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Prop Up the Principal, But Do It In Your Own Way: An Assistant Principal’s Advice to His Peers

In his first year as assistant principal at Dothan Preparatory Academy, Charles Longshore developed a ritual with a small group of students. He had joined the school in Dothan, Ala., in 2022, and within the year, wanted to build a rapport with the staff and students.

“I had a group of boys who were just angry at the world. That May, they started coming into my office. I got a big, comfy chair. They would sit in it and they’d just be breathing heavily. You could tell they were upset about something,” said Longshore.

Longshore just let them sit and continued to work in silence. In five minutes, they would calm down and ask to return to class.

“They got a space to calm down, instead of overreacting. If something happens, they know now they can come to my office, instead of [doing something that would] have a bad outcome.”

Assistant principals have a unique position in a school’s hierarchy. They are technically part of the leadership but also need to be grounded in the everyday challenges that students and teachers face. They don’t make all the decisions but are charged with implementing them. And APs also can’t rush in headfirst with their own ideas, said Longshore. They must hang back and first understand their principal’s vision for the school.

Longshore has a long list of duties, which range from improving student behavior and learning outcomes to retaining teachers. He supervises 20 of the 50 teachers at Dothan. “When I joined the school, we had a 40 percent teacher-attrition rate. But I’m happy that all 20 teachers who I supervised last year are back. None of them left,” said Longshore.

The evolving role of APs

The population of APs in public schools has doubled over the last 25 years, from close to 40,000 to over 80,000, according to a 2021 study by Vanderbilt University and the research group Mathematica. During the same period, the number of APs grew six times faster than the number of principals, due to an increase in AP positions at elementary schools.

The study makes a critical point: The growing number of APs forms a ready talent pool from which to draw future principals. The AP position acts like an apprenticeship, and the study recommends more targeted leadership development of APs as they chart a course to becoming principals. Effective APs can also help retain principals, by sharing their responsibilities and reducing chances of burnout.

Longshore said he’s keen to become a principal in the next three to five years and climb the administrative ranks further. He spoke to Education Week about a book he’s working on, which distills what he’s learned over two assistant principal assignments, on how to support principals better. “It might also help leaders understand how to pitch their vision to APs,” Longshore said.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How is an AP’s role different from a principal’s role?

I don’t think we’re massively different. The principal is in charge of an entire school, … and APs have their own jurisdictions. But the overarching premise is that this is his school and he has been given a certain vision from the central office. He needs the building to function in a specific way.

It’s impossible for the principal to do it all. For instance, he can’t connect with every teacher every day. So, my role is to take what he wants as outcomes for teachers and students and make it happen using my own personality traits. Support what he wants to do but still be myself through the process. It’s a mindset shift. You can’t come in thinking you know everything.

How do you bring your own personality to the role?

I used to coach baseball and I’m still close with the students I coached. I’ve always enjoyed the team atmosphere, but as a teacher, I’d never thought of the school as a collection of teams. As an AP, that’s changed. I have 20 teachers in my direct supervision, and we’re like a small family. I was able to retain every one of those teachers, and that makes a difference because you put a lot of effort into training them.

In meetings, the principal will set out his larger vision and expectations from the faculty. Then I meet with teachers individually. I may not change the vision, but I translate it for them. I have more intimate knowledge about what’s going on with the 20 teachers I manage.

Teachers in the first or second year of teaching get more attention from me than my principal, because I know they need extra support. I’m coming in to build morale and I can do it at a more granular level than the principal.

If a new teacher asks for it, I teach one of their lessons to give them a practical demonstration on how to structure a class. I give them a tool kit of four or five teaching strategies, but I also encourage them to develop their own style.

How does your experience as a teacher play a role here?

Some of the teachers come from different backgrounds than our students. We are in a lower-income school with several homes that have single parents or grandparents raising the kids. We’ve got unique situations that require these new teachers to be empathetic. A lot of these teachers were raised by teachers or had good school experiences. And now, they teach in an urban setting with higher rates of poverty.

When it comes to behavior issues, first- or second-year teachers may want to nip it in the bud, but that’s not how it works with this generation. The kids will test how much you care as an educator. Are the teachers going to simply throw them out of class or deal with the situation empathetically?

These are the kind of conversations I can help with because I share a similar background to these teachers. My first job as an assistant principal was also at a rural school, so moving to Dothan has been a huge learning experience.

The AP is sandwiched between the principal and the rest of the school. How do you resolve disagreements with both parties?

We’ve divided our teachers into smaller “pods.” The teachers within these pods teach the same subject and usually have classrooms across the hall from each other. If there are disagreements, the pod usually brings it up to me. I gauge how serious this disagreement is: Is it just one person’s frustration, or is the whole pod disagreeing with a school policy or a mandate laid out by the principal? We try to resolve it within the pod. If I’m not able to resolve things, then I become the go-to between them and the principal.

If I disagree with my principal, I don’t say it at first. I wait to first implement the measure. I give it my 100 percent. If things don’t work out, then we have an honest conversation about what happened.

What made you choose education as a career? What made you go into leadership?

I come from rural Alabama. I always joke that there are more cows than people there. My dad was a heavy machinery mechanic, and he would drive into the city to work. He didn’t want that life for me … he wanted me to do something where my body wouldn’t be hurt. He never had the opportunity to go into education, but it’s something he saw for me.

I hadn’t really thought about a leadership role. But once I did start my training, it instantly clicked with me. When I went to school, leaders had a very traditional role of enforcing hard discipline. Now, principals and APs are more instructional leaders and people managers. I was passionate about things like good quality instruction, how to structure a lesson, set up a classroom … so the leadership role made sense to me.

When you become a principal, what advice would you give your own AP?

I think I will be looking for somebody that can run with me. I know what it takes, so I’ll also need someone who can support me when I get tired. The assistant principalship is a wonderful position because you get the opportunity to be close to students and teachers. You have to be everything to everyone. People look at it as a temporary position, but it actually builds character because you learn everything on the job.

If you’re everything to everyone all the time, do you worry about burning out?

Running out of battery is a concern for me. I try and set boundaries and not carry work home. I have three boys, and we’re on the baseball field from 7 to 9 p.m. That’s a stress reliever for me.

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