Now is a great time to think about one of the most important decisions you’ll ever make as a principal—hiring an assistant principal.

When that need/opportunity arises, many administrators ask themselves these questions:

  • Should I hire someone with a similar background to mine or someone with a very different mindset? 
  • Should I hire internally or outside of my school?
  • Should I help a classroom teacher move into administration or search for someone who is already a department chair or AP instructor?

None of these questions alone will sort the candidates very well. What is needed is a set of interview questions that ascertain candidates’ past training, knowledge, and experience.

Behavior-based interview questions provide the best vehicle for identifying a new assistant principal who can do the job. Behavior-based interviewing is built on the premise that past behavior is the best predictor of future performance. This style of interviewing requires the employer to first identify the skills and experience needed for the specific job.

In the case of an assistant principal, those criteria include appropriate certification, previous leadership experience, prior work with curriculum, testing, student achievement, discipline, activities, facilities, budget, dealing with diverse student populations, parent and community relations, and personnel management. Communication skills, the ability to collaborate, and a strong work ethic are needed in a competent new hire.

Since many assistant principal candidates are moving from classroom teaching to their first administrative job, how can they have all the experience needed?

In strong graduate programs, candidates complete internships and shadow principals to complete their certification. Observing and assisting other administrators are indicators of the candidate’s ability to perform similar duties in the future. A candidate who has organized homecoming or prom has the skills to budget and supervise student activities. Someone who has mentored new teachers, or supervised student teachers, evidences the ability to support faculty members. Any candidate who has already taught workshops about curriculum, changing standards, and testing is prepared to do so on a schoolwide basis. By asking questions about these types of experiences, interviewers get a clear picture of what candidates have done, in order to project whether they can do the job of assistant principal.

A key to behavior-based interviewing is to create a master list of questions and to ask the same questions of each candidate. Ideally, the interviewer should also know what answers are sought—with cues for what to listen for also listed.

Sample Questions and Listening Tips 

Consider using these prompts during an interview: 

  1. Tell us about any leadership experiences you have had. Listen for experience outside of school—such as Scout leader—as well as school experience, such as volunteering to lead school events or professional development sessions.
  2. What strengths have you shown in your past leadership? Candidate discusses getting others to volunteer, involving others to problem solve, or increasing attendance at an event.
  3. How have you worked with others in curriculum planning and implementation? Look for committee work, attendance at state or national workshops, etc.
  4. Describe your experience with standardized testing procedures and the use of test results. Listen for people who have directed a departmental review of results or monitored tests.
  5. Describe your classroom management techniques. Candidate should have knowledge of how to use a plan and when to involve administrators, and should name a writer or book in the field. 
  6. Talk about student discipline policies that you are familiar with and why they work.
  7. Tell us about your involvement with school activities or sports events. Look for continued involvement over several years; a leadership role such as coaching or sponsoring an activity; increased student interest in the activity; and collaboration with others in planning.
  8. What have you found to be the most important results from student activities for the students? For the faculty members? Desirable answers include “students may stay in school and graduate” and “faculty truly enjoy the engagement with students outside of class.” 
  9. Tell us about your experiences supporting a new hire or student teacher. Look for mentoring experiences or participation on a hiring committee.
  10. Describe a time when another teacher came to you with a question or concern and what you did. Look for the ability to help a colleague in a positive manner.
  11. Have you had opportunities to create and manage a budget? If so, please describe those experiences. Experience may be school- or community-related, such as managing the band boosters, field trips, fundraising, service projects, etc.
  12. Describe your experiences with facility management within school or outside of school. Coaches have experience with use of facilities; teachers who work with clubs may use the theater, gym, or district-wide spaces. Some candidates may have experience on their church board or a community board that oversees a facility.
  13. Describe positive means of communication that you have built with parents. Look for examples of innovative parent conferences, newsletters created, websites developed, and special events for parent involvement.  
  14. How have you shared the work of your students with the community? Examples include service projects completed, newsletters or newspaper articles published, and events held at school.
  15. How have you taken advantage of community resources in the classroom? Listen for the use of speakers or others.
  16. Explain the demographics of the school, sharing data about low-income families, English language learners, or other populations. Ask the candidate about previous experience with a similar demographic population, listening for both the candidate’s experience and tone of the answer. Example: The candidate shouldn’t feel sorry for the population discussed, but rather have experience with programs that yielded positive results with targeted interventions or increased graduation numbers.
  17. Give an example of how you have communicated with parents, administrators, or community members about your work and/or your students’ work. Good answers might evidence a service project done by students, speaking at an event, taking students to an event, or continued use of newsletters and articles in the local paper.
  18. Describe your work on a project or committee where real collaboration took place. A strong candidate doesn’t just say, “I’m a team player.” He or she should describe how a group worked together to accomplish a task. Listen for a candidate’s answer that includes giving credit to others.

Evaluating Answers

Before any interview takes place, determine the evaluation tool that will be used. A straightforward system may be to have a list of questions and rate each answer on a scale of 1 to 5, or to rate each answer as unacceptable, acceptable, or target. A 5 would indicate that the candidate has strong experience with the question and seems ready to perform the work associated with the topic of the question. A 1 would indicate no experience or no ability to answer the question. Unacceptable answers are simply that—there is no evidence of skill, training, or background with the topic. A target answer might also be called a “wow” answer, as it indicates that the candidate is fully prepared to work with the issue in question.

For years, employers have interviewed candidates the same way they were interviewed, often using the phrase “tell me about yourself” and letting the conversation flow. Many employers have relied on their “gut feeling” to hire someone. 

The stakes are high when hiring a new assistant principal to help lead the school and to support teachers, and many may argue that the stakes are too high to rely on that gut feeling. The use of behavior-based interviewing strengthens the search process and should result in the hiring of a strong and competent administrator who can get the job done. 

Mary C. Clement is a professor of teacher education at Berry College in Mount Berry, GA.

Making It Work

Follow these recommendations for making successful matches when hiring assistant principals: 

  • Follow established district protocol for hiring.
  • Create a list of the duties for the position of assistant principal, and then create a master list of questions that address those skills. 
  • Use behavior-based interview questions that ask the candidate to describe and explain his or her past work. Determine the types of answers sought and create an evaluation tool for rating the answers.
  • Ask the same questions of each candidate and evaluate the answers objectively.