Assistant principalship serves as the entry level to educational administration and the gateway to the principalship, yet many assistant principals say they have been ill prepared for lead principalship. 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?

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. How do we ensure that those changes will enhance the assistant principalship, allowing these leaders to contribute more directly to the success of their students and be acknowledged for the critical role they play in supporting principals, teachers, and students?

Preparation and Professional Development

Professional development for principals covers 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.

Lead principals have a responsibility to create an environment where continuous professional development opportunities are available to their assistant principals. They must ask themselves: “Will this responsibility help prepare them for the lead principalship?” or “Am I best utilizing the credentials and skills of my team members?” The answer to either of these 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 opportunities for professional development 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 become an integral part of the teaching and learning processes?”

Assistant principals are involved in every aspect of the school community. They work with teachers, manage students, communicate with parents, and collaborate with colleagues. The myriad duties and responsibilities assigned to assistant principals that occur primarily during the school day make it nearly impossible for them to leave the building to attend professional development seminars and workshops. Therefore, professional growth should be embedded into their daily responsibilities. Job-embedded professional development has been proven to make sustainable changes and improve instructional practices.

Ultimately, 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. Principals must share power, employing shared decision-making models to build the leadership capacity of all their colleagues and staff, and giving their assistant principals autonomy to allow them to identify and build leadership skills. The readiness and success of assistant principals can be predicted by the nature and extent of the instructional leadership experiences they have.

The Building Ranks Model

Building Ranks ™: A Comprehensive Framework for Effective School Leaders, the flagship publication of NASSP’s Building Ranks framework, serves as a continuous professional learning resource for school leaders at every stage of their practice. Focused on the domains of Building Culture and Leading Learning and their 15 dimensions—such as equity, relationships, innovation, collaborative leadership, and global mindedness—this comprehensive guide translates the educational leadership standards into daily practice.

A lead principal who wants to build the leadership capacity of their school leadership team will find Building Ranks 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.

Embracing the Concept

Principals are called to be instructional leaders in the implementation of a rigorous curriculum that 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 approaches leadership from a hierarchal school leadership model. A flatter leadership model is characterized by distributive, shared, participatory, structured, and intentional forms of decision making. It recognizes that the power of many can replace the traditional hierarchical, singular leadership model.

The responsibilities of school leadership are simply too varied and too numerous to continue the hierarchical leadership model found in most schools. Lead principals must be willing to share leadership, autonomy, and responsibilities with their assistant principals, who are colleagues and credentialed principals. Assistant principals are, first and foremost, principals who 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 assistant principals for increased leadership responsibilities.

Taking Action

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.

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 merely being student managers, they must see themselves as principals. If they don’t see themselves that way, no one else will either.

Just as principals make themselves indispensable to the success of cocurricular programs, assistant principals must be prepared to make themselves integral to instructional programs in their schools. They must demonstrate their commitment to teaching and learning by helping their teachers build a repertoire of instructional practices and creating 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 daily instructional strategies. To do that, assistant principals must know emerging trends in educational research and pedagogical practices.

Assistant principals should initiate opportunities to learn and practice lead principals’ habits of mind and the skill sets required in the principalship. They 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.

Untapped Potential

The assistant principalship is an untapped area of school leadership potential. In this era of increased accountabilities placed on schools and school leaders, the position needs and warrants more attention. Developing pipelines for assistant principals has been a key part of the six-year, $85 million effort to identify, train, and support school leaders sponsored by the Wallace Foundation in several districts, including Prince George’s County Schools in Maryland.

A school community benefits greatly from the leadership power 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 nurtured.

This post was adapted from an article by Beverly J. Hutton, NASSP deputy executive director of programs and services, in the April 2020 issue of Principal Leadership.


About the Author

This post was adapted from an article by Beverly J. Hutton, NASSP deputy executive director of programs and services, in the April 2020 issue of Principal Leadership.


  • Anonymous says:


    Excellent essay. I totally agree that the assistant principal can be a valuable school leader who can help make schools more successful “Reculturing” is a strong way to envision the role.

  • Leslie S Kaplan says:


    Excellent essay. I totally agree that the assistant principal can be a valuable school leader to help enact a shared vision for a successful school. Your choice of “recultured” for reshaping the AP’s role is strong and accurate. I was an assistant principal for instruction for 14 years in 5 different secondary schools. It can be a very satisfying and meaningful role, leading from the middle of the action.

  • Richard Barajas says:

    Your writing is spot-on and should be applied to all levels of leadership, in any venue. It however, requires leaders who understand the value of perpetuating leadershipment development within their ranks, students, teachers, support staff etc., alike. When all learning community members are self-improving for the greater good, Great Things Happen! The genesis of transformation begins when Leader’s are both deliberate and strategically focused on developing leadership capacity.

  • Troy Tinney says:

    To add to my earlier comment,
    everyone in the school is a leader. We all lead something, even if it is a pencil or a dustpan.

  • Anastasios Koularmanis says:

    I read that “the assistant principal has been categorized as the neglected actor and forgotten leader.”

    We should make every effort to empower and promote these individuals who can offer so much. They are the right hand of every good building administrator.

    Anastasios Koularmanis

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