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“It’s not just the principal’s role to be a visionary in the school.”- Christopher Berry, 2007 Maryland Principal of the Year.

With increased accountability for student achievement, the primary role of assistant principal has evolved from that of disciplinarian and school operations manager to instructional leader. Yet APs have not dropped the bus and lunch schedules, or stopped meeting with students and parents regularly; the role as instructional leader has been added to the job description.

"Before assistant principals might be the test coordinators; they’d make sure all the tests are in the bags or that there was coverage for all the testing periods for the standardized or state required examination,” said Christopher Berry, Assistant Principal at James Hubert Blake High School in Maryland. “What you’re seeing now is assistant principals designing remediation programs for students who need these tests to graduate.”

Many APs welcome the added responsibility--it’s a chance to not only support instruction but influence it. However, as they are bogged down in school climate issues, most APs find there is no time to engage in instructional leadership activities. The result, in many schools, is a thin school leadership team that is too busy with administrative tasks to provide high-quality instructional supervision.

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John Williams, member of the Assistant Principal Task Force

Christopher Berry, Maryland 2007 AP of the Year

John Williams, Principal at Carmel High School in Indiana and member of Assistant Principal Task Force transitioned into in administration as from teaching social studies and coaching. “As an assistant principal, [I quickly found out] you can’t plan for your day. A lot of times you just show up and the day kind of takes care of you,” he said. “You put 4 or 5 things on your list, then multiple types of things come knocking at your door. At the end of the day you look at your list and all those things are still on there because you’ve spent your day running a building.”

Assistant principals need mentors, support systems, and training to help them grow as visionary leaders, teacher coaches, master schedule designers, and program developers and evaluators. APs also need to learn how to shift their crisis management strategies from reactive to proactive. To address this need, NASSP has created the Assistant Principal Task Force that will focus on the professional needs of assistant principals. A diverse group of talented school leaders from across the country, the task force will develop resources, programs, and professional development to support assistant principal s and connect day-to-day tasks to instructionally-focused, whole school collaborative leadership.

“What NASSP is trying to do at this point is take a look at a job that is, for some people, a career position and for others, a step into the principal ship,” said Nancy Herr, Principal at Landisville High School in Pennsylvannia and member of the Assistant Principal Task Force. The task force will be asking questions like, “What do these people need, and how can we provide it for them?”

To be effective instructional leaders, APs first need support from their principals. John Nori, NASSP’s Director of the Office of Instructional Leadership Resources, recommends that principals:

  • Provide APs with professional development on observing and giving feedback to teachers as well as opportunities to observe other APs
  • Make time to plan and observe with assistant principals, and review the feedback that APs are giving teachers
  • Help APs lead the development of curricula within and between subject area teams by providing resources
  • Free APs from operational-only duties by finding time and resources to do so.

One of the charges for the task force is linking Breaking Ranks II and Breaking Ranks in The Middle to the assistant principal’s roles, specifically in the three core areas (collaborative leadership; curriculum, instruction, and assessment; and personalized learning). Recognizing that many APs transition to become principals, the task force also aims to create a strong foundation of successful leadership for future principals.

In an interview for Principal Leadership, Patricia Buschjost, the 2007 NASSP Assistant Principal of the Year said, "I think that’s the key. Being able to inspire a vision within your staff moves you to a higher level of leadership."

Articles by and about assistant principals in Principal Leadership:

Leading with Heart: A Conversation with Patricia Buschjost, 2007 Assistant Principal of the Year
Being a good principal is being the leader you wished for as a teacher.

Lessons Learned
When asked to reflect on the lessons she has learned in the past year, Assistant Principal Kathleen Ryan of South Yarmouth, Mass., recalled some memorable experiences and shared her insights on the AP role.

More than a Disciplinarian
Assistant principals should practice instructional leadership by staying informed on key topics and sharing resources. Interacting with students outside of the disciplinarian role enhances communication and heads off trouble. A strong presence in the classrooms lets staff members and students know that the assistant principal cares about what is happening in the classroom.