This past week was declared National Assistant Principals Week by the National Association of Elementary School Principals, National Association of Secondary School Principals, and the American Federation of School Administrators. Over the years, I have come to know so many outstanding Assistant Principals; each with incredible tenacity and strengths. Many have become principals of their own schools, and others still fresh on their leadership journey. Assistant Principals are leaders that set the tone, priorities, and ways of being in their schools; and are essential to ensuring access to a high-quality, engaging, robust, and relevant school experience for students and educators alike.
I was an assistant principal for several years myself before becoming a principal. In that time, I was treated as a leadership partner – a co-principal of sorts – and through this experience I was able to develop a strong set of values to lean on when I became the leader of my own school. It was the best job-embedded professional learning opportunity I could have had.
Now in my role as Superintendent, I am seeing the need for courageous leaders at all levels who are willing to reflect, model, learn, and disrupt systems that fail to adequately serve all students. In this blog, I have chosen to outline the skills and dispositions of Culturally Responsive Assistant Principals; leaders who in their own rite often work behind the scenes, yet have a tremendous impact on the day-to-day success of our students, teachers, and schools. Standard 3 of the Professional Standards for Educational Leaders (PSEL) reads, “Effective educational leaders strive for equity of educational opportunity and culturally responsive practices to promote each student’s academic success and well-being.”
More concretely, I believe Culturally Responsive Assistant Principals do the following:
- Spend time reflecting about their identities. Culturally Responsive Assistant Principals take the time to continuously explore their assumptions, beliefs, and values; wrestling with how each of these have shaped their understanding of the world. They recognize that implicit bias is natural, and they take action to develop an awareness of what they are. They know they can successfully mitigate their hidden biases, many of them developed before they started grade school themselves, through engaging in constant monitoring. They’ve taken Implicit Assessment Tests (IATs) to learn more about themselves and the way they view the world and their students, and are mindful of not just how students are taught in their school, but how they are approached, how they’re talked with, and how our academic and behavioral expectations are conveyed to each of them.
- Address disproportionality and its root causes. Culturally Responsive Assistant Principals take the time to regularly review special education referrals, participation rates for students in advanced courses, and discipline data disaggregated by race, ethnicity, gender, family income, and disability to identify areas for improvement. They use the data to inform decisions about practices that are within their control. Practices such as the ways student support is provided, the way the master schedule is developed, and the ways in which routines are structured. They understand there are many other related school factors contributing to disproportionate situations, so they are mindful about ensuring teachers are well supervised, improving opportunities for students to engage in extracurricular activities, and providing access to specialized resources that can help students and their families tackle specific issues they may be facing.
- Model strengths-based expectations and approaches. Culturally Responsive Assistant Principals use language that is accepting and respectful of all cultures represented in the school, and understand that by identifying the rich traditions of literacy and knowledge across different families, cultures, and contexts, they better support students who are culturally and linguistically diverse. They foster hope by shifting the focus from “what’s wrong with us” to “what’s right with us”, and they understand that, even though there may be snags and hiccups – sometimes very serious ones – there are also untapped resources and capacities inherent in each of us that can be used to improve outcomes. Finding and affirming these often overlooked assets are what our Culturally Responsive Assistant Principals do best.
- Build expertise in culturally responsive pedagogy. Culturally Responsive Assistant Principals challenge teachers and other professionals to value the power of youth culture and voice by including students in important roles and decisions related to classroom, school, and community improvement. They help teachers tap into student interests, and encourage teaching and learning practices that are engaging and worthwhile for students. They insist upon the use of curriculum and assessments that are unbiased and culturally sensitive, and they actively support teachers in their efforts to transform teaching practices balancing rigor with relationships and affirmation. They visit classrooms often in order to reinforce rituals and routines that promote a culture of learning and respect. They know their presence makes a difference to students and to teachers.
- Promote positive discipline. Culturally Responsive Assistant Principals involve students and their families in setting behavioral norms for their schools to ensure that expectations build on the values and beliefs of the community. They recognize the importance of fostering positive, enriching school climates that help students learn from their mistakes, while also building healthy relationships and a sense of community to prevent and address conflict and wrongdoing. They actively seek ways to improve school climate, foster healthy relationships between teachers and students, decrease disciplinary disparities, support social-emotional learning, and promote accountability and two-way communication. They are everywhere. Students see them in their classrooms, in the hallways, at lunch, and in between classes. They are visible when students are being dropped off, when they are getting picked up, at the buses, and at extracurricular activities. Culturally Responsive Assistant Principals are key culture and climate changers, and play an integral part in student engagement, attendance, academic performance, and overall student success.
- What are the things you believe Culturally Responsive Assistant Principals do?
- What examples of culturally responsive leadership have you seen APs demonstrate that may be distinctly different from teachers or principals?
- What are some of the ways you celebrate or recognize Assistant Principals in your school or district?