants are usually given jobs like discipline and/or supervision of classified staff. In comparison with the bigger picture of educational leadership, being responsible for discipline or classified staff may not seem very important, and it’s tempting to take on the attitude that this lowly assignment is something that everyone has to endure on their way to being a principal–like an initiation or right of passage. This attitude blinds one to the leadership opportunities in these seemingly lowly assignments. I’d encourage you to avoid this “rite of passage” attitude and become a leader in the area of discipline. Don’t just endure—LEAD!What I mean is that when it comes to leadership where you are is where you are. Look for the positive opportunities for leadership as an assistant principal and demonstrate your leadership talents within the limits, no matter how lowly it appears, of your assignment—in your case discipline. Don’t fall into the trap of waiting it out by passively accepting the discipline status quo until liberated by a promotion to principal. In other words, focus your leadership on what you can do something about– discipline. Remember, when it comes time to be considered for a principal position, your past record of leadership will be what is considered.

Abundant opportunities to lead lie within your area of responsibility. The great leaders I’ve observed over the years envision (dream) how the area they are responsible for can improve and work more efficiently and effectively. They intend for things to improve under their leadership. I suggest that you take the time right now to envision a better future for school-wide discipline. Dream large.

You might approach it this way: You have been given an area of responsibility. This responsibility includes expectations that you will take on a leadership role and make a difference. Don’t accept the status quo but envision and lead to a better future.

Potentiality means moving beyond the boundaries (often self-imposed) and seeking the potential in what you are doing. It’s easy to build a box around ourselves and focus on the limits and say, “I’m just responsible for discipline because no one else wants to do it, so I’ll plow through it and wait for a better leadership opportunity.” Effective leaders get outside the proverbial box by seeking the potential that surrounds them no matter what the job is, and those who just wish to wait it out stay inside the box. Remember, this is not about surviving until a better opportunity comes along; it is about your leadership potential—so, leadership now where you are!

As a first step, you might reflect on why you are doing what you are doing. You have made a choice to assume this position of leadership. It’s not a “right of passage”; it is a right of leadership! Outstanding leaders have a strong sense of purpose and passion for what they do. These leaders are clear about how their work fits into the overall institutional goal(s). In your case, I believe that you have become an assistant principal because you want to help develop adult stakeholders in creating more opportunities for the students to grow socially, emotionally and academically. Remember that this purpose is what drives you, so when it comes to the students and their environment, nothing is just good enough. There are always opportunities to make it better; there are abundant opportunities to lead where you are! Follow your passion.

So how are you going to do this? Here are some germinal ideas that ideas that I hope will prime the pump of your creative abilities:

I’ve observed over the years that great leaders (assistant principals included) have a bold personal vision for their area(s) of influence. Seeing how things could be better is something these leaders do in all situations. They share a vision with stakeholders and illicit from them their individual visions about how things could be. Thinking about your area of influence, discipline, what is your vision for a better future of the discipline process in the school? Where would you want discipline to be in three years under your leadership?

I’d suggest trying this exercise: A newspaper reporter shows up at you school three years from now to do an article on the impressive changes in the school’s discipline and climate. The reporter is most interested in what you’ve done as a leader to make this all happen. Now, you write the article you’d want the reporter to write about your leadership as an assistant principal in charge of discipline. This will give you a good start in focusing your vision.

Ultimately you’ll want to guide the stakeholders (that’s everyone affected by the school’s discipline program) toward the development of a shared vision and goals—an amalgamation of yours and theirs. How do you do this, you may wonder? It’s really quite easy. Start by asking the people you work with (stakeholders—anyone impacted by the discipline program) what they think about the current status of things and how they see them being better, more productive or effective. Just listen at this point–don’t challenge or share your ideas. Let your personal vision ideas continue to “jell” as you absorb what others think. It’s important to take some time to do this, and you will have to plan and carve out the time. Slow down and observe what is going on around you. Ask yourself these questions, “Are things getting better as a result of my leadership, or remaining about the same or getting worse?” “What data am I gathering, what should I be gathering, who should I be listening to?”

To facilitate your gathering information from stakeholders, I’d suggest developing basic questions that you’ll ask. Interview as many stakeholders as you can, one-to-one and record the essence of their answers to your questions. It may take you a month or more to get an adequate sampling because you’ll be busy just keeping up with day to day things. This will be like trying to repair a bus while it is going down the highway! Believe me; you’ll make points with stakeholders just by listening. For some of them, it will be the first time an administrator asked for their opinion. Next, you’ll want to compile what you’ve heard and compare it with your own concerns, data and vision. Put this together in a presentable open ended format (use your creativity) and bring a representative group of the stakeholders together. Using the data you’ve gathered and compiled, guide the group in making sense of the data and toward an agreed upon discipline vision, goals and action plan. This vision might be different from what you originally had in mind, and that’s OK. After the group completes the “shared vision and goals,” share it in written form and ask for input from as many stakeholders as possible. Do a final shaping with the core group of stakeholders and issue a plan. Keep it open and flexible and provide time for people to digests the plan.

Consider another angle: Over the years I’ve learned some important facts from assistant principals about student discipline. Most of them have confirmed that about ninety-percent of the in-class referrals they get come from about five-percent of the teachers. I assume this statistic more or less applies to your situation. To see if it does, you might begin keeping your own data collection on referrals.

If your referral numbers are even close to what others have told me, they raise an important question for you: Where does the discipline problem lie? With the few referring teachers, of course, and not so much with the student! Think about it for a moment. I’ll bet that when you get these referrals now, you spend a huge amount of time trying to straighten the kid out and going over the problem with the parents while the student is missing valuable class time.

There’s another way to look at this—a way which calls for a different focus. It could be that the referred student who is such a problem in the referring teacher’s classroom has six other teachers each day and does not have a problem in their classrooms. How could this be? Might it be possible that the other teachers know something about relating to and motivating kids that the referring teacher has “forgotten?” Bingo! The referring teacher (the five-percenters) is really the problem. Look what you might accomplish if you focused your attention on the teachers that are creating the problem rather than so much time on the students. You could look for what’s missing in their classrooms, which is probably their inability to establish positive relationships with students, and guide them change. If you were able, not saying it will be easy, to change the teacher’s behavior in a positive way, look how the students would benefit and how much easier your work would be!

I am not suggesting that any referrals to you are bad. There are excellent teachers who will need your support with a student from time to time. What I am suggesting is that you pay attention to those few teachers who because of poor relationships with students regularly send them to your office for you to deal with.

You might start tactfully sharing with an advisory panel (an outgrowth of the collective goal setting) the referral data (i.e. how many and where coming from) and raising some non-threatening questions about what it could possibly mean (as if you didn’t already know!). I’d imagine you spending time in the classrooms of the five-percenters, observing and creating a dialogue about effective teaching that will keep kids out of your office and in class learning (a shared goal for stakeholders!)

As you approach these five-percenters individually, most will be defensive. I can imagine what they might say to your referral data: “Your job is discipline, not mine. I am here to teach.” “If kids don’t want to learn, it’s not my problem.” “What do you expect when you give me the problem kids?” “The discipline in the others’ classes is just too lax.” Remember this is a defensive reaction on their part. Just listen openly to them, non- judgmentally and try to get to where you can put forth a simple question, “How could we work together to improve the situation with this student?” Often teachers get burned out or bogged down and loose sight of their original purpose and fall into habits they are not proud of. Sometimes a spark, a caring administrator, can reignite their fire. So be gentle and seek to be that spark.

So, you see even in the midst of being responsible for discipline or other so called lowly tasks, there are abundant possibilities for leadership and positive change of people.

I want you to be successful and reach your goal of being a principal. I know you can do it. Therefore, please take this letter as coming from someone who cares. Certainly I don’t have all the answers, but I thought some of my experience might help you. Good luck in exercising bold leadership where you are, because where you are is where you are (at least for now!)

Best wishes and take care,


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