Q: I’m one of two assistant principals in a high school. I’m responsible for the 9th and 10th grades. The other assistant principal, Colleen, covers 11th and 12th grade. We clash on several levels. I do my job and enforce the code of conduct — and she does not. She thinks I condescend to her, which is patently false. She doesn’t mind handling the easy stuff, like telling a teacher to quit showing up late for meetings or busting a kid for chewing gum or wearing a hat, but she’s lazy when it comes to the more systemic, multi-step problems, like dealing with underperforming teachers. She also can’t deal with bullying issues or anything that requires a complex solution. As a result, I do all the heavy lifting — mentoring teachers and mediating heated disputes between colleagues or among students. If I don’t take charge, those situations won’t get dealt with at all. I know I can’t tell Colleen how to do her job, especially since she already thinks I’m a chauvinist, but I really want to tell her how to do her job! As it stands, we argue all the time. I know she can’t stand me either. We’re constantly battling over our differing priorities. The principal is pretty hands-off and thinks we just need to figure this out. I get the sense that he would judge me if I complained to him. So I soldier on. But the principal’s not the one who ends up doing Colleen’s work! What can I do to fix this?
A: If you don’t oversee the same grades, there’s no reason for you to do Colleen’s work, period. I recommend that you stay in your lane. If you’re right that she’s dropping the ball, it will catch up to her — and then it will become the principal’s problem. You’re actually enabling her by taking care of the labor-intensive stuff. Plus, you’re proving her right. You clearly are telling her how to do her job and that is condescending. She’s your colleague, not your supervisee. It’s also exacerbating the tension between you. You don’t have to like each other, but you do have to be collegial and respectful. I think it’s worth noting that even I — an impartial advice columnist who has never met you — finds your tone off-putting. You talk in absolutes and don’t seem willing to consider her point of view.
I’m not suggesting that you have to accept the status quo. It’s one thing to tell Colleen that she’s doing everything wrong and another to ask for a problem-solving meeting. Schedule a time to talk when you’re not harried. Say, “I’d like to talk about how we approach our work, because I see some inconsistencies in how we deal with problems. Perhaps we could come up with three to five points of emphasis that we both care about so students and staff know what they should expect from administration.” Pose questions and lead with curiosity. Ask “How do you like to handle bullying cases?” Or “What would you like to see me handle differently?” You might discover that she’s conflict-averse and wouldn’t mind some support, or that she admires how you handle certain scenarios. Try to gain insight into her motivations. Is she burned out? Does she not care about the same things as you? Does she believe that when you handle the smaller infractions, the bigger stuff goes away? You might find her less annoying if you understand what drives her. And perhaps you’re not as far apart as you think you are. You might be able to compromise.
Schedule non-work time together too, such as lunch during the summer. You’ll have an easier time getting to know one another if you’re not distracted. You also might want to schedule a weekly meeting to discuss concerns before they balloon. Talk to your principal, too. Does he see the situation the same way you do? Does he have any suggestions? Presumably, he oversees both of you, so it’s his job to listen to your concerns. But be prepared for unwanted feedback. He could tell you that you need to stop putting out every fire, or that you’re not focusing on what really matters, or that you’re making everyone crazy. If you still need support, consult with your union or seek advice from assistant principals you know at other schools.
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