Assistant principal leadership during a global pandemic

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By Baruti Kafele

The following is an excerpt from the upcoming ASCD book The Assistant Principal 50: Critical Questions for Meaningful Leadership and Professional Growth, which will be published in May 2020.

As I read the final edit of this book on April 5, 2020, we are in the midst of this unbelievable Coronavirus outbreak, which has forced me to think about educating children more so than usual (if that’s possible). I’ve been particularly obsessed with how our educational systems will be able to sustain education for our children during this time in which we find ourselves.

As an assistant principal, it’s unlikely that there exists a graduate school course or professional development workshop that could have thoroughly prepared you for leading during a global pandemic. You, like all leaders, have come to realize that leading students and staff in the midst of a global pandemic has to be learned “on the job” and in real time. While experts are providing guidance, at the proverbial end of the day, this is something very different. To that end, I offer the following as you continue to fight through this kind of global crisis in your capacity as an assistant principal:

Remember that your role is to assist.

First and foremost, your title is Assistant Principal. You are there to assist. Although it is admirable and commendable when you take the initiative in areas that you have identified, you must first consult with your principal. I cannot overstate the significance of you and your principal being on the same page during a global pandemic. Be sure to stay in constant contact with your principal (who is working from home). Your principal’s home is now your school’s main office. Keep your principal abreast of your thinking and the actions that you want to take before you take them because, remember, your principal is trying to figure things out too. This is new and different for everyone.

Support your staff.

As a supervisor of a portion of your school’s staff, chances are that you know those staff members, including teachers, a little better than your principal does. You are the leader of the staff who report directly to you. They, too, are trying to figure out how to maximize distance learning while keeping their students engaged. You can never lose sight of the fact that teaching is a portion of their lives and that they have lives outside of school. In the midst of a global pandemic, teachers, too are dealing with the emotions that accompany the uncertainty associated with such an occurrence. As an AP, you must maintain contact with your staff beyond your supervisory role (it would be great if you could just check in on staff). Strengthen the relationships that you have with staff and let them know that you’re there for them. Be sure to compliment, encourage, praise, and support your staff (via e-mail, department- or grade-level ZOOM meetings, and so on) as often as possible (noting that some staff may be taking the pandemic in stride while others may be struggling with it). To the best of your ability, be a support to staff.

Serve as a resource.

As an instructional leader and former classroom teacher, you are an academic resource. Although a plethora of distance learning resources can be obtained online, you know your students and staff. As, theoretically, you know what resources will best serve your students and staff, don’t hesitate to offer your suggestions and resources.

Maintain communication with your students’ parents.

Chances are that you communicate with more parents than anyone else in your school. The parents know you and you know the parents. Students’ parents are as well dealing with anxieties and emotions during this kind of event. Many of them just want someone to talk to. Let them know that you’re there for them and that they can continue to reach out to you via email or Zoom. As well, you can advise and assist your staff in engaging parents in meetings via Zoom. Additionally, in your capacity as assistant principal, you work with a number of students, helped a number of students, and, likely, turned a number of students around. In light of the amount of time that your students may be away from school, much of what you established with them could potentially be lost. Therefore, I encourage you to communicate with the parents of the students you have worked with (and, if possible, communicate with the parent and student together [via Zoom]) to ensure that what you established with students is sustained.

Maintain a sense of balance.

I can only imagine how overwhelming this experience may be. You are in the position that you worked so hard to attain and then, suddenly, you are leading during a global pandemic. Despite the pressures and demands of your position, it is critical that you maintain a sense of balance. Your physical and emotional health is crucial. Self-care must be a priority. You must both work hard to make education work for your students and staff and balance your work life with your personal life. In a pandemic, your family needs a great deal of your attention. Attend to the needs of your family and remember to attend to your needs. Take time out for your own peace and never lose sight of the fact that you are not alone. Assistant principals all over the world are in this fight with you; you have access to them via social media (Twitter, Facebook, and so on). Communicate with as many APs as feasible, including the ones in your own district and geographical area.

At the end of the day, remember: this, too, shall pass.


About the author

Baruti K. Kafele, a highly regarded urban educator in New Jersey for more than 20 years, has distinguished himself as a master teacher and a transformational school leader. He is the author of The Aspiring Principal 50, Is My School Better BECAUSE I Lead It?, The Teacher 50, The Principal 50, Closing the Attitude Gap, and Motivating Black Males to Achieve in School & Life. Find him on Twitter @principalkafele.

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