I am a high school assistant principal. It’s a long title (six syllables) – part of me yearns for the days when I could say “teacher” (two syllables). Part of me wishes to step up that last, slick, steep rung of the school leadership ladder to be able to say “I’m the principal” to effectively halve my syllable load. I also don’t like to say “I’m the assistant principal” – after all, at my school, there are two of us. I’m an assistant principal (seven!). (I’ve stopped saying “AP” entirely – too easy to confuse with the College Board-approved courses)
One of the many examples of semantic variance in education is the title attached to my job. Those reading this post who occupy the same role might be called “vice principal” or “associate principal”…perhaps even a “dean of students.” Our title can accrete even greater complexity; I have seen “Instructional Vice Principal”, “Administrative Vice Principal”, “Assistant Principal of Facilities”, “Assistant Principal of Curriculum”…The packaging is labeled differently and confusion sets in.
What is my purpose, what am I here to do?
Perhaps British television has some answers. After watching countless conversations between fastidious valets and the Lords they attend through nearly three seasons of “Downton Abbey”, I think “Principal’s Valet” wouldn’t be so far-flung a descriptor. After all, the valet is the dividing line between a Lord looking merely mortal and one who exudes the pomp, gravitas, and moral buoyancy of the aristocracy. The valet’s true value is in his attention to detail, ever on the lookout for a scuffed collar or loose thread – signs of earthliness, of normalcy, something attributable to the common man. And when the Lord has a moment of doubt, when he steps outside of his role as Master and seeks the advice of a trusted equal, the gifted valet offers wisdom that doesn’t condescend, suggests a course of action without himself taking on airs. In essence, the valet knows that clothes and confidence make the man. And a successful Lord means a successful valet.
That said, I have come to the title that best fits my job, the one that deftly captures the necessary intimacy that must be struck for a site leadership team to be successful – er, for the Lord to maintain the dignity of his estate and sustain the wellbeing of his servants, tenants…(okay, “Downton” analogy officially called off…)
I am a copilot.
My epiphany came a year ago while reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, Chapter 7: “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes.” My crystal ball tells me that I will refer to this chapter of this book early and often in future posts – enough to warrant a shorthand of sorts. Maybe I’ll reference it simply as “Chapter 7”, as in: “To further validate this point, re-read Chapter 7 and make sure to highlight the parts you haven’t highlighted yet – they’re really important too!”
So, in “Chapter 7”, Gladwell makes a simple point: the way pilot and copilot work and communicate together is a matter of life and death. If the copilot doesn’t talk straight to the pilot – if the reigning culture in the cockpit is one of “mitigated speech” (p. 194) – then the runway gets missed and the plane crashes into a mountainside. Or the fuel runs out and the plane crashes in the ocean. In a culture that puts a primacy on hierarchy, the copilot sugarcoats (mitigates) how she or he speaks to the pilot. His or her nuanced understanding of the technical and human elements required for a successful mission – earned through years of training and hands-on experience – gets lost in the divide imposed by positional authority. Probably not one full page into the chapter, my epiphany in full bloom, I was no longer reading about planes; I was reading about schools and my place in them as an assistant principal – as a copilot (three syllables!).
Now that I’ve settled on a title, I have a bigger question: What does it take to be great at what I do?
Principal and 2.0-hero George Couros puts it aptly in a recent post on his excellent blog – great assistant principals are ones that will, in part, “challenge authority.” The primary authority figure in our professional lives is our principal – the one with the unenviable position of being at the controls for the big decisions, the one that staff, community, superintendent, and trustees look to for answers, ideas, and accountability. It is a tough thing to be in charge and to be open to critical feedback – and feedback comes from more than just us copilots! Our success as copilots is intrinsically tied to the “cockpit culture” our principals create – principals that know that flying the plane isn’t about being in charge, but utilizing the human and technical resources at hand to land safely.
I count myself as a lucky copilot, now working with my second principal graced with this key mindset. They have struck the crucial balance between confidence and humility. They know that getting to the best answers means engaging the intelligence of their team – and beyond. As I observe my principal navigate daily the personal, political, and technical challenges of leading a school, I look into my own future and ask the question: When I am principal, will my assistant principals – and, by extension, staff – sugarcoat what they tell me for fear of upsetting their captain? I would argue that this is the principal’s greatest power, and that the success of virtually any effort to improve student learning and nourish a vibrant school culture rests with this one disposition.
I have one more title: I am a principal-in-training. One purpose of this blog is to exchange ideas about what that means. What does it mean to you?