By Beverly J. Hutton

All educators who embark upon the journey of educational administration do so with the intention to be a change agent—one that makes a positive difference in the lives of students and teachers. The aspiration is to lead a school environment that is both collegial and collaborative, where all constituents work together for the common good of all members of the school community. Assistant principals enter into educational administration because they want to be school leaders—leaders of vision, people, and purpose.

The assistant principalship is the entry level to educational administration and the gateway to the principalship, yet many assistant principals will say they have been ill-prepared for the lead principalship (Chan, Web, & Bowen, 2003). The question is, “Why?” Why aren’t assistant principals being prepared to become lead principals? What skills are they lacking? What experiences haven’t they been exposed to? Who is responsible for their professional growth and development?

Teachers receive professional development in the areas of teaching and learning. Supervisors receive professional development in the areas of curriculum and assessment. Principals receive professional development in the areas of data analysis, leadership, and management. However, assistant principals typically do not receive any professional development in the areas to which they are traditionally assigned—student conflict, staff relations, and facilities management; and development in only those areas does not prepare them to become lead principals. Orientation into the assistant principalship is more like “baptism by fire, sink or swim” (Marshall & Hooley, 2006). This needs to change!

But the real change needs to be in the perception of the position itself. Even though some assistant principals have already begun to recognize that their jobs can be more satisfying if they assert themselves beyond their typical areas of responsibility, all assistant principals should be actively engaged in professional activities and responsibilities that prepare them for the lead principalship.

But the real change needs to be in the perception of the position itself. Even though some assistant principals have already begun to recognize that their jobs can be more satisfying if they assert themselves beyond their typical areas of responsibility, all assistant principals should be actively engaged in professional activities and responsibilities that prepare them for the lead principalship. Thus, a “perceptual reculturing” of the assistant principalship is needed to facilitate a culture of shared leadership within the school community.

The assistant principalship is an untapped area of school leadership potential; and in this era of increased accountabilities placed on schools, the position needs and warrants more attention (Bartholomew, Melendez, Delaney, Orta, & White, 2005). A school community can greatly benefit from the power of leadership that emerges when the skills and insight of every member of the school leadership team are utilized. Therefore, it is imperative that a collaborative, collegial, and cooperative relationship between the lead principal and the assistant principal be established and conscientiously maintained and nurtured.

The national education agenda, which includes the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001, The Common Core Standards, and Race to the Top, places accountability for school success on principals and their leadership teams. Today’s demands for accountability and measurable results in student achievement have changed the roles and responsibilities of school principals, inevitably changing those of assistant principals as well. The question is: how do we ensure that those changes will enhance the assistant principalship, allowing assistant principals to contribute more directly to the success of their students and to be acknowledged for the critical role they play in supporting principals, teachers, and students.

Preparation for the Principalship

School leadership programs must begin to address the issue of Principal preparation differently. Traditional programs have remained stagnant in their school leadership curricula, while non-traditional programs have become a more relevant source of preparation, adding pertinent action research projects gives the participant an opportunity to experience facets of the job before entering the field. New Jersey is one of 18 states that offer an alternate certification program, NJEXCEL. In fact, NJEXCEL has graduated more students than any other non-traditional program, having graduated over 600 candidates (National Center for Educational information, n.d.).

Principals also have a responsibility to mentor their assistant principals and develop their leadership capacity, which prepares them for career mobility that usually includes the lead principalship. Building leadership capacity affects instructional efficacy. Building instructional efficacy yields increased student achievement. Increased student achievement leads to overall school success. Assistant principals should be crucial to that trajectory. Yet, assistant principals are often underutilized instructional resources routinely relegated to mundane building management tasks. This poses two problems. First, schools lose valuable leadership resources for teachers. Second, assistant principals have few opportunities to grow, contribute, and experience sustaining job satisfaction.

Lead principals have a responsibility to create an environment where continuous professional development opportunities are available to their assistant principal, by asking themselves questions like “will this responsibility help prepare them for the principalship?” or “am I best utilizing the credentials and skills of my team member?” The answer to either one of those questions can serve as a filter for the legitimacy of the assignment, and build the leadership capacity of the school administrative team. Likewise, assistant principals should constantly seek out opportunities for professional development that leads to sustained professional growth, by asking themselves questions like: “How can I become more entrenched in the direct support of classroom instructional practices?” or “What opportunities can I engage in to make me an integral part of the teaching and learning processes?”

Professional Development

Assistant principals are literally involved in every aspect of the school community. They work with teachers, they manage students, they communicate with parents and they collaborate with administrator colleagues. Their affect on the school day is undeniable because they are the glue that holds the school culture together. The myriad of duties and responsibilities assigned to the assistant principal which occur primarily during the school day, makes it nearly impossible for them to leave the building to attend professional development seminars and workshops. Therefore any professional growth should be embedded into their daily responsibilities. Job–embedded professional development has been proven to make sustainable changes and improvement in instructional practices as opposed to the single “drive-by” style of workshop that, while helpful, does not lead to lasting change and sustained implementation (Marshall & Hooley, 2006).

The readiness of assistant principals is largely dependent on two things: (a) the types and structure of experiences their principals provide within the context of the school day and (b) their principals’ attitudes toward outside leadership opportunities (Kaplan & Owings, 1999). Principals must share power, employing shared decision-making models to build the leadership capacity of all their colleagues and staff. They must give their assistant principals autonomy to lead and assist aspiring assistant principals to identify and build their leadership skills. The readiness and success of assistant principals can be determined by the nature and extent of the instructional leadership experiences they have.

An Ideal Job-Embedded Professional Development Model

Even though lead principals are responsible for ensuring the preparation of their school leadership teams, assistant principals should actively seek growth opportunities. To do so, they need to know how to elicit the supportive leadership of their principals. Developing collaborative relationships with them is important not only for personal and professional growth, but also for career advancement and mobility. Learning from others, networking, participating in opportunities to contribute to the profession through professional organizations is another means of growth and development.

All school leaders should have comprehensive knowledge of what I call “the five essential understandings” to be strategic and deliberate agents of change and organizational leadership. Within the domain of their position, assistant principals must find areas of essential understanding needed to increase and enhance their instructional leadership skills. An understanding of self-efficacy theory and community of learners methodologies is critical to their relationships with their principals. Professional development and leadership are the primary theoretical frameworks through which instructional leadership can be accomplished. School leaders need to understand leadership styles and responsibilities while identifying their own leadership style and understanding the leadership styles of those they work with. They should be able to employ that knowledge while dealing with the various situations they face each day. Moreover, they need a comprehensive understanding of how adults learn and how they respond to change. This is important, as all leaders are responsible to know how to garner the collective support of their stakeholders. As instructional leaders, it is imperative that assistant principals know how to promote a school culture of collaboration, communication, and lifelong learning.

In my book, Reculturing the Assistant Principalship – Perceptions and Practices, you will find a professional development model program that is built on those five “essential understandings” or program components, and offers recommended activities for a job-embedded program that can fit into the daily life of assistant principals, aspiring principals and teacher leaders. The program is aligned with the professional development standards of NSDC, NASSP, NBPTS and ISLLC. It promotes several modalities through which the five essential understandings and the standards can be learned and applied within the scope of the daily work-life of school leaders. The recommended activities in the program model offer opportunities to build leadership capacity. A lead principal desiring to build the leadership capacity of his school leadership team will find it relevant. The aspiring assistant principal will find the program model motivating; the teacher leader will find it aspirational, and the practicing assistant principal will find it doable.

Taking Action: Reculturing the Assistant Principalship

Lead Principals must be willing to share leadership, autonomy, and responsibilities with their assistant principals, who are colleagues and also credentialed principals. The lens through which the assistant principalship is viewed by both assistant principals and others must change. Assistant principals are first and foremost principals whose current responsibilities are to work alongside their lead principals to fulfill the visions and missions of their schools. Embracing this paradigm shift will increase and strengthen the capacity of school leadership teams. Lead principals should make a conscious effort to provide work life activities that prepare them for increased leadership responsibilities.

The readiness of assistant principals is largely dependent on two things: the types and structure of experiences their principals provide within the context of the school day and their principals’ attitudes toward outside leadership opportunities.

Reculturing the assistant principalship, should begin with assistant principals. They need to see themselves as instructional leaders working alongside their lead principals for the betterment of their students and their schools. Rather than mere student managers, they must see themselves as principals. If they don’t see themselves that way, no one else will either.

Assistant principals are ultimately responsible for their own professional growth and development. While lead principals should feel obligated to create opportunities for all school leaders to grow, they are simultaneously responsible for establishing, articulating, and implementing the vision and mission of the school. This involves a myriad of other requirements. Thus, assistant principals should be their own advocates. Breaking out of the stereotypical roles and finding ways to expand their influence in other areas of school life is not an easy task, but a necessary one in order to pave the road to true instructional leadership. This means actively participating in relevant professional development activities and professional growth activities that are easily transferable into daily practice—Job embedded projects and opportunities.

Just as assistant principals make themselves indispensable to the success of the co-curricular programs, they must be prepared to make themselves integral to the instructional program in their schools. They must demonstrate their commitment to teaching and learning by helping their teachers build a repertoire of instructional practices and create assessments that inform instruction based on multiple data sources and disaggregated data. They should regularly provide their teachers with resources to improve the effectiveness of their daily instructional strategies. To do that, assistant principals must know emerging trends in educational research and pedagogical practices.

Opportunities to learn and practice the habits of mind of lead principals and the skill sets required in the principalship must also be initiated (Good, 2008). Assistant principals need to know how to lead their respective buildings in the absence of their principals. To be appropriately prepared to do so, they need to learn to manage budgetary issues, handle parent concerns, mediate personnel issues, and accomplish dozens of other typical responsibilities. Assistant principals who have experience in these areas are better prepared for the lead principalship.

Assistant principals should also join and become active in their professional organizations. These groups are rich sources of professional development opportunities in addition to being advocates for educators. NASSP, for example, specifically advocates for assistant principals. Nancy Herr, chairperson of the NASSP Assistant Principal Task Force reports, “We are committed to raising the leadership potential of assistant principals and becoming their number one source for information and training” (personal communication, April 2009). The task force has proposed professional development opportunities for assistant principals that emphasize the following areas: (a) school culture, (b) leadership for learning, (c) management for learning, and (d) ongoing professional development: modeling, engaging, and developing others.

Embracing the Concept

The demands on school leaders have changed and the deep-rooted, traditional role of one principal leading an entire school community is passé and debunked. Those who still operate under this model often find themselves exhausted and discouraged because no matter how much they labor, there’s more work to be done, and truthfully, it is impossible for one person to have all the answers. Principals are called to be instructional leaders that lead the implementation of a rigorous curriculum which prepares students with 21st century skills. It takes a team of people working together to do that.

The principal who does not regard the assistant principal as a valuable partner in the leadership model is not working at full capacity and does not have a school of optimum productivity (Johnson, 2000). Shared and Distributive Leadership approaches form a “flatter ” school leadership model (Friedman, 2005). A flatter leadership model is characterized by distributive, shared, participatory, structured and intentional forms of decision making that recognizes that power of many can replace the traditional hierarchical leadership that is characterized by the power of one. The responsibilities of school leadership are simply too varied and too numerous to continue the hierarchical leadership model inherent in most schools. 


  • Bartholomew, S. K., Melendez-Delaney, G., Orta, A., & White, S. (2005). “Untapped Resources: Assistant Principals as Instructional Leaders.” Principal Leadership, 5(9), 22–26.
  • Chan, T. C., Webb, L., and Bowen, C. (2003, October 10). “Are Assistant Principals Prepared for the Principalship? How Do Assistant Principals Perceive?” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Sino-American Education Consortium, Kennesaw, GA.
  • Friedman, T. L. (2005). The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
  • Good, R. (2008). “Sharing the Secrets.” Principal Leadership, 8(8), 46–50.
  • Johnson, R. (2000). “Other Duties as Assigned: Four Rules for Surviving the Assistant Principalship.” Bulletin, 84(612), 85–87.
  • Marshall, C., and Hooley, R. M. (2006). The Assistant Principal: Leadership Choices and Challenges (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
  • Kaplan, L. S., and Owings, W. A. (1999). “Assistant Principals: The Case for Shared Leadership.” NASSP Bulletin, 83(610), 80–94. 

Dr. Beverly J. Hutton is the Director of Professional Development at the National Association of Secondary School Principals. She is the recent past president of the Burlington County Principals and Supervisors Association, and a previous recipient of NJPSA’s Visionary Leadership Award.

Copyright 2012 Educational Viewpoints
Used with permission from NJPSA