School & District Management

Assistant Principals Share How They Hone Their Skills—And Make the Job Their Own

By Denisa R. Superville — April 05, 2023 4 min read
Photo of principals walking in school hallway.
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Get into classrooms. Build relationships with students and staff. Find opportunities to deepen instructional expertise. Ensure your principal is aware of your career goals.

As assistant principals mark National Assistant Principals Week, a pair of educators who were celebrated as national school leaders shared what motivated them to become school administrators and how they’re making the most of their current roles to be ready for the principalship.

The National Association of Secondary School Principals this week announced three finalists for the National Assistant Principal of the Year award, while their elementary counterparts named 27 elementary and middle school leaders as National Outstanding Assistant Principals for 2023.

Bebi Davis, the vice principal at Kawananakoa Middle School, in Honolulu, is featured on both the secondary and elementary associations’ honors list.

“It’s kind of surreal, but it’s exciting and humbling at the same time,” said Davis, who has been an assistant principal at her current school for nearly three years.

Davis was just more than two years into teaching physics and chemistry when she earned the Milken Educator Award, a prestigious honor known as the Oscars of teaching that comes with a significant cash prize.

That experience—which showcased her student-centered, project-based learning expertise in Hawaii and across the country—caught the attention of her area superintendent, who encouraged her to become a district resource teacher. In that role, Davis mentored teachers and modeled good teaching strategies.

But she also found herself spending a lot of time meeting with and mentoring students in science and math. That fueled an urge to return to the school building, said Davis, who is originally from Guyana.

Bebi Davis

In the end, though, Davis said she became an administrator to help teachers help students.

“If I can help a lot of teachers become even better with their strategies, then we’ll have the best practices in the classroom,” she said. “Ultimately, what it will result in is higher student achievement.”

Being an advocate for students is also what keeps Lisa Brooks, an assistant principal in Oakwood Middle School in Statesville, N.C., in the role.

“My motivation [goes] back to being an advocate for students,” Brooks said. “As a leader in a school, that role is being an advocate for teachers as well.”

“I have worked in a variety of schools and levels,” she continued. “In all levels, there are different needs, but all children need an advocate. The needs may change, but the advocacy stays the same: What is best for our students, what’s best to help them grow to be good humans in our culture.

“In today’s day and age, educators may not be highly regarded in a lot of areas, and I feel like the advocacy for teachers is becoming more and more prominent as well,” she said.

Brooks, whohas been an assistant principal for five years, and has been at her current school for a little more than two years, touts the importance of building relationships with students.

It’s those bonds that allow educators to respond to students’ needs, from small issues to navigating discipline to responding to concerns related to hunger and their well-being.

Lisa Brooks

“They’re not going to trust me if I don’t build relationships with them,” Brooks said. “That gets them to come to me about whatever it is that they need, even if it’s a pencil.”

Take the initiative and ask for opportunities

Assistant principals are very busy people, but they don’t always get the full range of working experiences they need to be ready for the next step.

Both Davis and Smith work for principals who give them the latitude to get both operational and instructional experience.

While Smith also oversees discipline and buses—the kinds of tasks that traditionally fall to assistant principals—she has a wide array of duties that will sharpen her instructional expertise: She conducts teacher evaluations and oversees the academic portion of the school’s multi-tiered system of supports. She’s also in charge of the program for academically gifted students, as well as ensuring that students in special education have access to the services and instruction to which they’re entitled.

“A lot of time people think that the AP deals with operational things like buses, books, and discipline, and that we are not as much of instructional leaders as the principals are, and that may be true in many schools,” Brooks said. “It’s really up to the principal to trust you and to having a great trusting relationship with the principal and assistant principal.”

Similarly, Davis, who was tapped for school leadership because of her work in classrooms, spends as much time as possible on instructional leadership, working with teachers and students.

“Every teacher in the school knows that they can come to me at any time,” Davis said. “They can just come in—my door is open—and talk strategy with me. Some teachers refer to it as Dr. Davis’s shop. When it comes to instructional practice, from teacher-centered to student-centeredness, I am there with them.”

Still, Davis said, her job includes “everything.”

Find ways to get into the classrooms, Davis advises her AP peers.

“Every moment I have I am there,” she said. “There are a lot of things to do at school. I get my work done—and do a lot. But I also make time to be in the classrooms, because if you are not in the classrooms, you don’t know what’s happening. And if you don’t know what’s happening, you don’t have any way to help and support your teachers.”

Brooks’ advice to assistant principals who want to ensure that they emerge from their assistant principalship with instructional expertise: Talk to your principal about your goals.

“In my case, it’s the relationship between the principal and myself,” she said. “But if somebody would ask me, how do I get experience with that? I think you need to ask, because sometimes the principal doesn’t know what your aspirations are, or what you want to learn; so, just ask for opportunities.”

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