Wednesday, August 23, 2017

What I look for in an Assistant Principal- 6 attributes


There are many books on what to look for in leadership.  For this post I’d like to expound on the attributes that I look for.  Take them from that lens, and hopefully it can help build what you look for.  There are plenty of much wiser folks than I out there who write much more deeply on this subject, and I'd encourage you to give them a look, starting with Todd Whittaker.

You likely won't find an applicant that has all of these qualities in abundance (if you do, hire them), but you will find folks with talents both natural and developed in many of these areas.  I do believe that all of these attributes can be refined and grown over time.  Some of these qualities may be simplistic, but I believe that in truly judging an applicant’s fitment to the school, it's essential to look at these base qualities and do your best to measure them in whatever manner you choose.  I've found that references and calling folks they work with, have worked with in the past is the best way to get a good picture of these qualities.  Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone. 

Before looking at these qualities and my thoughts about them I want to address diversity.  This can be a touchy subject as immediately it raises a variety of concerns.  Rather than go into a long post about this I’ll say what I think: interview as diverse a group of candidates as you can, and never accept that “they just aren’t any out there”.  That’s not true, go find them, encourage them to apply.  Broaden your applicant pool.  It’s a sad truth that we know people of color especially are underrepresented in administrative ranks.  It is incumbent upon administrators to fix this.  Build a diverse applicant pool, and when you hire, hire the best person for the job, but make sure the pool you hire from isn’t one color, one sex, or one background.  

Now the attributes that I look for in assistant principals:

1. Service mindset- Is it about the position?

With the title of the AP comes more days, and more compensation.  In some cases this can be a pretty significant bump for a teacher coming out of the classroom.  In the last five times I hired an AP we had at a minimum forty applicants, and in some cases over a hundred.  Some of them are motivated primarily by the monetary bump.  While that is part of the consideration (if we are going to trade hours of our life for money, might as well get as much as we can for that hour) if it is the primary reason you probably don’t want them on your team. 

I look primarily for service leadership which is hard to quantify in an interview.  I want to see a track record of being a support to teachers, and I want to hear that coming from references.  I want to hear that they were a great team lead who helped mentor new folks.  I want to hear that they were willing to do some drudgery tasks for their previous school because it made the school better, not because it got them a ton of praise. 

Most importantly I want to see a history of service to students.  I want to hear how the value their role in the formation of young minds, and take seriously the importance of education.  I want to see their passion for going into school and getting kids ready for their next step.  If they view their job as a service job to those they encounter, that’s a strong foundation for an AP.  It will translate to service and support to teachers and staff, and that will create a culture where teachers are given space and time to ply their craft with less distraction.


2. Systems thinking- Can they get the buses unloaded?

We have a bit done a disservice to our profession placing so much focus on hiring "Instructional Leaders".  Instruction is why we are paid.  It is the core of our work.  Instruction can’t happen without strong schedules, systems, and processes in place.  The AP needs to have a strong understanding of the traditional aspects of the AP:  The 3 B's.  Brooms, Butts, and Busses.  For this they need a strong understanding of building and maintaining systems.  

You want an assistant principal that doesn’t create work, they reduce the work through strong systems.  To be able to do this, they have to be a problem solver.  Whatever process they use to reach solutions for the myriad of problems that crop up in a building, has to be sound.  As you interview construct questions or tasks that will elicit a demonstration of how they solve problems.  If they complain and bellyache, or worse try and pass it off one someone else then this is a red flag.  Do not hire them.

You need someone who can build, monitor, and implement an effective process for say; monitoring keys in the building.  Or collecting blood born pathogen training and making sure everyone is current.  One of the best APs I had the fortunance to work with was outstanding at organizing mundane paperwork.  As in, she was great at it (I’m looking at you Rachelle Bramlege Schomberg!).  This was critical in reducing mundane work by teaching staff, and giving them more time to do their job: teach.  Her organizational skills in this trivial area was crucial.

What I have found is that with newer APs this is set of skills they don’t often come with.  They know the latest about Hattie, Marzano, PBL, and Danielson; but they don’t know how to build a working car rider line.  The AP (s) of a building are the backbone of keeping the city running and the trains on time.


3. Kindness- Would I want them disciplining my child?

This is pretty simple to me.  Look for if they can address a student as a person, with needs, baggage, and expectations.  If they are just dolling out punishment, send them back to 1950.  That doesn’t work, and it hurts students.  You want firm, resolute, consistent, fair, and kind.  To quote Dr. Rita Pierson “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.”  I’ll further that with “Teachers don’t thrive working with an AP who isn’t kind.”  We want APs that can do the discipline of the building, but build kids up, not tear them apart.  That can build relationships and get that kid back into class and paying attention, on point.  Anyone can sentence a kid to ISAP or a suspension, a powerful AP can change behaviors.  That starts with firm, resolute kindness.


4. Grace under pressure- Can they run the building if I am out, and the local news shows up?

Hard to quantify in an interview process, but can you see the potential AP leading while you are out?  Ultimately that’s what you want.  It’s not about you, and the building you are fortunate enough to lead should run fine with you at a conference.  If things go haywire though, can this person step up and move the staff through a crisis?  If a fight breaks out in the hallway will they be calm on the radio or freak out?  If a student gets injured can they follow the protocol to get the kid what they need?  Can they evac a building under a real emergency, and not a sunny day drill? 


5. Instructional Acumen- Are they able to articulate ideas and create change for student growth?

I said we did a disservice focusing so much on instructional leadership, but here I’ll address its importance.  Where they a successful teacher?  Can they show you this with both data and anecdotal notes?  If they weren’t, they probably won’t be a good AP.  Teachers will trust them more if they bring some reputation for classroom performance to the table.  Can they talk the talk, and walk the walk when discussing educational theory and practice.

Most importantly: can they give meaningful constructive feedback to teachers that will make them better at their craft.  This is essential.  If they can’t, or all they can give is boilerplate Danielson framework language, then they won’t be taken seriously and they won’t drive instruction.  The APs will be evaluating a lot of folks, can they do this and make them better, or just fill out a form?

6. Work Ethic- Will they complain about working a ball game?

Ballgames and afterschool activities are where the deposits for the bank account of tough office conversations is made.  Kids want to see their teachers and principals at their events.  If the AP candidate doesn’t accept and embrace this going on, pass over them.  Are they OK with pulling long hours when needed?  Are they OK with coming in early to roll doors and set things up?  Are they OK with being the last one to leave at 1:30 am when the kid forgot his ride from the dance?  If not, this probably isn’t the work for them.



As I said in the opening, I don’t claim to be an exhaustive authority on this.  However, I’ve hired eight assistant principals thus far in my career and am proud to say each one of them are successful, strong leaders.  I don’t in any way claim to be the reason, but I will take some credit in their initial selection.  So, take that for what it’s worth and draw from this post some ideas for your practice.  

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