Guest post by Holly Ripley
As you well know, the role of the assistant principal has changed dramatically since the days when our primary responsibility was to serve as the resident disciplinarian. Addressing poor student behavior is of course still a necessary part of the job, but I work to minimize the time I spend on it so I can do the important work of coaching teachers and—sometimes directly, often indirectly—guiding students. If all students are in classes where they feel cared about, comfortable, and confident in learning, then we ultimately have very little misbehavior to deal with.
As an assistant principal at West Fargo High School in West Fargo, ND, my job involves maintaining a laser-like focus on performance data and guiding my school through big challenges, from frequent principal turnover to sudden growth resulting from a booming local oil economy. I’ve led the creation of a customized Multi-Tiered System of Supports to catch struggling students early and strove to create a culture centered on positive relationships. My 1,400 students know me as someone who will challenge them so that they not only succeed in high school, but in their life after graduation as well.
Yet, my involvement goes way beyond the academic. My school experienced a terrible loss not long ago: the death of five students in a single year—two due to suicide. The tragedy inspired me to become certified as a Question, Persuade, Refer (QPR) trainer so I can provide guidance to teachers and, hopefully, prevent such an event from ever happening at our school again.
From Enforcer to Mentor
Working with students who are struggling, in whatever sense, is a key part of the job. In working with such students, I find that it’s crucial to go deeper—past the negative behavior or undesirable outcomes you’re seeing on the surface down to the issues that are the root cause of the problem. Sometimes, they just need help seeing their way to the future, or even to the next step. Students especially—although sometimes even adults—have a difficult time mapping out a plan to achieve their goals. When a student is able to lay his or her cards on the table, it is then a pleasure to help them get to the next steps to improve their circumstances.
Take Abdi, for example. Abdi was struggling to get to school at all, to get to school on time, to focus at school, etc. When I built enough trust, he was able to confide in me that he was living in his car and did not have a family here. Through some community and personal connections, I worked to find him a family to take him in. Abdi’s attitude, spirit, and schoolwork began to improve, and he worked his way to graduation. This was an incredible opportunity, and I thank God I was in a position to help him.
Abdi’s experience is a reminder of my day-to-day goals. The list is long, but three goals remain paramount:
- Ensure that all students are learning.
- Provide appropriate structures so all teachers and students can be their best selves.
- Walk alongside students as they develop their own life plans, and guide them through that process.
Doing these things is often far from easy, but always worth the effort.
Holly Ripley is the assistant principal of West Fargo High School in North Dakota and the 2016 National Assistant Principal of the Year.