School & District Management

Top Tips for New Assistant Principals From Those Who’ve Been There

By Mark Bomster — August 05, 2022 5 min read
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The assistant principal is often the unsung hero in the daily school operation, with a title that can understate the job’s sweeping duties. A step away from the principal’s chair, the assistant can be called on to juggle everything from nuts-and-bolts logistics to social and emotional interactions with students and staff.

In a pair of recent articles, Education Week’s Denisa R. Superville interviewed school leaders with first-hand experience in the assistant principal’s post.

Here’s a summary of their top advice for aspiring assistant principals.

Relationships are crucial with people above and below, inside the building and out

Whether it’s the relationship with your principal, the teachers you supervise, the students you’re responsible for, or the community at large, nurturing those bonds takes work. Put a premium on collaboration. And be expansive about who you build bridges with.

“Collaborate with your students, collaborate with your parent community, collaborate with your district office,” says Dana Perez, an assistant principal at Rogers Park Middle School in Danbury, Conn. “I don’t know everything. That’s something I’ve learned over time. The best way to solve anything is with your community members.”

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You won’t fully learn the job until you do it

You might have come to the job with years of experience as a teacher. You might have been through a leadership training program.

All well and good—but “you’re not ready until you’ve had to live in those shoes for a few months,” says Randy Oliver, an associate principal at Van Horn High School in Independence, Mo., and a former principal.

In addition to on-the-job learning, APs should be reading voraciously, attending conferences, and actively looking for professional development opportunities.

Build a network of outside support

“There are times when you can’t go to your principal,” said Oliver, who is part of the Missouri Secondary School Principals Association and a former president of the Greater Kansas City Principals Association. “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.”

In Delaware, a new administrators’ program had a network that let Holly Langley, an assistant principal at Sussex Technical High School in Georgetown, Del., check in with fellow first-year colleagues. They could swap ideas on professional development and book studies, but also say, “ ‘Hey, how do you handle this in your school? What do you do?’ ” she said.

If APs are not getting support at school, look elsewhere, advises Kristin Eng an assistant principal of CICS Bucktown Chicago.

“Seek out other assistant principals,” said Eng. “You have to think outside of the box. If you want to do a PD or you need support, lean on other folks.”

Put yourself forward in building opportunities

Queesha Tillman, the principal at 71st Classical Middle School in Fayetteville, N.C., sought to grow beyond the AP duties at a previous school, which included overseeing transportation, discipline, and testing. So she worked three summers with the district’s associate superintendent in charge of student services and federal programs on a summer program for at-risk students.

“It did afford me an opportunity to be visible, for others to see my work, notice my skill set, and then other opportunities started [to present themselves],” said Tillman. She also sought out learning opportunities closer to home with the help of a supportive principal. “You don’t wait to be asked, You take the initiative to create a seat at the table.”

Mentoring is huge

It doesn’t have to part of a formal program—a mentor could be a retired administrator, somebody who’s been through the scenarios you’re confronting, can listen and offer a safety net.

And branch out in looking for mentors—Tillman built relationships with those in the district office, at the state level, and in universities. “You are shaped and molded by those you associate with,” she said. “So, if you are working under principals and your entire network is just principals, you are kind of limited to just what principals know.”

Know your principal’s goals—and make sure the principal knows yours

That can keep you from getting pigeonholed in certain areas areas of responsibility—discipline, for example—at the expense of others. It goes hand in hand with building a transparent and collaborative relationship with your principal.

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 teachers and leaders looking around for direction
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Perez, the Connecticut AP, who has a “fabulous” relationship with her principal, suggests regularly setting aside time to meet with the principal—for example, every Monday for 30 minutes—to discuss both school and professional topics. “Some principals aren’t aware of the role of an AP or don’t know how to use an AP,” she said.

Know your people, and have their backs

Teaching can be incredibly taxing, so remember that teachers need a break. Find ways to get to know them, show them that you care—and get out from behind your desk.

“Proximity breeds empathy,” said Langley, the Georgetown, Del., AP. “So, physically get near [your teachers]—get to know them, talk to them, know if they have a sick child, if they need to leave a little bit early, so that you can make that connection.”

And don’t be afraid to show your vulnerability. That can mean getting feedback from your staff, listening, and getting to know your own strengths and weaknesses. “It doesn’t have to have a negative connotation,” Langley said. “Vulnerability does not equal weakness.”

Know yourself and the implications of change

Set aside time to reflect on the decisions you’ve made, why you made them, and what you could have done differently. Spend some time listening, observing, and learning before changing anything—it can be OK to do nothing, rather than make change for the sake of change.

“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,” said Eng. “Just observe the day-in and day-out operations of the school, the systems, and structures in place.”

Smile. Enjoy the rewards.

The job can draw Type-A personalities tethered to their to-do list and iPhone. Achieving a work-life balance is crucial not only for you but for those you work with.

“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.”

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