Imagine yourself, for a moment, as a veteran, experienced teacher who has been invited to become the assistant principal. Other than being an effective, well regarded teacher, and having served under an array of administrators, you have had no training or preparation for this job. You may have a real sense of the changes that the school needs, but questions and challenges loom large:
- Who am I to assume this leadership over others?
- How will more senior teachers, ones I had as my own teacher, or those who are friends, accept me in this role?
- Can I do this job and still take care of my family?
- Can I actually be a boss?
Over the last ten years of our work in the Jewish New Teacher Project's (JNTP) Administrator Support Program (ASP), we have worked with administrators new to the profession across all denominations and geography who ask these very questions in some form or another. In response, we provide them with non-judgemental spaces, a cohort of colleagues and professional development to support them as they navigate, together, this difficult transition.
Notably, about 70% of the 120 administrators we have supported are women. Some of the challenges they all encounter, especially the women, include:
- Balancing authority, power and compassion
- Balancing family, self and work
The impact of Covid has, of course, exacerbated many challenges. School communities have not been immune to society's
great resignation" culture. Some teachers have left the profession; others remain but feel burned out. That, coupled with a dearth of people entering the field, has created the perfect storm. Administrators are exhausted.
What follows are some of the many challenges facing new day school administrators and ways in which heads of school can support them.
Balancing Authority, Power and Compassion
Let’s first define the difference between authority and power, as referenced here. Authority is grounded in expertise, knowledge and skills such as communication and collaboration, and is at the core of a successful leader’s practice. Power is the ability, and responsibility, to ensure that there is enforced accountability for policies, procedures, systems and expectations.
Many new administrators bring solid pedagogy and are eager to learn how to adapt their knowledge and skill set to lead and share with others, thereby establishing their authority. When administrators invest time in building trust and positioning themselves as value added, many teachers respond with appreciation for the support offered. Other teachers may be resistant, whether to authority in general, the new administrator in particular or to any change.
Many new administrators, especially women, view power, on the other hand, as out of their comfort zone. Some experience the “imposter syndrome,” some are “people pleasers,” some are intimidated at having to administer consequences to adults, and some take every reaction personally. Many resist having hard conversations and struggle with their inner voice that counsels sympathy and enabling. As one female administrator in our program explained: “My compassion can get in the way.”
An area of compassion that does need to be encouraged in new administrators is compassion for themselves.
Balancing Family, Self and Work
These past few years have forced many of us to reevaluate and realign how we balance our home lives with our jobs. Even before Covid, administrators frequently worked long after the school day was over or on weekends. Not only is the volume and complexity of their role overwhelming, but, additionally, new administrators may not have yet mastered the skills of delegation and time management.
Compounding this, new administrators, especially women, are frequently concerned that they may be perceived as “slacking off” if they attend to family matters during the day, despite the fact that many work on school issues in the evening. The recent years have only intensified the frenetic pace of administration, and for those who are new, it has been extremely challenging to maintain a healthy balance of work and home life.
What Heads of School Can Do
Heads of school can provide invaluable support in helping new administrators establish their authority and power, as well as balancing their work with home. A rich, growth-minded relationship with a head of school can be the major determining factor of a new administrator's success. Based on our experience, these areas can be high impact for new administrators.
During the hiring process, be clear about the roles and responsibilities. Name some of the challenges. Offer support.
Formally introduce the new administrators to the whole school community. Be clear about the roles and authority of the new administrator. Publicly express faith and confidence.
Protect their time
Provide a schedule that enables new administrators to do teacher observations and give feedback. This may mean keeping a teaching load to a minimum.
Schedule regular meetings so they can share data from their teacher observations and other aspects of their role. Spend time together looking for patterns in the data and identifying strategies for support. Offer help in dealing with challenging cases.
Communicate transparently and directly. Include the administrator in the team meetings.
Provide a healthy balance of autonomy and support. Be open to possible changes the new administrator wants to make. Anticipate some of the challenges and look for areas for them to lead. Encourage self-advocacy.
Give constant, consistent and honest feedback. Research shows that leaders, especially women and minorities, do not get sufficient feedback necessary for their growth. Consider scheduling meeting times specifically to recognize accomplishments and discuss areas of needed growth.
Heads of school can be a source of guidance in the area of balancing home and school. Sometimes the head needs to be the voice of reason telling administrators, especially female ones, that they need to take time for themselves. Consider dividing up responsibilities such as arrival, morning routines, and dismissal that most directly conflict with family needs.
In addition to the internal support provided by the head of school, we have found that new administrators need to be fortified with external support in establishing their authority. This includes arming them with structures, standards and tools designed specifically for the job of day school administrator, preparing them to handle the many situations that arise. External coaching also helps them demonstrate their leadership in ways that are gradual and achievable, even if it feels like a stretch, as it does for many women.
Additionally, connecting with other new administrators who are experiencing similar challenges is validating and enables them to extend their own thinking and examine their assumptions. New administrators are most successful when they give themselves permission to lead and launch their transition by building trust and credibility within their school community. When empowered to become reflective leaders and continue their growth they, in turn, will be able to support new administrators in the future.