Every high school has its own culture, mission, systems, philosophies, and breakdown of responsibilities. Every administrator has his or her own priorities and leadership style. Ultimately, the role of the assistant principal is to handle/field/address as many of the daily tasks and concerns of the school so that the campus principal if free to take care of the bigger, campus-wide needs.
While the specifics of the day-to-day activities may vary from one school to another, or for that matter, from one administrator to another, many of the basics will ring true across the board. The truth is, no two days ever look alike, and almost all days take on a life of their own, regardless of the plan or to-do list. In that way, working in the office and working in the classroom are similar.
Before students arrive
Another similarity between the classroom and the office is that whenever possible, it is a good practice to get to school early enough to sit down at the desk for a bit of quiet and peace before the bombardment of hundreds of people. Just taking the time to get centered and prepare for the day can make the difference between a day of racing in which nothing seems to get accomplished and a day of successfully marking things off the to-do list.
There are days that an administrator’s calendar is stacked with back-to-back meetings with teachers, parent conferences, appointments at central office, or special education identification and review committees. Days where nothing is on the calendar that can be the most rewarding. These are the days that tend to fill up with students or teachers popping in “Just to talk” in between other tasks.
The blinking light of a voicemail notification must not be overlooked. It’s amazing how many parents call the school after their children get home and tell them about their day. Voicemails often recount the student’s version of something a teacher said or did, questions about school policies, or parents wanting to “share” information.
Creating a to-do list before students and teachers arrive is a good goal, even if it doesn’t quite happen every day (in this job, something always comes up). Some days will be busier than others, so it is important to prioritize the items on the list, keeping in mind that a million other things may come up throughout the day. Many things on the list will have to be rescheduled or put off to another day if necessary (there are some things that just keep reappearing on the daily list in hopes that it will be accomplished eventually).
There are as many ways to do morning duty as there are schools, but administrative presence as the student body is arriving and milling about before school is a key responsibility at every school. It’s important to not be holed up in the office even though most assistant principals could easily justify doing so.
Parents are comforted when they see administrators at the door welcoming their children. Part of the job of an assistant principal is knowing the students well enough to be able to perceive a difference in their body language or response as they enter. Some students will enter after having a very difficult morning that may have included family fighting, so a smile, a high five, and a sincere “Good morning; how are you” could be a nice reset to prepare them for a fresh start at school.
And, if we’re being honest, students are less likely to engage in inappropriate activities with administrators watching. Presence and proximity are often excellent tools for keeping kids safe that are sometimes overlooked or underutilized.
While keeping up your situational awareness, this is also a good time to informally check in with the other administrators and teachers on duty along with interacting with the students. Pitching in and working to purposefully build that sense of community is as important as interacting with the students.
A high school assistant principal wears many hats, but the job that seems to most monopolize the day is being the school’s disciplinarian. There will be days that start with a backlog of referrals and days where they just trickle in.
Referrals can range in severity. On a daily basis, there are simple things like students not being in their seats when the bell rings, or someone wearing a hat in the hallway.
Many times, referrals are for things that directly interfere with learning, like when students choose to play on their phones during class.
More serious issues arise with students arguing with each other, students being physically aggressive toward each other, or students using profanity when addressing a teacher.
Some referrals can be solved with a very brief conversation while others require an investigation and possibly some counseling. The real challenge lies in determining the most appropriate response to the action.
This is where the relationship-building is so important. Some students just do something stupid to impress someone or test the limits while others have a consistent track record of insubordination or disregarding school rules. The administrator can see the actions in more of a global perspective than the teacher if he or she is aware of the student’s behavior outside of the one classroom.
It is important to take the time to get to the root of why students are doing what they are doing. Discipline really needs to be about helping them not make the same bad choices in the future. Some students need a severe consequence to get their attention; others need a little grace. The challenge lies in making that judgement call. It is imperative that once a decision is made, that the administrator follow through with the teacher so they feel heard and supported.
Doing all of this thoroughly takes time and can really swallow up a day. But there are many other things that have to be accomplished, as well.
While nearly all schools have a paraprofessional who is in charge of attendance, it is usually also the responsibility the assistant principals to monitor student attendance for excessive absences.
States vary in their laws about attendance resulting in truancy or loss of credit, but once a student has reached that point, it’s too late. Administrators need to intervene before that occurs by visiting with students and parents in an attempt to ascertain why they are absent and help them problem solve to keep from hitting that limit.
Just like with discipline, it takes time to meet with students and contact parents in order to find out what is going on and how best to help the student.
Education is transitioning to the philosophy that administrators are instructional leaders, which means that they may also be responsible for checking lesson plans and leading PLC’s or team meetings. This model of leadership takes the perspective that the more administrators are present in the classrooms, the more they will know and be known by students and teachers. This should result in fewer problems on campus and thus less time spent on discipline.
As an instructional leader, it is also important to regularly do walk-throughs in classrooms throughout the school. When most effective and frequent, this will not be viewed as gotcha’s, but simply being present. Leaving notes about the positive things seen in the classroom really helps establish this as a non-threatening practice while allowing the assistant principal to collect data throughout the year.
Another way to be present and seen by both teachers and students is to monitor the hallways during passing periods. Not only does this help to deter misbehavior, but it provides opportunity for positive interactions with students.
In the midst of all of this, many administrators must also cover lunch duty while trying to eat. It would be easy to just sit in the cafeteria and socialize with other teachers or administrators, but lunch is a time when students are given quite a bit of freedom, and a lot of different things can happen when teenagers are free to do as they wish. Once again, situational awareness comes into play. It’s important to notice when someone is acting just a little differently than usual, perhaps suddenly sitting apart from their friends. A raised voice could be a dramatic retelling of a story or the beginnings of an argument.
Finally, the end of the official school day means monitoring dismissal. After the hallways have been cleared, students will have to be monitored while waiting to get on the bus or in their parents’ cars, while leaving the campus to walk, or exiting the parking lot in their own vehicles.
Just because school is over, it doesn’t mean that the day is over. There are many other responsibilities that involve planning, writing reports, and countless other tasks.
Administrators must also work a variety of extra curricular events. These could include athletic events, booster club meetings, dances, parent meetings, and community events.
Assistant principals often have to lead professional development. This doesn’t just happen before the school year or on inservice days, but also all throughout the year during teachers’ conference periods or before and after school.
Taking care of special populations (special education, 504, gifted and talented, and English as a second language) is an important part of an assistant principal’s responsibilities. While states may each have their own regulations on identification, assessment, services, and dismissal, campus administrators are always an important part of these processes.
Teachers will have to be formally observed and evaluated. This practice won’t look the same in every state, but it usually involves meeting with the teacher in advance, observing them teach, and providing feedback in a follow up conference. Sometimes this will lead to a growth plan.
Campus administrators will also have a variety of tasks that will be divided among the team: textbooks, keys, substitute coverage, attendance committee, building and maintenance work orders, and creating the master schedule.
While this may seem like a lot to cram into a day, we haven’t taken into account the many unexpected things that can come into play throughout a day.
At any point one or several students could rush into the office shouting or in tears: best friends who are in conflict, someone who is on the verge of getting into a fight, a student who got an upsetting text message from a family member, an unexpected wave of grief triggering a student battling self-harming.
One of the chief roles of an assistant principal is providing guidance, emotional support, conflict resolution, a listening ear, and/or a voice of reason. We often double as counselors. There doesn’t seem to be a day that goes by without someone walking through your office doors either crying or cussing, and sometimes doing both at the same time. This part of the job can be the most fulfilling and also the most exhausting.
No one goes into this job to be a disciplinarian; most choose to go into education to change lives, and going into administration truly multiplies the number of people an educator can impact (students, parents, and teachers).
While the job does occasionally involve breaking up actual fist fights, mediating social conflicts is quite common (which can actually often prevent the physical fights). Sometimes this involves working with students individually, other times it requires bringing the two parties together to talk it out, and there are even times when a social contract/peace agreement (aka cease fire) has to be signed.
Regardless of how judicious and caring an assistant principal is, there will be parents who disagree with his or her decisions. Some of them take issue with campus or district policy, others have just had bad experiences with schools in the past, and some simply believe their babies can do no wrong. These conversations can go in any direction. They can wrap up quickly or linger on-and-on, and a few may require the intervention of a higher authority. It may take a lot of effort and patience, but the goal is to prove to the parents that the school is on their side with the goal of loving, supporting, and growing their child into a responsible adult.
Finally, while the job of an assistant principal may be taxing, fast-paced and thankless, it is of utmost importance to never forget how difficult the job of the teacher is. They are in the classrooms with up to 30 (and sometimes more) pubescent adolescents for eight hours a day with very little time to plan or grade, much less potty or interact with other adults. Often times they are standing in front of teen-agers who frankly don’t care what they are talking about, and sometimes they are surrounded by adults who don’t want to play nicely and work as a team.
Teachers need to know that they can come to their administrator’s office and just let it all hang out. They may need to cry, or vent, or just talk about their family (or pets). It’s good to ask if they want you to just listen or if they want you to fix it. But, if they only view their assistant principal as someone who is trying to knit pick them or catch them doing wrong, they will not feel safe coming to him or her when they need support. If the whole school is there to help the students learn and grow, and the teachers are the ones spending the most time with the students, it is most important that they have the support and the tools they need to be successful.