How Managers Can Help Assistant Managers Prepare for the Top Job

Principals play a huge role in helping vice principals prepare to lead schools.

But because the role of the PA is not always clearly definedexperiences vary from school to school, and preparing PAs for the next stage often depends on the tasks they are given and the experiences they are exposed to while working as a vice-principal.

Principals need to be open to structuring their school’s staff to give PAs more opportunities to perform tasks they will undertake and eventually oversee as school leaders.

Katherine Holden, who was recently named National Deputy Principal of the Year by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, saw this in the example of her principal, Steve Retzlaff of Ashland Middle School in Ashland, Oregon, who plays a pivotal role in ensuring she is prepared for the next step.

“He’s been very, very open to allowing me to contribute to our school-wide initiatives that we’ve had during my time here,” Holden said. “He is always very open to my ideas. He includes me in all the planning. It helps me prioritize my time so that I really focus on improving the school and supporting the staff and their teaching practices. I appreciate that in my role I spend my time making a lot of improvements to our school system.

And Retzlaff’s support didn’t stop at the school level.

When he became acting superintendent of Ashland District in 2020 – amid the pandemic – Holden became the school’s acting principal, while serving in a district-level position helping to develop and coordinate the District Reopening and the COVID-19 Era Education Plan. Deputy directors do not always have this kind of experience.

Here are Holden’s thoughts on how principals can help PAs develop and refine their school leadership skills.

Give PAs opportunities to lead – beyond discipline

Assistant principals, especially black men, can often focus on behavioral issues or discipline, causing them to miss out on other valuable experiences — such as budgeting, planning, teaching and communications — which are important aspects of successful school leadership.

Katherine Holden, deputy principal of Ashland Middle School, Ashland, Ore.

Holden’s experience was different because of Retzlaff.

The school has a child development specialist – similar to a dean – who supports students with discipline and other behavioral issues, freeing Holden to focus on teaching practice and system change , she said.

Under Retzlaff, Holden had the good fortune to lead professional development, equity and diversity trainings, and through a transition from letter-based to competency-based grading.

About five years ago, for example, when the school launched diversity, equity and inclusion training to help staff better understand and meet the needs of students of color, Holden worked with trainers to launch the initiative. But once in place, she spearheaded the ongoing work, from trainings to book studies.

“This example of getting to be a learning facilitator for adults [and] our site staff has been a truly amazing experience,” she said.

Likewise, over the past seven years, the school has moved from traditional letter grades to competency-based feedback, and Holden has been integral to achieving and sustaining that – an experience she calls of “powerful”.

Retzlaff recognized Holden’s strengths and interests and provided critical support and opportunities.

“I like systems thinking, I like thinking about improvement, I like creative problem solving,” Holden said. “I’ve always been open to feedback and want to find solutions that work. I want to find systems that work. I think the fact that he was open to my input and that I was really enthusiastic about participating in the process was a good choice.

Value what access points bring to the table

Vice-principals are always in contact with classrooms and school staff and can provide valuable insights to principals on school improvement, communication, and building professional learning communities.

Holden reflects on her own experience mentoring Teachers on Special Assignment, or TOSA as they are called, who are often tasked with leading a leadership project at a school.

“One of my approaches is always to encourage them to share their ideas, to encourage them to share their ideas,” Holden said. “I ask them a lot of questions, because I really want to understand things from their point of view. Our teachers have so much insight into what really works.

Principals, she said, can use a similar approach with their assistant principals.

“We’re all lifelong learners, and we all bring a lot to the table,” Holden said. “I think managers will hopefully always see their assistant managers as great resources, who see things from different angles, who have so much to offer. They are connected to different programs or even to different teachers and staff in different ways.

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