Katherine Holden, a seventh-year assistant principal at Ashland Middle School in Ashland, Ore., was named this week as the Assistant Principal of the Year by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
Holden, who taught at Ashland High School for 10 years and at the middle school for three before becoming an AP in 2015, hadn’t considered leadership until her school’s principal and the school leader at her daughter’s elementary school urged her to think about administration.
Holden took a stint as principal for a time in 2020 when her principal became the district’s interim superintendent. She was also tested that same year when the school became a haven for families from Ashland and neighboring communities displaced by a disastrous wildfire.
She shared some of her thoughts on serving in those roles during the pandemic and some tips for assistant principals from her experiences. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On how the AP role changed during the pandemic
Many of us become assistant principals because we are drawn to the work, because we love to organize, we love to plan, we love to anticipate. I think a lot of us love to do our jobs well.
The pandemic took a lot of the fun out of that. I felt myself doing all sorts of things I had never done in the past: learning all the technology— literally learning that so that I could then support staff members and teachers across the district with that new skill. Helping problem-solve the incidental tech pieces, going into [the] classroom, connecting cords, adjusting cameras, doing demonstration videos.
If my job shifted some, it was also because I was providing much more family resources and connections with families, in more personal ways — making sure that students had basic materials at home so that they could complete their school work. Being more of a kind of community-based resource center than we had been in the past. My role also shifted to providing more support for teachers and staff who were just having the biggest challenge of their lives.
On how APs can get the most of their experience
The advice I would give is just to have a growth mindset, bring forth your ideas. Keeping your focus on what’s best for students, each individual student, but also bringing forward creative ideas I think [are] great ways to approach your principal, because they will see that you are a forward-thinker and you are bringing a lot of helpful ideas and information to the table.
The advice I would give is just to have a growth mindset, bring forth your ideas.
One example of that was that when the State of Oregon passed their first guidance around transgender students. I think it was back in my first or second year of being an assistant principal. I saw that as an opportunity to research different organizations that were working with LGBTQ+ students and had some templates and plans. Through that, I was able to develop an Ashland Middle School personal education plan that supported transgender students, that helped us format our process for talking to students about what was important to them, what their preferred pronouns and preferred names were, etc.
Seeing that opportunity and wanting to make sure we had the best possible process for working with our students was an example of when you see an opportunity to move forward with that.
On why school should be fun
I have a lot of fun at my job. I had a lot of fun being part of a school community, and, similarly, I want students to feel being at Ashland Middle School is a place where they feel safe, where they’re connected to peers and are connected to their teachers, and that even they would agree that they are having fun on a daily basis—whether that’s laughing in a classroom, whether that’s connecting with peers at lunchtime playing a game.
Of course, this job can be hard. There’s a lot of hardship that comes up with supporting this many families, this many students. But I think if we’re not also connecting with each other in really positive ways, then it’s not sustainable. Even this recognition this week has been a breath of fresh air for all of us to have a big reason to celebrate and a lot of reasons to smile and laugh together. We have fun together, we laugh together, we all celebrate each other.