A career in education can look vastly different from one professional to the next. And over time, professional goals take different shapes. So what your ideals are as a preservice teacher are can evolve during your career. Employment options in the education sector are incredibly varied, which is just one of the reasons the teaching profession is so enticing to school leavers.
Some of us are adamant that we’re destined for a lengthy career in the classroom, delivering curriculum, assessing, but importantly, building relationships with students.
But others have aspirations to be school leaders. But that’s not to say it’s a trade-off. In the role of deputy or assistant principal, head of curriculum, head of department, or indeed school principal, educators still influence, inspire and engage with students on a daily basis.
They also coordinate and support school staff, mentor establishing and beginning teachers, are an integral part of a school’s behaviour management program, and much, much more.
If you’ve ever so much as thought about what it would be like to become a school executive, this is the episode for you.
I’ll be talking with two teachers who made the decision to step into school leadership without sacrificing their classroom teaching roles.
We’d love to have you at our next live, online podcast event!
Full Episode Transcript: Assistant Principal Chat
Bron: We’re super excited to be recording our very first live episode of For the Love of Teaching. We’ve now produced over 160 studio episodes but what we’re even more proud of as a team is the incredible community of education professionals with gathered together and gotten to know in the last year and a half. So thank you so much for listening, subscribing and sharing our episodes. We’re so grateful and it really does help us to reach more teachers’ ears, which is the whole aim of the podcasting game; to help teachers.
So before we begin, I’d like to just quickly introduce the other Teach Starter staff members here. This afternoon we have Melissa, who is the community and events coordinator here at Teach Starter. And I’m also joined by Holly who is our digital content producer and teacher. And Mel and Holly will both be helping to facilitate the questions which are going to be happening at the end of the session.
Introducing our Guests, Assistant Principals Tam and Sarah
So, which brings me to, of course our lovely guests for today. And today we have Sarah Westin and Tam Bickersteth.
Sarah: Hi guys.
Bron: How are you?
Sarah:Yeah, good. I’m so happy to be here and I just loved this being in isolation is such a nice thing to do.
Tam: So social it is, isn’t it?
Bron: Yeah. This is something we’ve been wanting to do for a little while and it’s just the best timing I think to launch it is um, we can’t do our live in-person events and we can’t do our in-person podcast recordings. So how are you going, Tam? How was your day today?
Tam: Oh, I’m good. It’s um, second day back of terms. So I was saying to you guys, it’s just been a crazy as I think it is for everyone at the moment, but very busy day week.
Um, but yeah, I’m excited to be here!
Sarah: And look at you. You’re still in your classroom. You go girl, it looks like a beautiful place to be. You’ve put a lot of effort into there.
Bron: And Sarah, we’ve been seeing you setting up your classroom on Instagram in the last week or two.
Sarah: So I’m just missing the one pivotal thing. My kids.
Bron: Yeah. Kind of important. Yeah.
Bron: We are ready to kick this off. So excited it’s happening. Thank you so much for being here. Thank you guests. Thank you for registering. It was phenomenal to see how many of you registered for our first live podcast. So it’s absolutely exciting and yeah, if you’ve ever so much has even thought about what it would be like to become a school executive, this is the episode for you. So I’m talking to Tam and Sarah who both made the decision to step into school leadership without sacrificing their classroom roles.
What is an Assistant Principal?
Tam and Sarah both kept one foot in the classroom. Sarah is acting as a, an assistant principal and Tam is a permanent assistant principal. It’s so tricky because everywhere, everywhere in the world is um, different. It’s also even the States and territories I think we differ as again, so yeah, exactly. Well I’ve been calling it, um, administration team and then Tam said, “Oh, we call our like office staff, the admins and we call the deputies and principals, the assistant principals and principals, the, the executive team.”
So we call our office staff secretaries or something else a little bit different. So that might help disambiguate that a little bit for listeners, but it’s a bit tricky. We will sort through it.
So firstly, teachers would be able to tell us a little bit about your role. So maybe
Sarah, since you’re at the top of my screen, you first. Tell us about your role.
Sarah: All right. So my role, um, as you said, Bron, I’m still very much in the classroom. I am a permanent classroom teacher. Um, and I’m currently relieving in an assistant principal position and I’ve been doing that since 2018. Um, and I’ve been loving it ever since. Um, so my classroom teacher position, I, I’m in Monday to Thursday and then Friday I’m also, I guess doing admin, um, as some people would call it, um, and fulfilling duties that, um, aligned to the leadership position.
Tam, could you tell us a little bit about your role please?
Tam: Yeah, so I am also full time kindergarten teacher. Um, well the first year of school we’ve, we’ve talked before about the confusion between that as well. Um, it seemed to all call things the same thing. So I, yeah, full time, five days a week in the classroom. But I’m also, um, the supervisor of the early stage one or the kindergarten team and the classes. Um, and I’m on the leadership team with the other APs, the deputy and the principal.
And we, um, yeah, sort of work as a team to then lead the school, I guess. And, um, come up with this strategic directions for the, where the school is going next to professional learning, all of those sorts of things. So it’s kind of, yeah, a mix of both things.
Sarah: It’s busy.
Bron: Yes, it does sound very busy and we’re going to get to time management and how you juggle those roles later on in the episode. But, um, I just wanted to ask you each cause I find this really interesting how people actually make that call or that decision to go into leadership. So can you just tell us probably, we’ll start with you this time, Tam.
Why did you decide to go into leadership and did you always have aspirations to do this from the very beginning of your teaching career?
Tam: So, I mean, I think when I first started teaching in the classroom, I don’t think it was really on my radar. I hadn’t really thought, um, but I think quite early on I found like, um, I guess I’m someone that sees gaps or sees things that need doing and I just kind of get in and I do them. Um, one of my principals once said to me, gee, just don’t let the grass grow under your feet. You know, you see something, come and take, bring an idea to me, and the next day you’re running with it. Um, and so I think from very early on, I was very lucky that I did have opportunities to, um, lead various things within the school that I was in. Um, but I think in terms of like, when did I sort of realise that maybe the being an assistant principal was for me?
Um, I think I sort of just realised that my, you know, my big passion is, is teaching kids, but my other big passion is mentoring teachers. And I realised that that was sort of something I was already doing. I was beginning to mentor new teachers. I was, um, I taught year two for a number of years and I had very experienced teachers coming down to you to two for the first time. And so they were coming to me and I was supporting them in, in teaching you to, and yeah. So when this role came up, I sort of thought, you know, maybe I could do this. Um, and now here I am. So I think, yeah, I think it’s, it’s once I sort of got a taste for it, um, I realised that, that I really had two passions teaching the kids but also supporting and mentoring teachers as well.
Bron: I love that, Tam. So it’s kind of like a bit of a combination of two things. You already had the characteristics or perhaps the skillset and the personality type that would suit those roles and then it kind of evolved as you, um, were offered opportunities.
Tam: That’s a way of putting it. Yeah.
Bron: That’s amazing. Thank you for sharing. And Sarah, how did you come about your admin or executive role?
Sarah: Yeah, it’s interesting listening just to you, Tam, it sounds like a common denominator in that, um, you know, even I saw a need within the school and I would just kind of get it done or take it in my stride naturally. And I think that’s part of the skillset that comes with being a leader as well. Um, for me, I think I knew quite early on that I wanted to move into leadership. I was very aware.
Um, and that kind of meant that moving into the classroom teacher position initially I really wanted to ground my skillset with best practice, research based approach. Um, and I guess look to people within my school who were really good leaders and sort of ask myself, why are they a good leader, you know, why am I looking to them as a mentor? Um, you know, and there were certain things, um, like embracing failure and letting me know that it was okay to make mistakes, um, giving really good advice and things like that. And I guess I started to collect those things along the way and trying to align myself to those things. Um, and I’ve always maintained a high level of professionalism as a classroom teacher. Um, yeah. And just, I guess moving through my, with those things in mind, um, to get to leadership. Yeah. I guess, yeah. If that answers the question. Um, I guess just early on, really early on, I just knew that’s what I wanted to pursue. Yeah.
Bron: Yeah, that’s really cool to hear you say that as well because I think that for a lot of beginning and establishing teachers, they do have that kind of seed somewhere planted that they, they have, um, aspirations or questions about, or what it’s about down the track in their career and making it happen is a whole other thing. So it’s, it’s great to hear that you, um, researched and read and watched others’ practise to learn from other, from other professionals as well because that’s, they’re a great resource to learn from. That’s only just working through Sarah, those steps that it took you to become a school leader. So from I guess graduating uni, um, could you just break down for us like how many years it was between graduating uni and then actually stepping into this role and did you do acting roles in that time? Like how did that actually progress for you?
What are the steps from university to becoming an Assistant Principal?
Sarah: Yeah, so I, um, I asserted myself very early on to the team of executives that I did want to pursue leadership and it wasn’t something that I thought was going to happen the next day or the next year. Um, but I wanted to know what it looked like so I could be, um, you know, aligning myself myself with those things. Um, so my first year was on a gifted and talented class. I was doing an RFF role. I was, um, on the learning and support team taking withdrawal groups and things like that. Um, and then that was about a half year and then I had two years in the classroom. Um, and with all of that experience, I then moved to my permanent classroom teacher position. Um, and that was at a different school and I again asserted myself, um, to the executives and asked again, what is it that I can do to pursue leadership or what that, that looks like.
Um, and I guess I always took on roles that allowed me to work across the school with kids. So K to six, um, generally speaking in leadership, it is very heavily based on literacy and numeracy. But for the purpose of, I guess, displaying my skillset, I took on the role of Sports Coordinator, um, and I was able to make relationships with kids. You know, build relationships across the school and get to know the school community in that way, which was really valuable. Um, yeah, so it was a matter of, for me, showing that I could balance my classroom teacher position with the complexities of varying roles with different demands. Um, yeah. And then I guess as I moved more into leadership, I looked at literacy and numeracy, um, and focused on that a little bit more.
Oh, great. So that’s, yeah, that’s really interesting that you, you said that you were really open with your leadership team, that that was your intention and that was your goal in your career. So, um, I think that’s a great takeaway for anyone wanting go down this path as well because it’s really important to have a goal yourself, but also to express that to the people that are going to support you in achieving that goal, which ultimately are your superiors.
So, um, over to you now, Tam, how did you go about that? How, how has that looked for you in your teaching career?
Tam: Um, so similarities and differences. Um, I was in a school that I absolutely adored and like I said, I was given opportunities by my boss wherever he could to lead. But, um, the APs there were very, um, sort of there for a while and were not, there, was not going to be an opening for an AP role. Um, and so I sort of started to realise, well, if this is something that I want to do, I’m going to have to look elsewhere.
Which was really hard for me because I didn’t want to leave my school and I actually came here, um, on a six month. Um, it was initially a relieving role, six months, um, and I thought, great, I’ll go, I’ll get a bit of experience. Um, I applied on a complete whim. I mean, I think I applied on like week eight of term two. Within the next week I was then coming here and I had to say goodbye to my class that I loved and leave halfway through the year. And it was all, I was just thinking, what have I done? I can’t believe I’ve done this. I don’t want to go. I remember driving here on my first day of term three, just crying, thinking, why am I doing this? Like I could be going to the school that I loved this morning and said, I’m coming to this, we’ve new school anyway.
I mean, obviously the rest is history. I’m still here, I’m now permanent here. Um, and I guess I just realised that as much as I loved my old school, I loved the opportunity to do what I love but also lead as well. And, um, yeah, but I think, I suppose my point of saying that is that sometimes, um, within a school there will be opportunities, but sometimes for whatever reason there won’t be opportunities. And sometimes it involves having to take that huge leap and leave somewhere where you’re really comfortable that you love. Um, and you know, this could have not paid off for me. I could have come here and I could have hated it, or, um, you know, and that was a risk I took, but I’m obviously very glad that I did. Um, so I think, yeah, for anyone who’s thinking about it, um, being brave to, to look at opportunities outside of your school and having to accept that often you will need to leave and go somewhere else to pursue that. There’s opportunities.
Sarah: That’s such a good point, Tam.
Tam: I was at a school that I absolutely adored and still loved and yeah, it’s definitely something that could have made me say no to the classroom teacher position, the permanent one that I pursued because I could have just waited, waited for my time. But you’ve just got to act on what feels right and what comes to you at the time.
Bron: That is really good advice. Yeah. Yeah. I love that. From both of you. I think that growth is a challenge and professional growth can be scary and overwhelming. But yeah, if you are to do it, sometimes it does mean a change of location. And particularly, I know some places in Australia, and I’m sure The States as well, that won’t just mean within the same city. In Queensland, here we have vast rural teaching community. So I know a lot of teachers who go into admin do have to move to, um, country towns and do country servers, which is enormously rewarding, um, from all reports. So yes, super great to hear you say that Tam. I think that’s a really great message for the, um, for the listeners and for the guests that are here today.
So, um, we’re going to keep moving along because I do want to get to some, I’m seeing some amazing questions coming through and I want to get to some of those very soon, but, um, just for the next 10 minutes or so, we’re going to keep going with a few more questions for you. So, um, the next questions are going be, um, directed at one or the other of you. So we’re just gonna do some quick fire, rapid fire questions to see how we go. Um, if you do have anything to add, please do though, it’s really important to hear from you, so thank you. Um, so now, okay, I’m going to hit you with this one Tam. It’s a bit of a scary question.
Well, I don’t write the scary questions. Real talk time.
What is the biggest challenge of being an assistant principal? Oh, sorry, you’re not acting, but what’s the biggest challenge for you?
Tam: Um, I mean there’s a few, but there’s many joys of this and challenges I think, I mean, I’m probably, I’m going to say three things. I’ll be brief, but I think, um, having to be the bad guy sometimes is I find really hard. Um, and that’s not only when you have the kids that are sent to you cause they haven’t done the right thing. And I’m very big on making sure I see all those kids for good reasons too. But, um, it’s also just having to sometimes take the unpopular decision to the staff or having to make those tricky phone calls on behalf of staff members to parents. Um, all of those sorts of things where, um, something that’s tricky for a classroom teacher. I was in there in a bit of a tricky spot. It then comes to you and you’re the one that then has to have that tricky conversation.
Um, so I find that challenging and hard. Um, but I think the main thing I find challenging is, I mean, and it’s the same for teachers as well, is that idea of just balancing. You’ve got so many, I suppose it’s just like all of those balls that you have in here as a teacher, just like that on steroids as an AP. And, um, I think, you know, you were made an AP with the expectation that you are an excellent classroom teacher and that you are doing best practice and that you are, and as teachers and as APs, we want to be that. And I, I’m so passionate about teaching and my kids, but I’m expected to be doing that whilst also doing all of these other things that get thrown at you. And I think I have very high expectations of myself and there’s so many things I wish I could be doing with my team to make, you know, make us run even better. And you know, I wish I could be in there every day. Team teaching and doing lessons. And I mean, we do do, do that, but we, I just wish we had more time to do that.
And I’m constantly sort of, I suppose getting frustrated that I can’t do all of the things that I want to be able to do because there’s just not enough time in the day. So I find that challenging. Just that constant, just feel like you’re pulled from, yeah.
Bron: That is a very valid, um, and Tam, I think what you said definitely wrapped it up a lot. I love that analogy of like a classroom teacher juggling all the balls, but on steroids, like classroom teachers do a lot and you guys are doing this, um, you know, as well as, so that is incredible. You’re doing a great job. And I think that’s something that’s probably quite common to a lot of teachers is we never feel like we’ve done enough. We never, we never go home and say, I did everything today. Like I feel really good saying. Yeah. So it’s like that, but at worst but more so it sounds like, um, a really rewarding job, but also, yeah, it’s a, it’s um, and I know Sarah you talk a lot about um, professional reflection. Um, we talked about that a little bit last time we talked on the podcast, um, about how you like to do reflective practice and then also improving on your practice. And I know that you are both quite high achievers in your field and you have to be to have reached where you are in your careers already.
Sarah, what do you think is challenging about being an assistant principal as well as a classroom teacher?
Sarah: Everything that Tam just said, it truly is challenging because you’re pulled in so many different directions, but something that yes, I’ve reflected on the fact that way as leaders have to consciously and consistently empower our team to want to grow and learn. And you can’t tell someone what they want. You have to naturally, um, you know, have that about you. That’s why I do try and come from a research based place. That’s why I do try and justify my, my action with, um, you know, if it’s a publication or if it’s, um, best practice and I’ve had experience in doing something, I’ll always try and back myself with that because you’ve got to have a team that believes in you. Um, and that takes time as well. And I find I have found that challenging. Um, especially, you know, with perhaps experience that, um, hasn’t been as long as some other people. So, you know, they’re hurdles that I’ve had to overcome over time as well. Um, yeah.
Bron: Which is a perfect segue to my next question for you both.
Is it unusual for educators to enter leadership early on in their careers as you both have?
Bron: Because I can imagine, like you said, it’s a bit, it’s a challenge to be leading a team of, um, like a teaching team when many of those teachers will have more years of teaching experience than you have under their belt. And a lot more theory and practice of just time.
Um, practicing in classrooms is so invaluable. So is it, unusual to be a young-ish deputy principal or assistant principal and do you find that part of it challenging leading a team with others? Um, I guess what I’m trying to say is, is it, is it, um, more, is it more or equally rewarding leading a team of adults as it is leading a class of children?
Sarah: I was just going to say I think because thank you to Bron um, because that question, um, is brought up quite a lot. I think that indicates that, um, perhaps it isn’t normal for lack of a better word for, um, younger people to move immediately into leadership. Um, I’ve certainly had my fair share of, you know, being challenged and being questioned and rightly so because there are people out there with years of experience, um, and you can’t match experience.
It is what it is. Um, but that’s not to say that, you know, a classroom teacher who’s been out for three years doesn’t have the same, you know, quality practice that someone who’s been out for 10 years or so.
Something really beautiful happened at the end of last year actually. Am, you know, a colleague said to me, you know, when you first came to, um, when you first came to this school and moved straight into leadership, I’ll be honest in saying that I did question it. I did think why and I did think, why you, um, but over time and watching it come full circle and the quote was that, you know, “You are the real deal” and I don’t need that kind of conversation to validate, um, I guess my practice and my belief in myself as a leader. Um, but it was interesting to hear the perspective of someone else who perceived me initially, um, perceived my ability just based on my age.
Um, but for it to come full circle. So I guess the main message there is to maintain belief in yourself and there will be people trying to nudge you off your road, um, but just stay on your path and um, keep on going.
Bron: Beautiful. That’s amazing. Sarah. Thank you for sharing that because I think that that’s exactly what, um, teachers need to hear no matter where they are in their career. If you’ve got a goal and you’ve got to have something set out to do, then um, it’s really important to keep plugging away at it. And, um, irrespective of your experience level, if you have the professional capability and backing to do it and, and the right support around you. Um, definitely doable.
I’ve got one more question to ask, just last thoughts in this kind of space.
What advice would you each give someone who regardless of their experience level is aiming for administration or wanting to head into an executive role and what do you wish you knew when you started your journey?
So we’ve got Tam first.
Tam: Um, I think the main advice I would give is take the opportunities like fight and find opportunities. And so you don’t need to, whatever school you’re in, look at, you know, whoever’s leading the committee, and think, well that’s the only options. You know, is there a gap somewhere? Um, is there a, you know, for me it was, there was a gap in my program and then I built that up and there was um, you know, and then I also took on leadership roles of existing committees and things like that. And so I think finding opportunities, putting yourself out there and, and taking initiative, um, in terms of what I wish I knew, um, I mean having said all of what I just said, I wish I had kind of known that you just can’t do it all. And I know that, um, as a temporary teacher and then as a temporary relieving AP, I was constantly feeling like I had to prove myself.
And you know, you do spread yourself too thin, then you do take on everything and, and it’s okay to not do it all. Um, I think the other piece of advice or thing, I wish I knew, I mean, I suppose I always known it, but not everyone is going to agree with every decision you make. And you have to be okay with that if you’re going to go into leadership. And that for me has been really hard because I am a very sensitive person. I’m very heart on my sleeve and, um, I don’t have a very thick skin. And so I suppose I wish I’d probably realised that a little bit earlier and started developing my thick skin a little bit more. Um, because you have to just be okay with, and like Sarah said, you’ve got to back that what you’re doing is research based that it is, you know, um, but you have to be okay with the fact that not everyone is going to like every decision you make. And that’s the life of being a leader.
Bron: Yeah. And that’s something that you take on board every day. Um, isn’t it time when you go to work because there are so many stakeholders that you’re dealing with. You know, you’re dealing with your students, the parents, the staff, and then the community as well at that to some level. And it’s probably impossible to make everybody happy all of the time, so can be an amazing job. So, yeah. And Sarah, final thoughts from you. So what, what advice would you offer to someone thinking of going into leadership? Perhaps some things you wish you had known when you had started?
Sarah: Um, advice, I guess moving into leadership that I think sometimes the curriculum, um, the professional learning, those structures seem very obvious and something that wasn’t super duper obvious to me, which some people might be like really, um, is the social side of things, um, managing people.
That is such a huge element of leadership. And as Tam has sort of said, you’re not always going to please everyone either. And knowing how to deal with that in the moment in time and draw upon strategies, um, and to have tools in your little toolbox, um, to deal with those really uncomfortable situations is so important. So if you are thinking about going into leadership short, of course know your staff.
Um, but on the flip side of that, know your people as well. Know your teachers and get to know them really well because everyone responds differently. Um, a little something that I guess I wish I knew and a piece of advice, um, is learn for me any way to say how to say no. Um, and you can say no, as Tam said, you know, you sort of want to prove yourself and take things on and, and show that you can do it. Um, but you’ve got to put yourself first because you can’t perform, um, when you’re under the weather or you’re not fulfilling your own wellbeing. So, um, over time, that’s definitely something I’ve learned to do. Just say, Nope, Nope, that’s it. Without explanation or anything further.
Bron: Yeah. Great. Really good sound advice there. Just back yourself. And don’t be afraid to say no, I’m loving that, Sarah.
I feel like we could talk about this forever. Guests and Tam and Sarah, thank you so much for all of the insights you’ve given. You’ve been incredible and so open and honest and just real as you always are. If you want to follow Sarah and Tam, Sarah is on, Instagram is @giftedandtalentedteacher and Tam is at @misslearningbee and they are both amazing and giving and just so great. So go and have a look on there.
Tam: Thanks. Really appreciate it. Thank you for having us.
Sarah: Thanks. Love that we adore you guys. Thank you.