I want to advance, but my principal plays favorites

Q: I work in a highly regarded school that’s full of ambitious people, including myself. I’d like to be an administrator. Even our principal wants to be promoted to director and oversee other principals. He makes self-serving decisions about which teachers to support. He caters to staff members he thinks might have useful connections in the district. Never mind that this has backfired. It has lowered staff morale, and the very people he thinks are likely to help him can’t stand him. But that’s his problem, not mine. My issue is that I was passed over for a position as interim assistant principal when the current AP took leave to care for her sick husband. I was the better choice. I’ve taken on major school projects, have earned the respect of my colleagues, and have great credentials. Instead, the principal chose someone with minimal experience. The only thing I can see that distinguishes this interim AP is his experience working in a support position with top dogs in central office. This is cynical, but I’m sure my principal feels he stands to benefit from giving this guy’s career a boost. When I asked him to help me understand his decision-making process, he was dismissive of my concerns. He told me my time will come and shut down the dialogue. So my question has a few parts. Is there a way to get ahead in this environment? How can I get my principal to reward my good work with increased responsibility? And how can I ultimately get a job as an administrator at another school if my supervisor won’t let me assume any leadership roles? 


A:  Right now, you lack a sense of agency. In hierarchical environments, it’s easy to forget that you can advance your career on your own. Yes, it’s nice when you get some wind in your sail, but why wait for the ideal circumstances? Don’t leave your fate in your principal’s hands. Let go of the need for his approval or his permission to move forward. He’s busy focusing on himself, and you can do the same. Don’t sit around waiting for something to happen; make something happen. In other words, “don’t dwell, excel.” Identify the things in your control. At the same time, accept what’s not in your control. For instance, you can’t prevent your principal from playing favorites. You can’t force him to reward your good work with increased responsibility. And while you can speak your mind, you can’t control how he will react. As I tell my students, there’s no fairness fairy.  

Still, there’s plenty you can do. Let’s examine possible action steps. As the saying goes, luck happens for the prepared. Your goal is to be an administrator, and you say you’re credentialed. I assume that means you’ve completed all required training. If you need any more credits or an internship, start getting back on track. Make sure you have a plan to get from point A to point B. Be honest with yourself. Is your principal truly an impediment to your goals, or are you just disappointed in him?  

Once you’ve established your goals, I’d step up your networking. Although some of your supportive colleagues could be good sources of information, you say you’re operating in a competitive environment. That’s too bad, because you could all be lifting each other up. That would be win-win. Under the circumstances, outsiders and people higher up the food chain in the district may be more open to helping you. Schedule informational interviews with people doing the work you’d like to do, or ask to shadow them for a day.  

I’d also consider how you can gain related expertise. You mention that you’ve been a project leader on numerous occasions. Can you pinpoint some growth edges? Are there conferences or continuing education opportunities that would round out your skill set? Are there internal responsibilities you can assume without needing principal approval? Or leadership roles that he might be willing to let you try? Stretch yourself whenever you can. Yes, you want experiences to put on a resume or mention in interviews, but this also will improve your job satisfaction. At the same time, try to find joy and meaning in your current work with students. If you become overly focused on the future, you’ll stop feeling joy in the present.  

The irony here is that you have a lot in common with your principal. Like you, he seems to believe he needs the help of specific people to advance. That hasn’t worked for him and it won’t work for you. You’d both be better off focusing on doing good work and making your own luck. 

Have a question that you’d like Career Confidential to answer? Email to careerconfidential@pdkintl.org. All names and schools will remain confidential. No identifying information will be included in the published questions and answers. 

PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; phyllisfagell.com) is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog. She is also the author of Middle School Matters, available at https://bit.ly/2RNXVu3.

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