School & District Management

‘Misused and Undervalued': A Former Principal Wants to Elevate Assistant Principals

By Lydia McFarlane — July 06, 2023 4 min read
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Assistant principals are misused and undervalued, says Baruti Kafele, an educator, author, and motivational speaker. That’s why he’s decided to create a series of books that aim to change the way educators think about the role.

In his 14 years as a principal in East Orange, N.J., Kafele learned that many assistant principals aspire to one day become principal of their schools. While he believes assistant principals should be working alongside their principals with administrative duties, he has seen that they are often relegated to the role of disciplinarian in many schools. The focus on discipline leaves them unprepared to take on the top job when the promotion comes around.

His new book, as well as the series that it is a part of, aims to give assistant principals the confidence to step into more of a leadership role while also advising other school administrators about the proper use of the role.

Entitled The Assistant Principal Identity: Protecting Your Leadership Mindset, Fervor, and Authenticity, the new book came out in May. It is the second in his collection of what will be four books about assistant principals.

“In terms of the motivation [for the book] …, I deem the assistant principalship to be the most misunderstood and underutilized position in all of education,” he said.

Kafele’s take is backed up by research. A 2021 review of decades of studies on assistant principals found that the role is not clearly defined and that districts may be risking a critical pipeline of future leaders—one that’s filled with more women and people of color.

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Kafele decided to write The Assistant Principal Identity after completing his first book, The Assistant Principal: 50 Critical Questions for Meaningful Leadership and Professional Growth, and realizing he had much more to say. The remaining two books in the assistant principal series are scheduled to come within the next two years.

Although he has a busy schedule that includes travelling across the country to speak, Kafele said he was able to finish writing his new book in about three weeks.

“My process is very easy,” he said. “I can just be on an airplane and write chapters. I can be in a hotel and write chapters.”

Kafele said his books are inspired by the consulting, speaking, and training work he does with administrators in school districts across the country. He noticed a consistency across the board regarding what he calls the “misusage” of assistant principals in school districts.

“It’s a one-person mission that I’m on to transform that role,” he said.

060723 baruti kafele headshot BS

Kafele said that instead of partnering with principals on leadership duties such as mentoring and overseeing teachers, scheduling issues, and more, many assistant principals are put into “extra” roles, such as lunch duty, disciplining students, or gathering students for the school buses at the end of the day.

Kafele said that underutilizing and misusing an assistant principal has a trickledown effect on the students and teachers.

“Those teachers and thereby those children are being shortchanged because this person is typically reduced to a full-time disciplinarian but doesn’t have the opportunity to be in the classroom or to coach a teacher to become phenomenal,” he said.

“My audience is assistant principals, aspiring assistant principals, and new principals,” he said. “As a part of their [principals’] role, they have to know how to utilize their assistant principal if they have one. But as I say all the time, a superintendent, this is for you because you have assistant principals in your district that are being misused and underutilized.”

Because such practices are so pervasive, many assistant principals fall into their disciplinarian role without question, Kafele said. As many school districts undervalue their assistant principals, assistant principals have begun to do the same to themselves.

“Those assistant principals see themselves in this disciplinary role,” he said. “They think that’s where they belong. They think that’s what the assistant principalship is. Therefore, they embrace it.”

Beyond discipline, Kafele said assistant principals should focus on instruction and coaching teachers within the school. Getting exposure to leadership, coaching, and managerial duties on the job would better prepare assistant principals to be effective leaders, he said.

“When they get that promotion or when they apply for that principalship, they’re in a position now as #1, as the leader, that they know nothing about,” he said. “They don’t know anything about instruction; they don’t know anything about a budget.”

Kafele said another key takeaway from the book for school leaders should be to “safeguard” their professional learning and experience.

Because administrative positions are demanding and not as hands-on with students, Kafele urges assistant principals to check-in with themselves about their reasons “why” so they don’t forget why they are doing the job. This is an example of what he means by “safeguarding” professional learning and experiences. While it is OK to advance in one’s educational career, it can be easy to lose sight of the reason and passion for doing the job.

“With this book, mindset, fervor, and authenticity, the takeaway would be, ‘Leader, you are growing and developing, but as you reach those levels of attainment through your professional learning and experience, now you have to safeguard it,” he said. “If you are not deliberate about safeguarding that which you’ve gained, you can compromise it and ultimately lose it.”

Without safeguarding the progress one has made, school leaders may lose their passion for education, or whittle it down from a passion to a job.

Being in administrative positions in education can be demanding and difficult, so he also advises leaders to protect themselves and check in with themselves, so they never lose the passion to the difficulties of the job.

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