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

Assistant principalship serves as the entry level to educational administration and the gateway to the principalship, yet many assistant principals will 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?

Teachers receive professional development in the areas of teaching and learning. Supervisors are trained in the areas of curriculum and assessment. 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. Not only that, but many districts place 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. 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?


Lead principals have a responsibility to create an environment in which 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 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 opportunities for professional development by asking themselves questions such as: “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?”

Professional Development

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 the assistant principal 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.

Adding pertinent action research projects gives school administrators an opportunity to experience facets of the job before entering the field. New Jersey offers the New Jersey Expedited Certification for Educational Leadership, an alternate certification program that has graduated more students than any other nontraditional program—more than 1,800 candidates. Seventeen other states offer similar certification programs.

The readiness of assistant principals is dependent largely on two things: 1) the types and structure of experiences their principals provide within the context of the school day and 2) 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, 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.

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.

An Ideal Model

Building Ranks™: A Comprehensive Framework for Effective School Leaders, the flagship publication of Building Ranks, serves as a continuous professional learning resource for school leaders at every stage of their practice as it prepares aspiring, new, and experienced leaders to meet the challenges of ensuring each student’s and adult’s success.

Focused on the two domains of Building Culture and Leading Learning, and encompassing 15 dimensions—such as equity, relationships, innovation, collaborative leadership, and global-​mindedness—this comprehensive guide translates the educational leadership standards into daily practice by providing strategies and actions that promote school success. Not meant to be read once and put on a shelf, Building Ranks can guide school leadership teams as they develop, implement, and reflect on their plans.

A lead principal who wants to build the leadership capacity of their school leadership team will find Building Ranks relevant. The guide offers a comprehensive range of specific leadership practices, strategies, and actions that principals and other school leaders can choose from to serve the needs of their learning community. 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

The demands on school leaders have changed, and the deep-rooted, traditional role of one principal leading an entire school community is outdated 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, one person can’t have all the answers.

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, principal and assistant principal, working together to do that. A distributed leadership model is characterized by shared, participatory, structured, and intentional forms of decision making that recognize that the power of many can replace traditional hierarchical, singular leadership. The responsibilities of school leadership are simply too varied and too numerous to continue the hierarchical leadership model inherent in most schools.

Lead principals must be willing to share leadership, autonomy, and responsibilities with their assistant principals, who are colleagues and credentialed school leaders. Assistant principals, first and foremost, 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.

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.

Assistant principals are ultimately responsible for their 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 myriad 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 are not easy tasks, but it’s necessary in order to pave the road to true instructional leadership. This means actively participating in relevant professional development and growth activities that are easily transferable into daily practice.

Just as principals make themselves indispensable to the success of cocurricular programs, they 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.

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 and is committed to raising their leadership potential and becoming their No. 1 source for information and training. NASSP continues to propose professional development opportunities for assistant principals that emphasize the following areas: school culture, leadership for learning, management for learning, and ongoing professional development.

NASSP also provides these professional learning opportunities for assistant principals:

  • Full-day workshop before the National Principals Conference—held July 6, 2020
  • Weekly Twitter Chats—#APChat
  • “Expert of the Week” entries posted in the Assistant Principal Leadership Center and to the School of Thought blog
  • Recognition of National Assistant Principals Week, April 6–10, 2020

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. 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.

Beverly J. Hutton is the deputy executive director of programs and services at NASSP.

The Building Ranks guide includes:

  • The “why” that sets the purpose for effective school leadership
  • Authentic case studies from practicing principals
  • Strategies, tools, and resources that support professional growth
  • An action-planning tool with reflection questions to build successful leadership practice