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The Ritual ‘Hazing’ of Assistant



Assistant principals provide the backbone of school-level administration, but we rarely consider the importance of this role in developing future school leaders. Assistant principals help to shape the day-to-day operations and culture of schools, yet the AP’s job plays an even bigger role in influencing those who aspire to become principals.

For this reason, school district leaders and university-administrator training programs ought to spend more time studying what assistant principals actually do, helping aspiring administrators prepare for the role and supporting principals and school district staff to better shepherd those who see a principalship as their next step.

A Lonely Transition
Denise E. Armstrong, associate professor of education at Brock University, sheds light in some stark terms on how assistant principals experience the transition from teaching to administration in her 2010 research study in Teachers College Record, “Rites of Passage: Coercion, Compliance, and Complicity in the Socialization of New Vice-Principals.”

Her findings are troubling. Using the concept of “rites of passage” from anthropology, Armstrong found assistant principals faced ostracism from teachers, high-pressure duties with minimal direction and oversight from principals, and inhibitions about sharing their fears and concerns as they learned their new roles.

Armstrong wrote: “Poor induction practices, a lack of training and explicit working terms, and downloading from the school district left the new vice-principals open to multiple demands and contributed to a Sisyphean workload. During their first year, the vice-principals were also tested with serious issues such as violent conflicts, bomb threats, drugs and suicidal students. The unpredictability of these events, the responsibility to make decisions in high-risk situations, and the pervasive fear that they would fail to protect others exacerbated the feelings of vulnerability that normally accompany transitions. … However, in spite of these physical dangers, both male and female vice-principals felt inhibited in expressing their fears because administrative rites of passage prohibited demonstrations of ‘weakness.’”

In short, many assistant principals face a transition into administration that often is grueling and lonely.

If there is any good news in Armstrong’s study, it is that by their third year, most of the assistant principals had settled into their new jobs, becoming more confident of their abilities, mastering new skills and experiencing higher levels of job satisfaction. But this came with a price: Many of the assistant principals said they had significantly lowered their expectations of their role, especially their hope they would be better able to serve students by entering administration.

This is a sad commentary on school leadership from multiple perspectives.

A Dumping Ground
Armstrong’s study stresses that education administration programs don’t adequately prepare aspiring leaders for the role of assistant principal. This is undoubtedly true. But principals (and their superintendents) also fail their assistant principals when they allow their APs to experience such a disappointing transition to leadership.

Perhaps it’s viewed as a kind of necessary hazing ritual, a de facto philosophy of “We all had to go through it, so you have to do it, too” on the part of veteran administrators. But the bigger issue is the decision to dump highly challenging tasks on underprepared assistant principals with minimal direction or support. Bus supervision, course scheduling, facilities issues and, above all, student discipline are the traditional bailiwicks of assistant principals, and while these are necessary managerial functions of school administration, principals would do well to give their assistants clearer expectations, feedback and support.

Principals should work on developing the full leadership capacities of their assistants. This means giving them some duties related to instructional leadership, change management, strategic planning and personnel, along with providing meaningful feedback and emotional support.

Caught Between
Assistant principals also play a critical role as conduits of information between the faculty and principal. APs often find themselves trying to represent the administration in decisions they may have had limited participation in making, or they convey perspectives from teachers that principals don’t want to hear. The in-between nature of the assistant principal is probably inevitable, but building open, trusting lines of communication between teachers and administrators could help minimize this common source of role conflict.

The role of assistant principal holds great promise for helping recruit and nurture a future cadre of highly effective school leaders. Let’s work harder to support the men and women in this role so we can build more humane work structures for administrators and more learning-centered environments for students.

Gary Houchens is an associate professor of educational administration, leadership and research at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Ky. E-mail: gary.houchens@wku.edu


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