PMP253: 10 Lessons from a First Year Assistant Principal with D.J. Klein

One year ago, June 4, 2020, D.J. Klein was a guest on the Principal Matters podcast when we shared advice for his first year as a school administrator. You can hear the 10 Tips for First Year Assistant Principals we discussed by listening to PMP:197

One year later, D.J. Klein has finished his first year as Assistant Principal and Athletic Director at Terry High School, south of Jackson, Mississippi. As the 2020-2021 school year has ended for D.J., we reconnected to reflect on lessons he learned from his first year in the role of school administrator. Below is a summary of 10 new lessons D.J. generously shared:

10 Lessons I’e Learned in my First Year as Assistant Principal by D.J. Klein:

1) “Be aware of your strengths and weaknesses. Know your leadership style, natural strengths, and areas in which you can grow. Although it may seem elementary, having a strong sense of self-awareness of who you are will pay dividends as you develop relationships with more stakeholders than ever before. Take the time to take several personality tests (such as the one on 16personalities.com that is based on the Myers-Briggs theory) and speak to those who have worked close to you for a long time.”

2) “Be visible and accessible. While I was a teacher, my former superintendent once offered me this piece of advice as I prepared to enter the principalship: ‘If I come to visit your school and you are in your office, you better have a good reason for being in there.’ Being visible and accessible as a school leader to your teachers, students, and support staff throughout the day may sound simple, but it is essential. Although meetings, student discipline, and other matters will require your time, it is important to see and be seen.”

3) “Know available resources that benefit students. Learn all you can about the resources that are available in the community and allocate those resources to your students’ benefit. Although I am only a year into it, I am continuing to discover new resources that can be utilized to the benefit of our teachers and students.”

4) “Develop a routine and stick to it to the best of your ability. I learned very fast that there is really no such thing as a “normal” day for an assistant principal. Some days are very fast paced with many things on your daily agenda that need to be addressed. On the contrary, there will be some days when you are wondering why the day is going by as slow as it feels. Despite this, have a designated time frame set apart to complete specific tasks that require your attention: teacher observations, e-mails, returning phone calls from parents, etc.”

5) “Prepare for the unexpected. To piggyback on the last point: In the book ‘Extreme Ownership,‘ Navy Seals Jocko Willink and Leif Babin introduce the four laws of combat. After going through the school year in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve learned to prepare for the unexpected. Even if you take the pandemic aside, I am sure this is a rule of thumb that veteran principals will stand by. On the days that one is facing a large number of unforeseen circumstances (whether severe or minor), it is important to follow the third law of combat: ‘Prioritize and Execute.’ Prioritize the most urgent tasks and execute the means of getting these tasks knocked out.”

6) “Share your leadership with others. With the number of clubs, sporting events, extra-curricular activities, etc that are available on the secondary level, awesome opportunities to step in and lead will present themselves throughout the year. However, it is impossible for you to be able to take point on all of them.  Look for opportunities to delegate leadership to other adults in your school. While still serving in a supervisory role, this gives individuals to use their unique talent and gifts that they may have never realized they had.”

7) “Listen more than you speak. Before I started, I really had no idea just how many people I would be working with (whether in a close capacity or not) and how many numbers I was going to add to my contact list on my phone. When you factor in students, parents, teachers, counselors, support staff, upper-level administration, central office personnel, transportation service personnel, vendors, custodial personnel, and other administrators from neighboring districts, you come to a realization of just how big the network really is. One thing that all of these great individuals have in common is this: they all have a story to tell. Take time to sincerely listen to each and every one of them. Every second builds a strong foundation of positive relationships that will directly impact your school and your students.”

8) “Ask for feedback from experienced admins. When second-guessing any decision that you are about to make, it is best to ask as many experienced administrators as you can. I was blessed to work with a great assistant principal here who took it upon himself to take me under his wing and serve as a mentor figure. He was recently promoted to be the head principal at the same school and he continues to be my go-to guy whenever I have a question.”

9) “Celebrate teacher and student success. Find ways to celebrate teacher and student success in as many ways as you can. Social media, e-mail shout outs, and small gift cards in a teacher’s mail box in the morning can go a long way.”

10) “Maintain a healthy life-work balance. Yes, the order in that phrase is correct. As the school year goes by, it will be easy to become overwhelmed with keeping up with the day-to-day responsibilities of the profession. Mr. Parker mentioned a piece of advice during our interview last year that parallels this lesson: commit to positive habits now (working out, practicing an instrument, reading, praying, etc). Yes, this is extremely important, but I would also add this: don’t forget those in your immediate family and close circle of friends that have invested in you and your personal journey. A vacation every now and then is nice, but commit your evenings and weekends outside of work to those who matter the most.  The biggest lesson I’ve learned this year sounds simple in writing, but is of the utmost importance for any administrator.”

Let’s Wrap This Up

As D.J. finished his first year, he was contacted by a high school in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, and offered a new AP role there for the 2021-2022 school year. Located between Biloxi and Pascagoula, the school has four Assistant Principals, and D.J.’s new role will involve more focus on curriculum, which is a passion area for him as well. Congratulations, D.J.!

Now It’s Your Turn

Do you know someone stepping into the AP role for the first time? Please share this episode with them. What lessons have you learned from this past year? I’d be honored to hear other first-year stories as well. You can reach me by email at will@williamdparker.com

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William D. Parker
William D. Parker
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