April 10–14 is National Assistant Principals Week, so we thought there was no better time to examine the evolving role of the assistant principal than now. We convened a group of principals from different areas of the country who are in their first few years of service and were recognized during their own assistant principal tenures in the NASSP Assistant Principal of the Year (APOY) Program: Sarah Longshore, principal of Saluda High School in Saluda, SC, and a 2015 National APOY Finalist; Renee Palazzo, principal of Ponaganset High School in Glocester, RI, and a 2014 State APOY; and Matthew Willis, principal of Hinkley High School in Aurora, CO, and the 2013 National APOY. Principal Leadership Senior Editor Michael Levin-Epstein moderated the discussion.

Levin-Epstein: How has the role of the assistant principal changed in the last five to 10 years? 

Longshore: When I was coming up through school, I saw the assistant principal as someone who primarily handled discipline, textbooks, and buses. I basically never saw this person, because I was never in trouble. However, there is a different expectation of assistant principals today; they are rather seen as an extension of the principal. It’s become more important that assistant principals be well-rounded and knowledgeable in areas of curriculum, instruction, and leadership. Because the role is meant to prepare you for the principalship, which is a role that has also seen a shift over time, it’s important for assistant principals to take advantage of and seek out opportunities in all different areas of school leadership.

Palazzo: In the past, the assistant principal’s role was really an assistant to the principal—more of a management job. There has been a tremendous shift to more of an educational leader, working side by side with the principal, attending those meetings that the principal attends, and really, it is a step to prepare you for the principalship role. I do see specializing more in instructional leadership, curriculum, school safety, student support, working hand in hand with guidance, working hand in hand with support staff. It’s really a role that has expanded into so many different facets of the school building.

Willis: I agree with Sarah and Renee—assistant principals must be instructional leaders. Assistant principals at Hinkley meet with their professional learning teams and help shape and guide instructional practices. They work collaboratively with their teams to address gaps in student learning and to address issues in the classroom. Management at every level is changing, and assistant principals are expected to work closely with their teams; we can no longer work in isolation from one another.

Levin-Epstein: What surprised you about the job of the assistant principal? 

Palazzo: I moved in the middle of the year, so I became the assistant principal in January in the same building where I was currently teaching. I assumed that I had known a lot of what needed to be known, because I had worked in the building for 14 years or so. I guess my biggest surprise was how much really happened at that level, what outside forces, what outside factors had an impact on the decisions we made day to day. As a classroom teacher, you manage your classroom, you follow your curriculum, you work with your colleagues, and you do what’s best for your students. But at the administration level, there are many more outside factors that came into play. I hadn’t realized all of the different people that I had to work with: guidance counselors, parents, outside organizations, my superintendent, my assistant superintendent, taking the lead from my principal, the school resource officer—there were so many other elements to it. I just didn’t realize how it all came to play and how it impacted my day-to-day dealings.

Willis: I think the learning curve is really steep with the transition from being a teacher into being an assistant principal, or even being a dean of students to an assistant principal. There are so many more systems that you are required to navigate than [when] you were in any of those prior positions, and people do expect that you are an expert, and in each one of those circles that you are trying to navigate, there are adult behaviors that sometimes just don’t seem like everybody is on the same page. Trying to navigate through those systems to actually understand the perspective of all these different people, and where they might be coming from so that you can create a successful environment [is challenging]. 

I think there are a lot of things taught in theory when you go through classes to get your licensure. … The reality of being prepared to walk into a large organization is a lot different in theory, and in those practicum hours, than it is in the reality of doing the entire job. I can see why, when you look around our nation, you can see that lots of people—whether it’s principals or assistant principals—are choosing to get out of the role after a short amount of time.

Longshore: I think there is a step that unfortunately gets skipped when we talk about the principal pipeline. Matt referenced the practicum hours and the classes that we take to get our admin certification, but those experiences are usually tailored toward the principalship. The assistant principal has a hard job, and I don’t think we do enough to prepare aspiring administrators for that role, since presumably we will all become assistant principals before we become principals. I think the assistant principal has one of the most difficult jobs in a school, but it is certainly a very important one. Rather than communicating your own vision to the school, an assistant principal is supporting and promoting the vision of someone else, the principal. So, how can we better train aspiring school leaders to first be assistant principals, then principals?

Palazzo: I think of my three [career] roles—teacher, assistant principal, and principal—for me, probably the most challenging, while the most rewarding, was assistant principal. Although I loved teaching very much, I just felt like I was able to build those relationships, interact with students at a different level. But perhaps that was the role where I did have to have a good mentor … because the prep work I had really is, like Sarah said, for the principalship. The assistant principal—it’s like every other responsibility—you have to be prepared, you have to be flexible, you have to be strong, you have to be confident, but you also have to be willing to ask questions, to learn. 

Willis: In my first year as an assistant principal, a principal at a high school in another district had retired, and she was my mentor that year. It was somebody whom I could bounce ideas off of. As a result, I didn’t feel threatened about how I was going to be judged, and it really helped me become a stronger leader.

The Principal’s Role 

Levin-Epstein: Do principals often give assistant principals special assignments and projects?

Palazzo: My principal was phenomenal in preparing me for this role. We were fortunate enough to be together for eight years. So, although the role has changed, it also depends on the principal that you are working with. I would come to my principal with an idea of something that I thought could make a difference, and he would say, “Sure! Run with it, but keep me in the loop. Give me a plan. Let me know how you are working through this.” Then, if something new came down, he would say, “I’d like you to take the lead on this. I’d like you to run this project.” Obviously, we would work hand in hand on it, but he truly gave me the autonomy, the flexibility, but tremendous guidance, so that I could work through the task on my own but had him for support. And that’s where I see that I work with my two assistants, kind of in the same role-giving them tasks, giving them new things coming down, but working with them so they can learn as they go through the process.

I became assistant principal in the middle of the school year, and it was during a time when Rhode Island was just revising its proficiency-based graduation requirements. We had testing components. I did oversee and plan all of the testing requirements for the three content areas of math, science, and English, but I also led the data analysis of that. So, the data protocol, the item analysis—I ran all that PD and all those workshops for the teachers. I was also able to plan, facilitate, reflect on, and revise the curriculum work through the high school, and so I worked very closely with the assistant superintendent in that. [The principal] gave me the lead on school safety, so I developed a committee for that. There were so many things; but for me, the bulk of what I was able to work with, in addition to discipline, was really curriculum, instruction, and the coordination of data analysis for the whole school.

Willis: Each assistant principal and I develop 90-day plans to address areas of concern and move the school forward. We are accountable to each other about updating the school and team about our work. Examples of our 90-day plans include: one, increasing attendance; two, graduation and dropout rates and developing sustainable procedures; three, schoolwide writing initiatives; and four, leadership training. If we can move the needle in some of these areas and develop sustainable solutions, then we can begin to realize greater success at the school and within the community.

Longshore: My experience, fortunately, sounds very similar to what Renee just described. I was assigned a variety of tasks, including—but certainly not limited to—handling student discipline, planning and facilitating professional development, evaluating teachers and staff, leading schoolwide initiatives, and growing programs. I was also fortunate to work for principals who made me feel empowered and invited me to be involved in significant decision-making. I always felt ownership for school efforts and outcomes. The principals that I worked for really allowed me to think outside the box, to take risks, and to be creative. And I promise you, not everything I worked on as an assistant principal turned to gold, but my principals continued to encourage a growth mindset, allowing me the opportunity to learn from my mistakes and to grow as a leader. I know that it’s because of that type of leadership that I became ready to take on my biggest challenge of all: the principalship.

Levin-Epstein: Describe a situation in which you, perhaps, helped avoid a crisis.

Longshore: I think it all comes down to relationships. I think the relationships that you foster with the students, the parents, and the teachers are your greatest weapon as an assistant principal. Just being visible and accessible and really knowing the people in your school community will automatically increase your effectiveness. I would also like to add this: The last principal I worked for told me on the day we met that he was “in the business of growing principals.” That’s what he did. One of his greatest legacies is that at least 12 individuals who have served as assistant principals under him have gone on to become successful principals, including myself. He spent so much time getting me to reflect on situations, and he would ask me questions like, “If you were the principal right now, what would you do to defuse this situation?” Or, “So, you don’t like that this happened. What will you do as a principal to ensure it doesn’t happen in your school one day?” So, the focus during my time with him was not always on how I could be better in my current role as an assistant principal, but how I could prepare myself to one day be an effective principal. This would definitely be a recommendation for any assistant principal aspiring to advance his or her career. Make time for reflection and identify a strong mentor.

Willis: We, as a system, systematized discipline, and when there were breaches in relationships or conflicts between people, in creating these systems, we created books. People could then reference a book, if somebody did this problem, then they got this type of punishment as a result of that. We can see that that system is entirely ineffective, as a matter of fact. It is part of the school-to-prison pipeline. This system we created simply puts people on a track to push them out of school and push them into prisons, and it’s ineffective. 

So, changing what we’re doing actually takes more time. Addressing conflict, talking about things, sitting down with people, finding out their perspectives about stuff—why was it that this conflict happened? I think you just talked about relationships. Everything we do, we are in the business of people. Everything we do is around people and resolving conflict, and we talk about creating collaborative learning environments in our classrooms. In order to do that, we have to have relationships with people, and if there are breaches in those relationships in a classroom, or between students, those need to be addressed. As you change your culture from this traditional-​type system to a more restorative culture of care, it takes more time to do that. But as you develop that culture, people start coming to you more proactively, so the need to defuse situations begins to diminish, because people are coming to you in advance of the conflict happening and asking for assistance. But those types of changes in culture take time.

Longshore: Matt is absolutely right. He mentioned restorative care and creating a culture that embraces restorative practices. It takes an incredible amount of time to build relationships with the students, parents, and teachers and to earn their trust. But by investing significant time in people on the front end, it will take less time and will be easier to clean up any sticky situations that come up later down the road.

Are the Kids Changing?

Levin-Epstein: Have the students changed as a result of technology, social media, and other changes in society?

Longshore: I would answer that question with a yes and a no. On one hand, I would say no, students are the same as they’ve always been—kids will always be kids. I think that students are different because there are so many more external factors at play, including social media—YouTube, Twitter, and Snapchat, for example. These images and interactions influence the way they see themselves, the way they see their peers, the way they see the world, and certainly their attitude about school and education.

Palazzo: I do see social media, technology, and other societal factors shaping students, and I see them in some ways conflicting with the routines and the procedures and the rules that we have here. I say that in that we still work on a 50-minute or 60-minute bell system, but our kids can explore and access knowledge or information at a touch or click at any time. So, those external factors, I think, influence who they are. I think they certainly require us to provide more supports to our students, because I believe the social-emotional piece is very different than it was years ago, simply because they have so much access to so many different elements and don’t always know how to really process or navigate through those. So, I find more support is needed, and it is very different from years past. Again, they are still kids; they are still looking for us to help them, guide them. We go through high school and we say this is really the last time that a student, a child, can make a mistake and it’s still OK, because we’re here to guide them and help them make the right choices moving forward.

Willis: There are commonalities in human behavior, but everything about society is changing—the use of technology, everything is changing. That’s how I would answer that question. I think the common piece is that people are social. They want to be in a relationship with other people, and I think that’s been true about education through the whole time—that people come to school because of relationships as well as for learning.