How to Debrief Mistakes
Blog, Leadership Skills and Implementation

Principal as Instructional Coach: Debriefing a Mistake

By Terry Wilhelm

Principals, how do you handle it when your assistant principal misjudges a situation, takes action that is too strong or not strong enough, or otherwise errs in leadership? These situations can occur when APs — especially new ones — encounter problems they did not face as classroom teachers. Sometimes the assistant principal is acting in your absence; other times she or he is acting in areas where you have specifically assigned responsibility.

The way a principal handles an AP’s misstep shapes their future relationship

Wise principals begin working with new APs at the outset of their tenure together to anticipate and prepare for problem situations, but of course, it is impossible to anticipate every possible circumstance. How you handle the missteps that do occur will determine not only the tone of your continued relationship but the AP’s willingness to take continued risks and grow in leadership.

It may be that a particular blunder resulted in embarrassment or additional work for you, and you feel a sense of irritation about it. But just as you want your district supervisor to support and redirect you respectfully when you make the occasional mistake, your AP will benefit more from your patient feedback than from your anger.

Questions to consider before discussing a mistake with your AP

Consider these questions before you meet with your assistant principal to debrief the situation:

  • Am I ready to discuss the incident with my AP, or do I need more time for my own emotional reaction?
  • If I made a similar blunder, how would I want my district supervisor to handle it with me?
  • How can I correct the situation without causing my AP to lose face and authority with staff, parents, or students?

Shared problem-solving opportunities

Do I provide my AP with sufficient opportunities to shadow and partner with me in situations that are likely to result in further problems if they are mishandled, or do I step in and take charge to save time and trouble for myself? APs whose area of operation is largely confined to student discipline, for example, are more likely to be ill-prepared to handle new, challenging leadership situations.

Missing a skill set or some important information

It’s important to ask yourself what information or skill set was missing that caused your AP to make a mistake. How can you ensure that he or she has what is needed next time? If it is a missing skill, how can you help him or her practice? Consider practicing through role-playing, or handling the next, similar situation together.

Investment in your AP’s development has short- and long-term benefits

Although mentoring and guiding an AP in leadership development requires an investment of time, it is a critical investment. In the short term, your school, staff, and students will benefit significantly. In the best case, you are creating a collegial relationship that will last long after your assistant has left your school and gone on to his or her own principalship.

In the long term, you are providing a valuable service to the education community: preparing a future leader for success in your own district, or another district. Developing your AP in leadership is part of the legacy you will leave as a leader.

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