Assistant principals are really principals-in-training, supporting the principal with the major responsibilities of running a school.
But that’s not always how it plays out inside the buildings. APs must sometimes venture out on their own to get a range of training and experiences to be ready for the principal’s office when the right job rolls around.
In this first of two articles, some current APs and one who recently ascended to the top job shared helpful tips for new assistant principals on how they can get the most out of the position, prepare for the next step, and maximize their impact in schools during a time when K-12 education is still in flux.
“There is a need for an administrator coming into education to be extremely flexible,” said Dana Perez, an assistant principal at Rogers Park Middle School in Danbury, Conn. “Be able to prioritize very quickly, be very confident in the decisions that they’re making, and be very humble about the fact that [they’re] going to make mistakes. And that’s OK because we are all learning—unfortunately, really fast.”
It’s OK to ‘stand there and do nothing’
This may sound counterintuitive, but Kristin Eng, an assistant principal at CICS Bucktown Chicago, an elementary charter school, says it’s a good strategy to spend some time listening, observing, and learning before changing anything.
“I think as an AP you are super-eager to get going and change things without getting to know the school, the school culture, the people, the traditions, and the values that they hold,” said Eng, who is one of two assistant principals at the school and who oversees curriculum, instruction, and assessments.
“So, I think it’s really important to observe in your first 30 days and talk to the folks who have been there, talk to families, talk to students—just observe the day-in and day-out operations of the school, the systems, and structures in place.”
Taking a step back helps APs to understand why things are the way they are. It also shows teachers and staff members that the AP values the effort they’ve put in.
Although eager to make changes, Eng used that approach when she first got to CICS Bucktown Chicago during the pandemic. She made “small tweaks” in her first six months, but nothing huge.
When Eng’s principal asked her to lead the data and design team meetings, for example, she used the listen-learn-observe strategy to restructure how those meetings were run. But she only did so after observing the meetings, reviewing sample agendas, and talking to the principal and former assistant principal.
Eng asked the instructional coaches to co-design the agendas with her. She also added celebrations and assigned pre-work—essentially sharing, beforehand, the data that would be subjected to discussion in the meeting, so that teachers would be familiar with them and ready to plan when they met.
Those adjustments eventually led to instructional coaches now setting the meeting agendas. In addition, meetings now have an area of focus; for example, academic data might be the topic of one meeting, while behavioral data would be the subject of another.
The instructional coaches liked the changes, she said.
“They appreciated that I was getting their input ... and that we were able to make the pre-work available to the team,” Eng said. “And I think it also gave them the focus. Those small changes helped focus in more, and because of that repetitive cycle, teachers knew what was coming.”
The observe-listen-and-learn strategy can also boost the morale of staff, who can feel a tad anxious and fatigued by administrator churn and the thought that everything they’d worked on would be thrown out the window.
“It was just important for them to view me as a leader who is going to respect the structures and procedures that were in place, and respect the work they had done prior,” Eng said. “It took a lot of work to get to the point where they are right now.”
But school leaders should also be mindful of the amount of changes they make, Eng said, taking into consideration, of course, mandatory timelines that may be tied to specific goals.
“Change is definitely difficult for people, especially for teachers because they like to do things a certain way.”
Strive for a transparent and collaborative relationship with your principal
Not every principal will prioritize the AP’s role, so it’s incumbent on APs to ensure that their principals know their long-term and short-term goals.
APs should also be aware of their boss’s goals, so they can support them, Eng said.
Perez, the Connecticut AP, who has a “fabulous” relationship with her principal, said that a collaborative relationship with the principal is the only way to ensure that objectives set for students and staff are met.
She suggests regularly setting aside time to meet with the principal—for example, every Monday for 30 minutes—to discuss both school and professional topics.
“Sometimes you kind of have to force yourself into having that relationship with your building principal, because some principals aren’t aware of the role of an AP or don’t know how to use an AP,” she said.
And assistant principals, who can be pigeonholed into focusing on discrete areas of school leadership at the expense of others, should devise ways to take those narrowly defined responsibilities and make them work in their favor.
For example, an AP who is assigned to discipline can think more broadly about student behavior and creating a more-effective discipline referral system, Perez said.
“Maybe you’re noticing a trend with disruptions, and that could be a good conversation around classroom management and [creating] engaging lessons,” Perez said. “How do you take the world you are living in and align it with something larger that impacts the school and bring that information with a solution ... to your building principal? It’s [about] what systems are you creating for yourself and for the school that would benefit the building principal by supporting the students.”
Eng said that it’s important that APs show the rest of the administrative team that they’re team players.
When she arrived at her new school, Eng ensured that the administrative team knew she was available to help. (In response, they asked her to assist with social events, such as teacher appreciation, because Eng had handled such events at a former school.)
“As early on as you can, show that you’re in it for the long haul, that you’re in it to work with them and bring out the goals of the school,” Eng said. “That’s going to be really important.”
Despite your prep, be ready to learn on the job
Some APs enter the role fresh from the classrooms; others may have spent time as teacher-leaders, bringing to the role their classroom background and schoolwide experience from running professional learning communities.
However valuable those experiences, that’s still very different from being second-in-command, with direct reports and the responsibility for hundreds of students.
Holly Langley, an assistant principal at the 1,300-student Sussex Technical High School in Georgetown, Del., had an “excellent” yearlong program through the University of Delaware and the Delaware Association of School Administrators to help her get ready for school leadership.
“For the most part, yes,” the program got her ready for school leadership, Langley said.
“But, of course, you learn a lot on the job,” said Langley, one of three assistant principals at the school. “There are a lot of things they don’t teach you—the SIS—the student information system— … They didn’t teach you about how to do a master schedule or building budgeting, but we had the overarching idea, the philosophical ideas about leadership.”
Randy Oliver, an associate principal at Van Horn High School in Independence, Mo., and a former principal, agreed that “you’re never 100 percent prepared until you’ve lived it.”
Oliver had also participated in his then-district’s yearlong aspiring leaders program, where he deepened his instructional leadership skills and spent about 15 school days serving as an assistant principal before he stepped into the role.
His then-principal in the Park Hill school district in Kansas City, encouraged him to pursue school leadership and provided opportunities for Oliver to get a taste of the school leader’s life. Oliver shadowed his principal and volunteered during planning periods to learn more about school leadership, including working on student discipline and serving on the curriculum committee.
Still, he said, “You’re not ready until you’ve had to live in those shoes for a few months.”
APs should be continuously learning—reading voraciously, attending conferences, and actively looking for professional development opportunities.
Queesha Tillman, the principal of 71st Classical Middle School in Fayetteville, N.C., took advantage of every chance she got to learn more about school leadership, including signing up for the professional development opportunities offered through her district’s leadership academy. But she also looked for learning opportunities in other districts, workshops, webinars, and additional college coursework.
“I took it upon myself to get engrossed into everything I could so that I would be an effective and competent school,” said Tillman, who spent six years as an assistant principal at Loyd Auman Elementary School in Fayetteville, N.C.
Find or create a network
No one is an island. The same holds for APs: They can’t do the work alone.
That’s why networks are important. They can help APs navigate the newness of the job and juggle both the instructional and management challenges. They can also be a critical source of emotional support.
“There are times when you can’t go to your principal,” Oliver said. “Maybe you don’t feel comfortable enough just yet because it may make you feel a bit vulnerable. You’ve got to have somebody to call.”
Langley was lucky in that the state’s new administrators’ induction program also had a network that included optional monthly check-ins with fellow first-year colleagues. Those meetings were opportunities to swap ideas on professional development and book studies, but also to say, “‘Hey, how do you handle this in your school? What do you do?’” she said.
Oliver, who is part of the Missouri Secondary School Principals Association and a former president of the Greater Kansas City Principals Association, said those two groups have been instrumental in helping him find solutions to issues he was facing at school. He’s also helped his fellow APs in the region.
He and a colleague from the Greater Kansas City Principals Association have brainstormed on how to address the rise in vaping in his school, beyond enacting strict disciplinary measures and monitoring bathrooms.
In turn, Oliver provided tips to his colleague on things she should consider when her school reopened for in-person learning during the pandemic.
Those discussions led to Oliver presenting at the group’s once-a-month assistant principals roundtable where area APs share ideas on common challenges.
“We’re all facing the same things,” Oliver said. “Whether you are a big school, a small school—kids are kids. Fourteen- to 18-year-olds, they are the same no matter where you go. It’s the structures, the processes, and the procedures that you have in place that’s going to dictate success at your school.”
Find a mentor—or more than one
Langley, the Delaware assistant principal, said having a mentor is huge.
Langley’s mentor, a retired administrator with whom she met in person twice a month, accompanied her on her first teacher observation, helped her prepare observation notes, and provided input on whether Langley was giving teachers the right kind of feedback.
“She was also an ear to listen when I was feeling a little bit lost or I was not quite sure how to handle a situation with maybe an angry parent or teacher,” Langley said. “She was able to walk me through some different scenarios that she’d been through. Having that mentor definitely was a safety net for me.”
The mentoring doesn’t always have to be part of a formally structured program, Langley said.
“There are plenty of opportunities on social media to connect with people with similar experiences,” said Langley. She is also a member of a private Facebook group that dispenses advice and support on all kinds of school-related matters, and participates in others that provided helpful advice during the pandemic.
Tillman said principals should try to find mentors in all parts of the K-12 system.
Her mentors range from those who work in universities and the state’s department of public instruction to her district’s central office.
“It took an array of mentorship, an array of assistance to get me to the point where I am today, and I am grateful for those people who saw that spark in me, who recognized the passion in me and wanted to pour into me their knowledge and their expertise,” Tillman said.
“You need to branch out. You are shaped and molded by those you associate with. So, if you are working under principals and your entire network is just principals, you are kind of limited to just what principals know. If you attempt to go higher in your career in education, it’s so important to know aspects of education on different levels, because it’s ever-evolving.”
Find joy and the right work-life balance
Smile. Enjoy the rewards.
“Take time to enjoy the ride and the journey,” said Oliver, one of three finalists for this year’s National Assistant Principal of the Year and a former coach. “The job is hard enough. Take some time to smile because people around you need it.”
Langley, who is still a coach and yoga instructor, knows the importance of finding the right balance.
She describes herself as a Type A personality, who keeps track of her tasks through a running to-do list on her iPhone. She’s not naturally one of those people who turns off, she said, but being organized helps.
“I also know that I need an hour to be on my mat for yoga, and I’ll turn my phone and e-mail off,” she said. “I also know to get outside and walk to get some fresh air. I know that I need to spend some time with my husband, because those things are equally as important as my job.”
Oliver and Eng stressed that it’s key for APs to find joy and meaning in what they do—especially on the tough days.
“Find the glimmer every single day about why you are doing this work and why it’s important,” Eng said. “That will push you past the stressors, past the tough days. You have to enjoy your work.”
Oliver said: “You’ve still got to be yourself. Your personality is who you are. Be yourself, work hard, and don’t forget to have fun.”
Coverage of principals and school leadership is supported in part by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at www.joycefdn.org/programs/education-economic. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.