Principal Hotline: How Do I Manage My Admin Assistant?

Don’t assume someone knows how you expect them to do their job.

Shocked woman receiving bad news on the phone

Dear Principal Hotline,

My administrative assistant was hired by my predecessor, and I’m having some difficulty managing her. She means well and is usually good with the students, but sometimes she can be so inappropriate. One day, she told a student not to pee on the seat when he came in to use the bathroom! It was embarrassing for people in the office, but most importantly for the child.

She also leaves her desk too often and gets caught up socializing with other staff for long periods of time—she grew up with the custodian and librarian, and they are the worst offenders! This creates many problems, but most of all with answering phones and maintaining building security. I’m considering having her do a self-evaluation before we do a formal evaluation. Any other ideas?


Needs Order

Dear Needs Order,

I think the most important thing to remember here is that expectations can vary widely between supervisors. Before we start talking about formal actions, like counseling memos or evaluations, let’s talk about how to clarify things and help you find the best way to communicate your expectations.

Evaluate your expectations.


How much chatting is too much? How do you want bathroom trips, lunches, and breaks measured, especially if some days your assistant is missing them entirely? Does she work late or come in early? Do you feel like she should be? Is it detrimental for your clerical and custodial staff to have a supportive working relationship? Have clear answers, for yourself, of what you want from your assistant and why. Clarity and transparency are key to maintaining positive relationships with your employees. If you only know what you don’t want, any conversations you have will focus on the negative, and that may throw weed killer on all possible growth opportunities.

Create a calendar of duties.

Sit down with your assistant and work together to compile a calendar of her duties, organized by month, that she needs to maintain throughout the school year. This process will help you determine whether she’s wandering off or chatting too much because she simply has nothing to do. It will also help you have a very clear blueprint for whomever replaces her (whether it’s in the very near or distant future). Clerical positions in school districts often have vague job descriptions for singular job titles, which can serve in one of many diverse roles. If neither of you is sure what work she’s not doing, it’s much harder to pinpoint reasons she can’t be having a conversation with a coworker during downtime.

Meet every week.

Put a half hour on the calendar for every Monday morning. This will allow you to check in, and you can mutually share your goals for this week and any problems that arose during the previous week. Addressing her behavior as part of a larger conversation about the previous week as a whole will let her share whether she was having a particularly terrible day (maybe she was commiserating with the custodian about a code-green situation that happened inches from her desk) or whether she was held up on her way to the bathroom by a teacher’s assistant concerned about their paycheck having incorrect hours. By building a stronger rapport, she’ll be able to anticipate your administrative needs better. And you’ll have an easier time having the really difficult conversations.

Have a frank conversation about your expectations.

Maybe your predecessor found humor in her inappropriate comments. Maybe they encouraged her to remind students not to make a mess when they’re using the bathroom. Professionalism is, to an extent, subjective, and your assistant’s background may simply not have taught her what the level of professionalism you expect looks like. Perhaps she feels that as clerical staff, her personal standards should be lower. Until you explain exactly what you’re looking for in an assistant, you’re going to have a disconnect.

Finally, after you’ve clarified what she should (or shouldn’t) do, give her the opportunity to alter her behavior. Two weeks should be enough time. Then hand her a self-evaluation.

Don’t tolerate fireable offenses. But remember that your clerical staff is the epicenter of, and they can set the tone for, the entire building. A disgruntled assistant who feels she is being treated unfairly can turn everything toxic.

If she hasn’t altered her actions so that she’s compliant with your expectations and is evaluating herself well, it’s time to have a very serious conversation about her performance. Complete a formal evaluation, then follow your district’s procedures for escalating disciplinary action when appropriate.

Treat this as an opportunity for you to grow as a leader. What would your best self do? How would the best principal you’ve ever worked handle the situation? What would you like your superior to do if the positions were flipped?

You’ve got this.

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