6 Tips for Every Assistant Principal Who Wants to Be a Principal

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Prior to becoming a principal, I was an assistant principal (AP) for three years. As an AP, I thought being a principal would be no different, you just have more people to manage......#false #nope #sike. Yes, you manage more people, but the scope of the work is different, the responsibilities are different, your time is different, your priorities are different, and the accountability is different. As a third year principal, I can now look back and name the experiences I had as an AP that prepared me to take on the principalship. I also have the benefit of having some of the best APs in the city (Shoutout to my squad....MP, AW, and BM! XOXO). Being in the principal seat with their unwavering support helps me articulate even better what an AP does (and does not do) that makes me and the school even better.  

If you're an AP or emerging school leader with desires of becoming a principal, here is my best attempt to name my top 6 pieces of advice just for you....

Me and my admin squad! 

Me and my admin squad! 

1. Play the hell out of your #2 spot

Obama had Biden, Beyonce had Kelly, Michael had Pippen, and every principal has an assistant principal.  As an AP you are #2 in the building. Being #2 is one of the most complex and underrated roles. Your principal cannot be #1 without you. You are your principal's right hand and your principal will feel the impact of everything you do or don't do.   Being #2 requires humility to acknowledge you are not in the top spot yet and each day you are boldly leading someone else's vision.  It requires contentment to accept that others may not know of all the work you do and sometimes others will give your principal all the credit.  It requires confidence and loyalty to accept the leadership opportunity the happens the moment your principal steps out the building......you are in charge and must hold them down. Being #2 is hard but it's also a gift! 

As a principal, I am held accountable to EVERYTHING in my building.  It doesn't matter if I did it or not, if I was present when it happened, or if I knew about it the moment it went down. If it happened at my school, I am responsible.  This was one of the biggest differences between being an AP and principal.  As an AP, I was in the sweet spot of having enough formal authority to influence the entire school, while not being the first person the communications department will call when your school ends up on the news. As an AP you have the privilege of not having the same accountability as a principal.  Take advantage of this sweet spot by piloting new ideas while you don't have the accountability of a principal.  Partner with your principal to determine the right context for your ideas. Treat your time as an AP like a case study to find out what strategies work and which ones don't so you have your toolbox built when you become principal. Ask your principal for the hard but invaluable feedback about your leadership while you are still in the sweet spot and can address it without greater consequences.  A good question to ask is, "When you are out of the building and I am your principal designee, what makes you most nervous when I am leading in your absence?"

Playing the hell out of your #2 spot also looks like finding joy in taking on the small tasks your principal doesn't have time to do or small tasks you can proactively take off their plate. On the surface these tasks are not attractive.  They can be tedious, boring, or seem meaningless. I remember when I was an AP, I jumped at the opportunity to conduct a three hour building walkthrough with our head custodian.....THREE HOURS looking at every classroom and inch of the building.  This experience allowed me to increase my knowledge of building services, learn about the responsibilities of a custodian versus our district property manager, and the process for addressing building issues. Because of this experience, when I became principal I knew the questions to ask and the people to contact when building issues would arise.  View your time as an AP as time in the ring training for the heavyweight title of principal. Take time now to slow down and learn all the smallest details so when it is your time to be named principal you have less questions to ask and know who to call. 

2. Define your core values and stick to them

As a school leader I heard "know your core values" a million times. I participated in countless core value activities. You know, the ones where you start with the list of 100+ core values and you're forced to cross off words until you get down to 3-5. I didn't realize how important knowing my core values was until I became a principal. As the principal you are the leader of your school's culture. The buck stops with you. Your actions define what is acceptable and unacceptable in the culture. It is your responsibility as principal to directly address any breaches in your culture.  What you define as a breach and how you address it is directly informed by your core values. As a principal I have difficult conversations LITERALLY every day (notice the plural tense...CONVERSATIONS).  Yesterday, I had five difficult conversations, each with a different stakeholder and I couldn't have predicted any of them when I woke up yesterday morning.....#deadserious. When pressure stares you in your face, whoever you are at your core will show up. Analyzing your difficult conversations is a great way to learn your core values. In reflecting over my difficult conversations there are common moves I make, regardless of the stakeholder or context, that articulate my core values. 

1. I articulate what absolutely needs to be true for our scholars and what is required from us to deliver on our promise to our students and families. I share the impact the actions we are addressing are having on us being able to deliver on our promise. - My core value: Excellence

2. I detail how the actions we are addressing are impacting our school community (i.e. our kids, other staff members, our school's culture, etc.). When appropriate, I invite the grade level administrator (one of my APs) to the conversation so they are at the table and can support any next steps identified. - My core value: Community 

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3. I bring my whole self to difficult conversations which allows me to interact genuinely and feel comfortable asking the impromptu questions you feel in your gut (i.e. "When you say "them" who is them?", "I hear and honor your perspective, and I observed something different. Let me share my perspective with you."). If the issue at hand has been previously addressed, I usually feel some kind of way about the impact it's continuing to have on our kids and community. I don't lead with my emotions, but I do believe it is healthy and necessary to state the emotionally impact of negative actions. I would share something along the lines of...."I am frustrated and deeply disappointed that this issue has persisted and our kids continue to be impacted by it. Share with me why this continues to happen and provide me with direct feedback on how I can support you in addressing this issue immediately." -   My core value: Authenticity

4. I share prior successes of the person I am speaking with to affirm my belief in their leadership and ability to create positive change. If I have made the same misstep we are addressing in my own leadership journey, I share that experience.  I stay emotionally in tune with the other person and may ask, "What are you thinking right now?....What is your reaction to what I just shared?"  - My core value: Compassion

5. Difficult conversations can be very heavy. I typically give a compliment or crack a joke when appropriate at some duration of the conversation to create a smile in the room. - My core value: Joy 

Think about the last difficult conversation you had.  What core values did you communicate through what you said and how you interacted? Write these core values down and revisit them frequently to assess if they truly define your leadership core. 

3. Find your data point

It is very easy as an AP to get caught up in buses, testing, textbooks, and discipline. At the end of the year, no one is asking how a school managed their textbook inventory. Yes, it has to be done but it is not a priority. When you are seeking a principalship, folks will want to know how did you move student achievement.  You need to find at least one data point to own. Your data point can be a content area, a grade level, attendance data, or suspension data. You must find something. Think about the high impact measures a principal is held accountable to, work with your principal to pick one and own it from start to finish.  You need to be able to tell a story about strategic leadership moves you made to create systems, manage people, analyze data to monitor progress, provide feedback/coaching, and how you created a clear impact as evident by positive change in a numeric data point. How well you managed textbooks, testing, or buses doesn't give someone clarity on your potential effectiveness as a principal.....moving 6th grade ELA proficiency by +10%, exceeding growth on your grade level, decreasing absences or suspension by +10% does.  

4. Build champions of your leadership 

As you are slayin' as an AP, you must be intentional in who knows about your "slayage". Doing this does not make you arrogant or cocky, but allows key decision makers to have insight into your work and impact, allowing them to champion your leadership.  Your first champion must be your principal.  Your principal has key insights into your day-to-day and can speak in most detail about your work.  It is critical that you have a positive working relationship with your principal and manage up to keep them informed on the specifics of your current work. When your principal can positively speak about your work and provide details, they are empowered to best advocate on your behalf to their colleagues and their boss (aka potential hiring managers).

This may be intuitive but have a conversation with your principal about your desires to be a principal. Stating your desires empowers your principal to think differently about the opportunities they expose you to and people they connect you with. Principals get opportunities all the time to present in district spaces, serve on committees, attend professional development, etc.  When your principal knows your desire to become a principal, they can strategically pass along these opportunities. Serving/leading in spaces outside of your school increases your visibility and creates opportunities for external stakeholders to talk positively about your leadership, thus becoming your champion. 

Your principal directly knows the micro-political landscape you will need to navigate to become a principal. Ask him/her directly who are the key decision makers you should connect with and the best way to connect with them.  Be direct and solicit your principal's support as much as possible.  Ask them if they would be willing to make the connection and/or if they can proofread the email you intend to send.  Ask them to proofread your resume and role play with you once the meeting is confirmed to give feedback on your leadership presence. Your principal will be your best resource and advocate but only when you are open and direct with your desires and the support you need. 

5. Know your fit

When I was an AP, I used to cringe when someone would say "know your fit".  What the heck does that mean? Now that I am a principal I understand that knowing your fit is articulating your leadership style and skill set, and then aligning it to the type of school you would be best positioned to lead.  It's a little like dating.  Some APs make the mistake of being open to take on any school as its principal.  Would you just date anyone?......#nope #Irebukeit. When you are dating you have clear qualities you look for in your partner based upon what you know about yourself. You must have the same awareness about your leadership when seeking a principalship. 

Some APs make the mistake of defining their fit based on superficial criteria. For example, "I want to be the principal of X school because it is close to my house." This is like saying, "I want to date this person because they live down the street from me." It sounds crazy doesn't it?  You can value travel time but it should not define your fit. 

Articulating your fit could sound like:

"Most of my experience has been in secondary settings and I have experience increasing outcomes in literacy as a teacher and school leader. I have experience working with special education teams which has allowed me to build expertise in special education policies and best practices.  My leadership core is data driven and I have learned the value of building relationships to create a strong school culture to support the work.  Given this, my leadership style and expertise would best be a fit for a middle or high school with a strong school culture, and in need of strong instructional leadership to increase literacy practices and build a strong special education program."

To be clear, if you don't have experience in a particular area, it doesn't mean that you shouldn't be a principal of that type of school. As a first year principal, there will be many challenges. The more experience you have tackling similar challenges, the better you will be set up for success. Be thoughtful of the number of unique aspects of a school that you do and don't have experience with. You only get one time to be a first year principal so set yourself up to lead in a school that has more areas you have experiences in than not.  This should directly influence how you determine your fit. There is no formula or checklist to articulate your perfect fit.  Below are a couple of questions to consider to help you become clearer on your fit.

  • Is your experience mostly elementary or secondary?
  • Is your experience mostly Title 1 or non-Title 1?
  • Do you lead with people or lead with numbers? Most will say they are goal driven but not everyone has a default of analyzing numbers first when you're faced with a problem to solve.  Some leaders what to know how others feel about the problem first to inform their next steps and that's okay. Knowing if you lead with people or lead with numbers will help you articulate the type of school culture that would best fit your leadership or inform the types of questions you should ask about the school's culture to know the leadership style you will need to exercise early on. Hint: If you know your Myers Briggs and you are an "F" you likely lead with people, if you are a "T" you likely lead with data. I am an ENTJ :-) 
  • Do you have in-depth experience with a particular subgroup? (i.e. special education,  English language learners, academically gifted)
  • Have you had experience leading any school-wide culture systems and have data to show your positive impact? (i.e. Response to Intervention (RTI), Multi-Tier Support System (MTSS), student attendance, out-of-school suspensions)

6. Be patient

When you want something so bad, it’s hard to be patient. It’s easy to adapt a habit of comparison and wonder why not you yet. When I first applied to my district’s principal talent pool (the first step to becoming a principal), I was rejected. Once I had processed through the emotions, I decided to “be still” which for me meant spending time learning the craft of school leadership and becoming great at it. I didn’t reapply until 3 years later and was accepted. 

I had 7 principal interviews before I was named principal at my current school. Yes, 7. With each no, I wondered what I was lacking. I think the dating analogy applies here too. When you’re dating and the other person says “no” to further exploring possibilities, it doesn’t mean something is wrong with you. It means the two of you simply aren't a match. Even if you think it’s a match, relationships aren’t meant to be one sided, because when they are it’s toxic. 

Being patient is easier said than done. If you receive a "no", ask for specific feedback from the hiring manager.  Share the feedback with your principal, and if appropriate identify an area for you to take on to apply the feedback. Build a habit of frequently affirming yourself so that each time that pesky negative thought creeps up and says "You're not good enough", you have a weapon of self-affirmation to stop it in its tracks. Your principalship will come and when it shows up you will be ready. 

Erica Jordan-Thomas