School & District Management

How Principals Can Help Assistant Principals Get Ready for the Top Job

By Denisa R. Superville — April 18, 2022 4 min read
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Principals play a huge role in helping assistant principals get ready to lead schools.

But because the AP role is not always clearly defined, experiences vary from school to school, and APs’ readiness for the next step is often dependent on the tasks they’re given and the experiences they’re exposed to while working as an assistant principal.

Principals must be open to structuring their school’s staffing to give APs more opportunities to perform tasks they’ll eventually undertake and oversee as school leaders.

Katherine Holden, who was recently named as the National Assistant Principal of the Year by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, has seen that in the example of her principal, Steve Retzlaff of Ashland Middle School in Ashland, Ore., who is playing a pivotal role in ensuring that she’s ready for the next step.

“He’s been very, very open to allowing me to contribute to our schoolwide initiatives that we’ve led over the course of the time that I’ve been here,” Holden said. “He’s always very open to my ideas. He includes me in all the planning. He helps prioritize my time, so that I am really focused on school improvement and supporting staff and their instructional practices. I appreciate that in my role I get to spend my time making a lot of improvements in our school system.”

And Retzlaff support didn’t stop at the school level.

When he became interim superintendent of the Ashland district in 2020 — amid the pandemic—Holden stepped up as the school’s interim principal, while also taking on a district-level position helping to develop and coordinate the district’s reopening and COVID-19-era instructional plan. Assistant principals don’t routinely get that kind of experience.

Here are Holden’s thoughts on how principals can help APs build and sharpen their school leadership skills.

Give APs opportunities to lead — beyond discipline

Assistant principals, especially Black men, can often get pigeonholed into focusing on behavioral problems or discipline, leading them to miss out on other valuable experiences—such as budgeting, scheduling, instruction, and communications—that are important aspects of successful school leadership.

Katherine Holden, assistant principal of Ashland Middle School, Ashland, Ore.

Holden’s experience has been different because of Retzlaff.

The school has a child-development specialist—akin to a dean—who supports students with discipline and other behavioral issues, freeing up Holden to concentrate on instructional practice and system change, she said.

Under Retzlaff, Holden has had the chance to lead professional development, equity and diversity trainings, and through a transition from letter-grading to proficiency-based grading.

About five years ago, for example, when the school embarked on diversity, equity, and inclusion training to help staff better understand and respond to the needs of students of color, Holden worked with trainers to get the initiative up and running. But once it was in place, she led the ongoing work, from trainings to book studies.

“That example of getting to be a facilitator of learning for the adults [and] staff at our site has been a really amazing experience,” she said.

Similarly, over the last seven years, the school has moved from traditional letter grades to proficiency-based feedback, and Holden has been an integral part of making that happen and sustaining it—an experience she described as “powerful.”

Retzlaff recognized Holden’s strengths and interests and provided essential support and opportunities.

“I love systems thinking, I love thinking about improvement, I love creative problem-solving,” Holden said. “I’ve always just been open to feedback, and I want to find solutions that work. I want to find systems that work. I think the combination of him being open to my input and then me being really excited to participate in the process has been a good fit.”

Value what APs bring to the table

Assistant principals are still connected to the classrooms and school staff and can provide valuable insights to principals on school improvement, communication, and building professional learning communities.

Holden reflects on her own experience mentoring teachers on special assignment, or TOSAs as they are called, who are often tasked with spearheading a leadership project in a school.

“One of my approaches is always encouraging them to share their ideas, encouraging them to share their insights,” Holden said. “I ask them a lot of questions, because I really want to understand things from their perspectives. Our teachers have so much insight into what really works.”

Principals, she said, can employ a similar approach with their assistant principals.

“All of us are lifelong learners, and we all bring so much to the table,” Holden said. “I think principals, hopefully, will always be thinking about their assistant principals as great resources, who are going to see things from different perspectives, who have so much to offer. They are connected to different programs or even different teachers and staff members in different ways.”

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