Dealing with two internal applicants

The assistant principal of the senior school goes on study leave so an acting AP position becomes available. Two internal applicants apply and the appointment decision made causes ripples which last the whole year.

A position becomes available

This dilemma grew from what I thought was a simple decision based on my professional judgment. I had been at the school for nearly six months when our associate principal in the senior school was due to go on study leave. We had to appoint someone to his position for a year. In consultation with the management team we drew up a job description but advertised the job internally first. Two of the current staff applied. Being new to the school I consulted the board chairperson about who would make the decision. He said that I could. This was probably where my problems began.

Both teachers made a formal application. When I made the decision there was no doubt in my mind that I gave the job to the best person. Mary was a more experienced teacher, particularly at Year 7 and 8 level.

Anne, the unsuccessful applicant, was naturally unhappy and questioned the process. “Who made the decision? That’s not what the policy says!” She was actually wrong about the policy but wasn’t in any mood to listen to the reasons why she was unsuccessful. She rang the board chairperson to complain about how unfair it all was. He fortunately supported my decision. I realised she was disappointed but I thought that she would get over it. Little did I know ...

Immediately after this issue was resolved (or so I thought) we broke up for the school year.

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Undermining behaviour

We all returned to school for the new year and Anne became part of the management team because of another position she held in the school. We had already discussed this happening before she applied for the acting AP position. To my dismay, as soon as she was on the team, she took every opportunity to undermine Mary. She made a point of disagreeing with any suggestions Mary made, and she turned people on the staff (particularly beginning teachers) against Mary, while all the time being nice on the surface and showing support for me.

When I began to realise that things were not going very well between Mary and Anne I spoke to each individually. I asked if there was a way we could work better together and if they could identify what the problem was. They both emphatically denied there was a problem.

Anne had been in the school a long time and had a very close group of friends on the staff who followed her lead. These staff didn’t seem to recognise that there was a problem with Anne’s behaviour. They couldn’t see her sulking at staff meetings like I could, and arguing or refusing to speak at senior management meetings when things didn’t go her way. They only ever heard Anne’s version of what was happening.

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Anne and Mary won’t budge

After several attempts at trying to offer help for the obvious issues they had with each other, we met in my office. I gave them both the opportunity put their issues on the table.

Neither took any responsibility for what was happening and they ended up screaming at each another. I tried to mediate. I could see that part of the problem was that they had very similar personalities. Neither would give an inch.

I had a sleepless night.

The next morning, Anne came to my office to talk to me. She cried and said she had tried to work with Mary but didn’t know what more she could do. She was very good at being the victim.

At that time I didn’t realise that she had behaved like this with a previous principal. Like most people I had thought she was a supportive person and it wasn’t until much later that I realised she was undermining my decisions. When I confronted her about undermining me she denied it and told me she was hurt I thought she would behave like that!

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Where to next?

I was beginning to despair about where we went next. I had thought I was a reasonably successful principal before this all started and I wondered if I would be again. I am quite an open person who believes that talking something out with the other person is the first thing you do in trying to solve a problem. I had never worked with two people like this before! I couldn’t believe adults could be so immature and unprofessional.

When it came to appraisal sign offs I raised several points with both of them about being professional, being team players and accepting that they were not always going to have things their own way. It was like banging my head against a brick wall.

By this point I had picked up on mutterings about Mary who was not proving to be the best choice for the AP position. She was causing issues for the other AP and me in terms of not doing her share of the work, bringing personal issues to work and generally not being an effective team leader.

In the fourth term we got word that the AP who was on study leave was not returning and we therefore had a permanent position to advertise. This is where the dilemma got harder. I knew that both Anne and Mary were thinking of applying.

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Reflective questions

  • What is the problem or issue here? Is there more than one?
  • What would you do at this point if you were in this principal's position?
  • What are the principal's options for dealing with this dilemma?

Practitioner comments on dilemma

Principal one

  1. The whole application process needs to be as explicit as possible to all staff, but particularly to internal applicants.
  2. The principal could have talked about the final organisation with staff so they were aware of the facts and that the system was transparent. It needs to be actively stated that the school is after the best candidate for the job and this may be internal or external. The staff can be assured that procedure will be followed. As part of this internal applicants could be reminded that the procedure will be fair and that may mean internal applicants may or may not be appointed.
  3. Ask applicants how would they like to be dealt with in terms of finding out if they had the job or not (if all missed out, one was appointed over the other, or both missed out). This keeps the integrity of the process but also maintains the dignity of the internal applicants. I think it needs to be out in the open that such decisions will always be hard and that staff need to support each other regardless of the outcome. Sensitivity is very important.

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Principal two

  1. The writing of the advertisement was critical to the position, requiring clear criteria against which applicants could be assessed. Also the board should have been involved as these positions almost always involve internal personalities and dynamics. The role of assistant principal is an important leadership position in a school and so the principal must have prior knowledge of the possible acceptance by staff of any internal applicants. In this case the principal had only been there for six months and so needed guidance.
  2. Technically all one year positions have to be advertised nationally and even though this brings its own difficulties it would have been a preferred solution. This was especially the case here as the principal was not going to be sure of the influences if appointing internally.

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Leadership adviser

  1. The board chairperson could have been used to support the principal in the appointment decision.
  2. When issues were highlighted between the two staff involved, a meeting with the chairperson, principal and staff involved in the dispute may have clarified procedures and any areas of difference.

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Actual courses of action taken by this principal

Mary came to me and said that she was not going to apply for the permanent AP position as she was thinking of moving away to a different part of the country for lots of reasons. This took one of the factors out of the dilemma.

Anne applied for the job and I knew that she thought it was going to be hers. She was so sure she would get it that she withdrew from another position she had applied for. The board chairperson and I talked about the makeup of the appointments committee and I suggested that a particular board member who was a friend of Anne’s should not be on it. However he thought that this person could be impartial and she stayed on the committee.

We held the interviews and we appointed an outside applicant to the position. I knew that whatever we did would have repercussions for me. If Anne didn’t get the job it would be all down to me and if she did then her behaviour would not change and we would be in the same position. Three days after being told she had not been appointed she resigned and proceeded to make my life and the other AP’s life a misery. We had a terrible end to the year with the “Anne faction” on the staff siding with her and being really quite awful. I lost 2kgs in weight and although I knew we had made the right decision, I started to long for a peaceful life again. I also wished I had never moved from my previous position! It felt like working in a war zone.

The next year began with three new teachers and a long-term reliever in Anne’s class. We now have young vibrant staff members who are keen, enthusiastic and happy. Out of the doom and gloom has come the sunshine. It showed me that I must do what is right for the children and the staff, and that although appointing Anne might have been the easy option, it was not the right one.

The whole experience has made me stronger but it hurt at the time.

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Writer’s reflection

  • Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but looking back I should not have appointed Mary as acting AP. I soon realised she did not have management potential or any people skills. I should have advertised the acting position externally.
  • I sat back for maybe 6 months too long in the school. I should have stamped my authority on the place sooner. However I don’t agree with change for change’s sake.
  • Although it was very stressful and awful the outcomes for the school have been turned into positives. We have talked at length as a staff about professional behaviour and what we expect and we have also talked about our communication systems. I have taken on board some of the things Anne said in her exit interview and made changes in my practice in some areas.
  • I am very fortunate in my board chairperson and the support he has shown me through this whole process.
  • We have decided as a board to have an outside person on the appointments panel if we have internal applicants for positions in the future.

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