3 Essential Traits to Thrive in the AP Role

Topics: Assistant Principals, School Culture and Climate

Over time, the role of an assistant principal (AP) has shifted. Gone are the days when the AP was virtually invisible, spending most of their time in their office being the disciplinarian and managing student behaviors. The role still includes this very important task, but it has evolved to allow APs to be visible in classrooms, acting as instructional leaders and providing teachers with support using best practices.

My start in the role began during the pandemic. In addition to learning the ins and outs of a “typical” AP role, the pandemic provided a whole new set of challenges. As a new leader, it is critical that you build relationships with your staff, which was altered during this time when learning and leading happened through computer screens. The digital platform stole the ability to make those personal connections formed by visiting classrooms and interacting with both students and teachers. This became my primary goal. I overcame the challenge by being intentional with how I interacted with staff through the screen to make formidable connections.

Now that students and staff are back in classrooms, cultivating these relationships I’ve formed remains at the forefront of my leadership.

3 Essential Skills in AP Leadership

The AP role varies significantly according to a whole host of considerations, according to a study, “The Role of Assistant Principals: Evidence and Insights for Advancing School Leadership,” conducted by The Wallace Foundation.

“The assistant principal role is complex and nuanced—it is not simply focused on instructional leadership or discipline,” the report showed. “Most assistant principals undertake a mix of instructional leadership, management, and student discipline leadership tasks. However, the amount of time assistant principals spend on these tasks varies and is often based on principals’ discretion. There is much variation in the roles assistant principals undertake.”

In my role, I’ve found that three traits—empathy, servant leadership, and collaboration—have enabled me to build relationships as I model leadership in my school. Despite the nuance of APs’ day-to-day responsibilities, these traits will set up these school leaders for success.

  1. Empathy: APs thrive when they become empathetic listeners, being attentive to emotions, paying attention to what is being said—and what is not said—and listening to their staffs’ truths without bias. This is critical in building trust—one of the most important traits APs need to be successful leaders.
  2. Servant Leadership: Being a servant leader is another necessary skill for APs to thrive in their role. As a servant leader, my role is not always to be the one in charge; my role is to change my position from someone providing the rules and doing the asking to the one who is listening and being asked of. A servant leader provides assistance, sets standards, listens without judgement, and practices humility and appreciating people for who they are, rather than what they do or give to the school.
  3. Collaboration: Another important skill for an AP is being collaborative. My role in this community is not only being a part of the village, but it’s also working with every person within the village, from administration and the teaching staff to the building staff and anyone who is a part of the village—families and the community, too. I recognize that every person in that village has a vested interest in student success, and including them in the discussions and planning only benefits the whole school community.

Ways to Model Leadership

As APs, it’s imperative that we model leadership for our staff as we grow their leadership skills. Leadership can be defined through a variety of ways, beginning with professionalism. Professionalism is often interpreted as how people speak to each other, and while that’s part of it, it encompasses so much more. Professionalism is about mannerisms, appearance, how you respond to others, and how you handle pressure in times of stress.

Leadership is also modeled through transparency. Being transparent is standing true to your word, speaking your truth, being neutral to all, holding everyone to high standards, and saying what needs to be said in a professional and caring way.

Listening to learn is another way to model leadership. People listen to get information but might not be listening to learn. Listening to learn is being able to declutter the mind and be in the present, truly listening to and comprehending what is being said. This also includes being open-minded and optimistic about information. Listening to learn is easily evidenced by physical and verbal ques, affirmations, and follow-up questions. And as a leader, listening to learn is an effective way to ensure staff know their voices and input matter and are taken into consideration.

Modeling leadership is important as you showcase high expectations for others. When you hold your teachers accountable and build a culture that aims high, the entire school reaps the rewards because teachers pass on those same standards and expectations to students, families, and colleagues.

At the end of the day an AP’s goal is to ensure that students love being at school, have made it home safe and sound and that teachers look forward to coming to work every day. Empathy, servant leadership, and collaboration go hand-in-hand with making those things happen.

Shay Lewis is assistant principal of the CREC Academy of Aerospace and Engineering School in Rocky Hill, Connecticut.