Starting a new school year is like preparing for a marathon.
The journey begins with training long before the race begins. And once the race starts, you need a lot of endurance for the road ahead. School leadership is the same. As you enter summer, the ways you “condition” in the weeks ahead may help set the pace for the year ahead.
A couple of weeks ago, I was contacted by a listener, D.J. Klein, from Jackson, Mississippi. He had just accepted his first position as an Assistant Principal and emailed me the following (that I’m sharing with permission):
May 20, 2020: Good evening Mr. Parker, I hope all is well. I started listening to your podcast about a year ago and just wanted to say thank you for all of your hard work and insight. I wanted to reach out to you to ask your advice. I am about to start my first full time administrative role as an assistant principal at a local high school. I was wondering if you have any resources or tips for my first year? I have started Jen Schwanke’s book “You’re the Principal [Now What?]…,” and it has been great so far. Thank you in advance!
When I reached back to D.J. to share ideas, I asked him if I could record our conversation to share with other potentially new administrators. For the next 35 minutes, we talked through several ideas that may be helpful for you or someone you know who is stepping into his or her first year as an assistant principal:
First I shared a few book suggestions. Although I haven’t read the newest book by Principal Kafele, I’m hearing great things about it. The Assistant Principal 50: Critical Questions for Meaningful Leadership and Professional Growth by Baruti K. Kafele is a popular read among many new assistant principals I follow online. And based on the feedback I’m hearing, you should also check out his free weekly virtual meetings discussing the book.
I also sent D.J. a complimentary copy of my book, Principal Matters (Updated & Expanded): The Motivation, Action, Courage and Teamwork Needed for School Leaders 2nd Edition by William D. Parker, with new school leaders. Although I cannot give it away to everyone, I like sharing it with many of the principals I coach. I began this book as I was finishing my ninth year as an assistant principal and was stepping into my first year as a high school principal. It’s a practical reflection on the meaning behind leadership plus practical how-to lessons.
In addition, here are two non-education reads that may help you re-think approaches to organizational leadership:
Good to Great : Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t by James C. Collins is a study of the common traits among highly successful leaders – what they focused to lead successful organization and what they did not allow to distract them.
EntreLeadership: A Step-by-Step Guide for Leading Your Business to Success by Dave Ramsey is another book I found helpful. This book looks at how to organize a team of professionals in reaching shared goals. The applications to school leadership helped me develop my first “KRA’s”, or Key Results Areas, with my teams.
10 Tips for Your First Year as an Assistant Principal
Finally, I shared with D.J. ten ideas to keep in mind the first year as an Assistant Principal. I unpack them in this podcast episode with follow-up to several questions for D.J. afterwards, but here’s the short summary:
- Discover the vision and values of your head principal and consider how you can support him or her.
- Figure out the administrative structural divisions and expectations. In other words, know your job description.
- Be friendly and introduce yourself to everyone: Everyone means teachers, parents, community groups, custodians, bus drivers, paraprofessionals, counselors, nurses, upper admin, and of course, students.
- Listen a lot. Speak little at first (except to be friendly and courteous). This way you learn to know the lay of the land.
- Expect the best but guard your trust until you know who is trustworthy.
- Understand and follow your school policies. Your student handbook should reflect district policies. Be familiar with both, and make your handbook your new Bible.
- Follow those policies and procedures consistently, fairly, and firmly. Until you’ve learned the full context of your climate and culture, it’s best to avoid gray areas. If unsure, ask a trusted, experienced admin.
- Schedule the entire year in advance with priority tasks. Whether you chunk your calendar with observations/evaluation meetings, team meetings, or student activities, plan ahead. This way what is important remains a priority around which you can manage your other urgent to-do’s.
- Commit to personal self-care habits now and continue them even when you’re so overwhelmed you don’t think you have time to exercise, eat or sleep.
- Give yourself lots of grace! This first year is the hardest as every “first-year” is. Ask yourself what you’ve done during other new seasons to find your groove, and take similar steps in this one. Take one step at a time, don’t expect to finish your race in a sprint. It is a marathon.
Let’s Wrap This Up
In our conversation, D.J. mentions when I was named Oklahoma’s Assistant Principal of the year in 2012. As grateful as I was to receive the state award from the National Association of Secondary Principals, I was also aware of something more important: Enjoying your work as an assistant principal only happens when you take time to appreciate others, relish the small moments, and recognize the importance of the journey and people that will shape you along the way.
As hard as any new position may be, let me encourage you to make the most of small moments and celebrate wins as they come. Learn from times you make mistakes. And keep growing – just like you did before you stepped into this new position.
That cycle of reflection, growth, and application is what helped you grow to this point, and it will help you grow into any position ahead. And one more thing: Pass those lessons along to others because we are not alone in this important journey of education.
Now It’s Your Turn
Maybe you know someone who is taking their first position in school administration as an assistant principal or otherwise. Or maybe this will be your first year. If you could add to the list above, what other books or tip(s) would you provide? What questions do you still have?
Reach back in the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Think about another leader who may benefit from these takeaways, and share this post and episode with someone. Thanks again for doing what matters!