Climate, Culture, and the Urban Assistant Principal

Guest post by Baruti K. Kafele

Over the years, I have found the role of the urban assistant principal to be the most intriguing role in schools. In my role as a consultant, I see this role being played out so differently in so many schools—ranging from school disciplinarian to instructional leadership, and everything in between.

I often reflect back on my own tenure as an urban middle school assistant principal, when my responsibilities were relegated to school disciplinarian, cafeteria duty, bus duty, hall monitor, and staff supply inventory clerk. Instructional leadership played no part in my assistant principalship at all, and I can honestly say that the school suffered academically as a result.

UrbanAsstPrincipal.jpgPrincipals, particularly urban principals, can ill-afford to underutilize assistant principals. Assistant principals are far too valuable to the climate, culture, and overall academic success of these schools. Just like principals, they too must be utilized as instructional leaders. Utilizing assistant principals as school disciplinarians is an antiquated model that just doesn’t work in today’s challenging and demanding education landscape as it relates to academic achievement in urban schools across the U.S.

I have had numerous opportunities to speak with urban assistant principals who work in challenging environments about how they are utilized in their schools, particularly the ones who are relegated to the role of disciplinarian. The rationale is typically that student behavioral problems are so overwhelming that there is consequently no way around addressing discipline all day long. So, assistant principals’ days are, therefore, comprised of receiving disciplinary referrals from teachers—from the start of the day until dismissal. They spend enormous amounts of time reading the referrals, discussing the referrals with students, following up with the teachers who wrote them, contacting parents, and ultimately, making a decision on consequences. In theory, I get it, but in actuality, this model has outlived its usefulness. Schools utilizing the assistant principal in this fashion cannot soar optimally because under this model, one of the most important leaders in the building is confined to his/her office.

My contention is that discipline is not the problem anyway. The problem is bigger than discipline. Looking at these schools through the discipline lens is such a micro way of making correction. Instead, these schools must be looked at through the climate and culture lens—the macro way of looking at schools. To that end, there are some important questions that the leadership of these schools must ask themselves, such as:

  • What is the overall climate and culture of our school and why?
  • How much attention have we given to enhancing the climate and culture of our school versus addressing discipline?
  • What do we envision the climate and culture of the school evolving into?
  • What steps will we take to change our climate and culture?
  • What role will the assistant principals play in the climate/culture shift process?

A positive school climate and culture increase the probability that the urban assistant principal can lead instructionally, which is absolutely essential to the academic success of schools.

Baruti K. Kafele is a Milken National Educator, internationally renowned speaker, and best-selling author who has excelled in the capacity of teacher and principal. As a teacher in New Jersey, he was selected as the district and county teacher of the year. As a principal, he led the transformation of four different New Jersey urban public schools. He will lead two sessions at the Ignite ’16 Conference, February 25–27 in Orlando, FL.

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