The Many Roles of APs: Q&A With Cecilia Mendoza and Tamara Swoope

Assistant principals (APs) have multifaceted roles in Chicago’s public schools. They serve as instructional leaders, operational managers, student advocates, and important contact points for the community, among others. In this series, “The Many Roles of APs,” we present the work and experiences of APs around Chicago to better understand how they contribute to their school communities. These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.


Cecilia Mendoza

Cecilia Mendoza is the AP at Brighton Park Elementary, drawing on her experiences as a Chicago Public Schools alum. A challenging chemistry class shifted her path from engineering to education and solidified her commitment to providing science instruction that speaks to all students. Beyond that, her work focuses on enhancing the experience of students and supporting bilingual families.

The Fund: Why did you decide to become an AP?

Cecilia Mendoza: I wanted to be the person who not only helped students enjoy learning but also held high expectations for all of them. This was because that was my experience as a student, where I didn’t always have the best experience in science class, especially as a Latino student on the south side of Chicago. I wanted to be someone who looked like my students so they could see that they too could achieve success. So, I started as a middle school science teacher at another school and then transferred to Brighton Park Elementary. It was the principal and assistant principal at the time who saw my leadership potential and helped me develop my skills by allowing me to join the instructional leadership team, lead our middle grades network, and even present at team meetings. These experiences made me realize that becoming an assistant principal was something I wanted to do and can do.

The Fund: Looking back on your time as an AP, what are you most proud of?

Cecilia Mendoza: One of the things that I find important in my role is being able to connect with students and their parents. It’s important for parents to feel like they can communicate with me directly, in their language without a translator. This helps them feel a sense of belonging and feel welcome at our school. And that’s definitely not something that I created;  it was at Brighton Park before me. But I think I also embody that positivity, and it makes a difference for staff to want to work there and for students to feel safe knowing that they can trust administration and we aren’t just hidden figures in the office who discipline. 

The Fund: What advice would you give to teachers who are interested in becoming assistant principals? What do you think is most important for their success in the role?

Cecilia Mendoza: As a leader, you need to be flexible. Things are going to change in any given minute, and you just have to roll with the punches. You have to be quick in your thinking and prioritize what is most important. 

Also, we work with a lot of people, and being able to give grace is important because, at the end of the day, we’re all humans. For every decision, think about how it is going to affect the children. We’re here to serve them, but we also have to give that grace to teachers, students and parents. Being empathetic and compassionate with all stakeholders allows us the flexibility to be open-minded and make the best decisions. 

It’s only as difficult as you let it be. This position allows you to see and build relationships with all the students in your school and help them all in different ways.

The Fund: Is there anything you’d like people to know about the role of an AP that may not be obvious?

Cecilia Mendoza: It is a little lonely because as a teacher you have your co-teachers, grade level teams, and yearly set of students, but as an AP, you don’t have that. You get to build relationships with everyone in the building and you do get to meet other administrators, especially through Fund programs; you get to meet different administrators from across the city, which then opens up your lens a lot more. That’s very nice because then you hear different stories and advice from people with a bunch of different perspectives. I think that has really helped my leadership. I now have that community of people all over the city that I can go to, and I’m not just in my bubble.

Tamara Swoope

Dr. Tamara Swoope is a first-year AP at Avalon Park Elementary, a fine and performing arts school. Despite facing challenges — such as a relatively high student mobility rate, with students transferring in and out of the school — Tamara and her team remain committed to the school’s vision of developing critical thinking and problem-solving in students using research-based practices. With the mentorship of Principal Takeshi James, Tamara has been able to make a positive impact at Avalon Park Elementary. As Tamara puts it, “When I get on the phone, I just like to say, ‘Hey, Avalon Park, it’s a great place to educate.’”

The Fund: Why did you decide to become an assistant principal?

Tamara Swoope: I have about 20 years of experience as a Chicago public school teacher. I have a passion for kids. That’s always been my number-one priority. I was just looking for ways to improve student learning, make it fun and interesting, and then support not only the academic needs of students but their psychological needs as well. And often, I’ve realized that those psychological needs and social-emotional supports outweigh the academic needs. I think about the adage that says, “Before you can teach, you have to reach.”

The Fund: Looking back on your time as an AP, what are you most proud of?

Tamara Swoope: One of the things that I’m most proud of is my growth and my development in leadership. I am a lifelong learner. I am consistently and continuously learning in this role. There is never a dull moment, from multitasking to time management, prioritizing, and delegating. It has just been a wonderful, transformative journey of learning. So, I couldn’t just name one thing I’m most proud of. It’s so many things that I’m proud of. I’ve seen my growth from day one to where we are now, in the middle of the year, kind of segueing into the end of the year. But it’s the growth and development that I’ve seen in my leadership capacity, and that growth has also extended to being able to develop leadership capacity in others.

More specifically, we have increased our attendance rate. We are up about 3% from this time last year. And I take pride in that because that is one of my babies. I own the attendance rate and the attendance team, but we are just doing some phenomenal things, and I’m excited for the trajectory we’re headed in as a school.

The Fund: What advice would you give to teachers who are interested in becoming assistant principals? What do you think is most important for their success in the role?

Tamara Swoope: Well, everybody’s going to find their niche. For me, one of the things that I found truly helpful in this role is ensuring that whatever decisions you make, they’re student-centered. Students are at the heart of those decisions.

The other thing that I value most about this role is building relationships with people within education. So, again, when making decisions, make sure that you are leading with students centered first, and then that you can build and nurture relationships with all stakeholders. This includes your staff, your parents, definitely students, and even your outside stakeholders as well. So those will be the two: building relationships and ensuring that everything you do is always student-centered.

The Fund: Is there anything you’d like people to know about the role of an AP that may not be obvious?

Tamara Swoope: It’s a lot of fun. I mean, it’s different from being in the classroom every day. It’s not that kind of fun because I enjoy being in the classroom with kids all day, every day. But it’s a lot of fun because you get to see the entire school. You get to build relationships with the engineer and the lunchroom staff. You get to know people in your building who all make a difference in the lives of our young people. But it’s really fun when you have a school as great as my school; I like to say there is an overwhelming excitement that just comes with the job, having fun with kids. And then, like they say in this profession, it keeps us young.

Pin It on Pinterest