I never experienced a dull moment in my five years as a K–12 principal in schools of about 450 students. In those two-administrator school districts, my position was much like that of an assistant principal in many larger schools. Interacting with students was the highlight of each day I served as a K–12 principal. If you’re considering working your way up, it’s important to learn how to flourish in the role of an assistant principal while simultaneously preparing yourself to become a principal.

Roles and Responsibilities—Be Patient 

If your position description pigeonholes you into a narrowly defined role such as handling student discipline or school safety issues, carry out your assigned duties admirably. Then, when you have mastered those assigned duties, attempt to be involved in all aspects of running a school, because that is what a principal does. Earnestly attempt to learn about responsibilities beyond your assigned ones. Realize that it takes time to master most aspects of successfully leading a school, and be willing to commit that time. Don’t rush your own development.

Student Conduct Issues—Build Relationships

A typical role for an assistant principal is to handle student discipline. The key to this duty, I’ve found, is developing relationships with kids first and foremost, because it is fun to do so! Be everywhere that kids are—in common places as well as structured, regular meetings. And talk with them. My daily interactions with students and the fact that I supervised school events helped me to develop great relationships.

Those relationships, as well as your continual visibility, will help prevent unsuitable behavior and make it easier to redirect kids when they behave inappropriately. Think of the concept of an emotional bank account. You make deposits into that account when you talk to kids in the halls or lunchroom and show up at school events. When kids make wrong choices and you have to administer consequences, you make withdrawals from that account. Administering consequences is a lot easier when you have a positive balance in that account to begin with.

Treat kids with respect and dignity—even if they have behaved egregiously. I would say something like, “You’re not my son. But, if my son was in this situation, here is what I would say to him.” It takes time to listen to kids about their choices and how they might handle that situation in the future—more than it does to simply assign a punishment. But, it is time well spent. Ask kids about their future and what decisions they need to make now and in the future to accomplish what they want. Again, this takes time. But the real satisfaction from handling discipline comes from getting kids to the point where they are self-managed. Getting kids to make good choices and be self-directed requires you to really care about them and demonstrate that you care by respectfully listening and redirecting.

School Safety Issues—Be Unwavering

If you are put in charge of school safety, immerse yourself in the task. Develop safety committees for every imaginable situation—lock down drills, tornado drills, fire drills-whatever issues might be encountered. Many minds representing many roles—teachers, aides, bus drivers, cafeteria workers—will make for more thorough, effective plans. Practice, practice, and practice drills so that they become routine and everyone, including substitute employees, knows his or her role.

Then monitor every drill and adjust accordingly. In my K–12 principal’s role, I would sometimes “nab” a third grader passing by during a fire drill and hide her in my office to see if anyone noticed. (Middle school or high school students who made frequent trips to my office thought they were pretty special if I asked them to hide in my office to see if anyone noticed that they were missing.) Those tricks and debriefing with our various safety committees after drills seriously sharpened the effectiveness of our emergency plans. When a real emergency happens, you want everyone to effectively carry out their responsibilities. That is more likely to happen if you have practiced effectively and have continually refined practices.

Also, seek outside help. Your local fire department and police department can walk through your school and offer advice on ways to make it safer. They may also be willing to perform mock exercises to help ensure the safety of students and staff. Take advantage of their expertise and willingness to help.

Routine Issues—Make Them Routine

As principal, you are expected to be an educational leader. Why would anyone view you as an instructional leader if you can’t do ordinary things well? Effective management precedes effective leadership. Make sure routine things like bus loading and dismissal, cafeteria supervision, playground supervision, hall monitoring, supervising students after school, responding to parents in a timely manner, etc., are well-planned and well-executed so that you can spend your time on higher-order responsibilities. Continually scrutinize all current practices and look for ways to make them more effective.

Major Decisions—Involve People

As principal, I formed a Principal’s Advisory Committee comprised of representative teachers to help me make major decisions. Those teachers would ask questions like “Have you thought about …” or “What if we did it this way instead?” or “This idea would work even better if …” The result of involving people in issues that affected them was two-fold: better decisions were made in the first place, and they were received with stronger support because the teachers on the committee served as ambassadors for them.

That same premise of involving people is equally important when dealing with middle and high school students. Ask their opinions, encourage dissenting viewpoints, and strongly consider all options and perspectives before finalizing decisions.

Communication—Be Abundant and Redundant

Prevent conflict and gain support for initiatives by broadly communicating about issues that you are responsible for. How? Send information to staff in weekly memos and give them minutes of any committee results that you are involved with. Post information in a staff-only site on the school webpage. Be sure to discuss thorny issues in person; use email for noncontroversial topics.Communicate with parents by posting important information on your website and via your school’s parent contact process. Write a blog. Invite students and parents to meet with you regularly to hear their concerns. In one school I worked in we held regular “Conversations with Administrators” to purposefully solicit the viewpoints of parents and promote two-way communication.

Academic Endeavors—Immerse Yourself

Even though you may not be assigned academic leadership as a primary responsibility, do your best to chair, or at least be a member of, curriculum committees, professional learning communities, school improvement teams, etc. Ask to observe teachers within your area of certification and subjects with which you are comfortable. Teachers will appreciate your willingness to learn more about their subject area. Continually expand your knowledge of all subjects by attending subject-specific department meetings and reading professional literature as well as by joining statewide and national organizations.

Your Weaknesses—Assess and Eliminate

As you contemplate transitioning from being an assistant principal to a principal, ask yourself—why would my supervisors promote me? Why would another school hire me as a principal? Assess your strengths and weaknesses. Continually work to eliminate your weaknesses and develop the many in-depth skills that you must possess to be a highly effective principal. 

While you are looking to the future, continue to excel in your present position. Be a friendly, self-directed problem solver. Work hand-in-hand with your principal so that you are a very effective team, complementing each other’s strengths. Act as a resource to students, teachers, and parents. Continually improve your skills and increase your effectiveness at all of your responsibilities. Before you know it, you will possess a wide array of skills based on having continually refined practices, and you will be ready for the principalship. 

John Gratto is assistant professor of educational leadership at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA.