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
Image shows an illustration of a man climbing a ladder, with encouragement.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.”

Events

Special Education Webinar Reading, Dyslexia, and Equity: Best Practices for Addressing a Threefold Challenge
Learn about proven strategies for instruction and intervention that support students with dyslexia.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Leading Systemic Redesign: Strategies from the Field
Learn how your school community can work together to redesign the school system, reengineer instruction, & co-author personalized learning.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Personalized Learning Webinar
No Time to Waste: Individualized Instruction Will Drive Change
Targeted support and intervention can boost student achievement. Join us to explore tutoring’s role in accelerating the turnaround. 
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management ACLU Texas Files OCR Complaint Over a District's Anti-Trans Book Ban
The group claims the Keller school district's new policy to remove books about gender fluidity from library shelves violates federal law.
4 min read
Banned books are visible at the Central Library, a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library system, in New York City on Thursday, July 7, 2022. The books are banned in several public schools and libraries in the U.S., but young people can read digital versions from anywhere through the library. The Brooklyn Public Library offers free membership to anyone in the U.S. aged 13 to 21 who wants to check out and read books digitally in response to the nationwide wave of book censorship and restrictions.
Banned books are on diplay at the Central Library, a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library system, in New York City on Thursday, July 7, 2022. Some of these books are among those banned by school districts in Texas.
Ted Shaffrey/AP
School & District Management Political Tensions in Schools Are 'Pervasive,' Principals Say
High school principals reported high levels of student conflict due to political beliefs and parent efforts to limit curriculum about race.
6 min read
Image of political tension surrounding school leaders.
Collage by Laura Baker/Education Week via iStock/Getty
School & District Management Litter Boxes in Schools: How a Disruptive and Demeaning Hoax Frustrated School Leaders
A hoax claiming that schools were providing litter boxes to students wasted school leaders' time as they worked to debunk it.
6 min read
Smartphone with blue and red colored hoax bubbles floating up off of the screen onto a dark black background with illegible lines of text also in the background.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
School & District Management A New Federal Grant Will Fund Schools' Energy Upgrades. Here's What to Know
The Department of Energy released new funding to help schools redo HVAC systems, add renewable energy, and upgrade facilities.
3 min read
A small white space heater directs air under a teacher's desk. On the front of the desk is a sign that says "Welcome to our classroom."
Personal space heaters are a common item found in the classrooms at Greene County High School in Snow Hill, N.C., where they're used to heat rooms when the HVAC units fail. New federal grants will help schools upgrade climate systems and add energy efficiency measures.
Alex Boerner for Education Week