The Role of the Deputy Principal: "When you are up to your neck in alligators, it's hard to remember the original objective was to drain the swamp"


I recall meeting with a deputy principal and he was bemoaning his fate on a particular day. He said that he was unable to get his job done because of all of the interruptions to his day. I replied that maybe he would feel that his day would be better if he realised that the interruptions were actually his job!

Being the deputy principal of a school is usually seen as part of the transition to a principalship; but it is more than a high level apprenticeship. Although many principals take time to empower, nurture and develop their deputy principals, it is not usually a succession planning strategy to replace themselves! The deputy principals need to be able to develop skills that are transferable not only between schools but also between the role of a deputy and the role of a principal- and they are remarkably different.

A quick internet search of the role of a deputy principal will quickly find a number of statements in several sites such as “supports the principal in the leadership of the school” or “involved in educational leadership and the overall management of all school staff” or other equally high level but very broad descriptors.

The reality is that deputy principals are often seen on the ‘front-line’ when it comes to school activities and events. Common tasks often include being the ‘minder’ at student social events, the person who settles the school just before the principal arrives to address an assembly, the behaviour management specialist who handles the children who just have to spend time out of class, the security person who locks up the school after parent/teacher evenings and, in any spare time left, the person who manages the timetable, coordinates relief teachers, chairs various meetings and delegates for the principal in his or her absence.

Being a teacher in a school is an incredibly rewarding position and nearly all deputy principals began their careers in education as teachers. Although most of the rewards are intrinsic, teachers can see the results of their efforts on an almost daily basis as children grow and learn and apply newly acquired skills to solve problems. The deputy principal, on the other hand, may not regularly see the children who want to learn, who want to do the best that they can do. The deputy often sees the children who, for whatever reason, are unable to behave in a manner that is acceptable to their teacher. This means that it takes considerably longer to see their efforts to help these students become a reality. Those intrinsic thanks are less and less frequent.

Education Queensland provides a detailed job description for a deputy principal and goes as far as allocating a suggested time allowance for each range of tasks. However, they also look at the risks associated with the role and even determine a number of psychosocial risks that should be considered by anyone contemplating taking on such a role. This is quite a different take on the demands of this role within a school. It is a reminder that there are risks associated with roles as well as with situations or tasks.

According to the School of Educators, some of the roles of a deputy (vice) principal also include:

  • Working closely with the principal on a daily basis to ensure the smooth overall operation of the school.
  • Supporting committees of staff and parents that function to improve the learning and social environment of the school for the students.
  • Teaching classes and developing rapport with the students
  • Resolving conflicts between students, teachers, parents or combinations of conflicts between various individuals.
  • Assisting in annual teacher evaluations, assisting in providing guidance to staff and students, and encouraging a positive culture in the school.
  • Developing emergency response plans for schools as required by State and Federal education agencies.
  • Record keeping as required through the use of various logs, tracking records, computer programs, inter or intranet software or other programs.

However, as the deputy principal is also charged with dealing with any issue that is not allocated to anyone else and their job is also made up of the interruptions of the day, it can be very difficult for the deputy to remember that the main aim was to drain the swamp, when they are up to their necks in alligators.

So how can a principal assist a deputy principal to ‘drain the swamp’? There are a number of questions that need to be raised and answered such as:

  • If the board appoints the principal and the principal appoints the deputy principal, will the board accept the deputy principal as the relieving principal when the principal is absent?
  • Does the deputy principal have a positive relationship with the business manager and will the business manager accept the deputy principal as the relieving principal when the principal is absent?
  • Does the principal have sufficient confidence in the deputy principal to allow them to take over the reins during a period of absence of the principal?
  • Is the principal capable of giving this responsibility to the deputy principal, regardless of competence or confidence? In other words, can the principal let go?
  • Do the staff see the deputy principal as the person who delegates for the principal in their absence?
  • Do the students, the parents and the wider community also see the deputy principal as the delegate of the principal when the principal is not present?
  • Are there any day to day duties of the deputy principal that should be given a priority or others that should be shared with or given to other ‘middle leaders’ in the school to help them to develop in their leadership roles?
  • Is the school of sufficient size and resourcing to allow the role to be split to become more manageable? Is this feasible or warranted? For example, some schools separate pastoral care from administrative deputy principal roles.
  • Has the principal identified the true strengths (and weaknesses) of the deputy principal and structured the role around the strengths whilst providing support to help the deputy principal to develop skills in other areas?
  • Does the deputy principal have a mentor from another school who can provide support and perhaps offer strategies to make better use of the limited time during the school day?

There are many occasions when a principal simply cannot be in attendance at their school. For absences of one or two days, usually the school can manage without someone replacing them. However, for longer term absences such as sabbatical leave or long service leave, the principal should be replaced to maintain the overall stability and cultural direction of the school. In addition, the principal is the conduit of communication with the board.

During these times, a deputy principal will often be asked to assume the role of relieving principal. Given the myriad of day to day tasks assigned to the deputy principal, has there been time for suitable training for this role? Is there simply an assumption that the deputy principal can and will step up into the highest leadership role in the school? Is this a risk that your school should mitigate against?

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About the Author

Craig D’cruz

With 37 years of educational experience, Craig D’cruz is the National Education Lead at CompliSpace. Craig provides direction on education matters including new products, program/module content and training. Previously Craig held the roles of Industrial Officer at the Association of Independent Schools of WA, he was the Principal of a K-12 non-government school, Deputy Principal of a systemic non-government school and he has had teaching and leadership experience in both the independent and Catholic school sectors. Craig currently sits on the board of a large non-government school and is a regular presenter on behalf of CompliSpace and other educational bodies on issues relating to school governance, school culture and leadership.

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