Is It Time to Move Up?

5 things to consider when you’re thinking of taking on the principal’s role

Topics: Assistant Principals

Many APs are looking to move up to a building leadership role at some point in the not-too-distant future. They are learning continuously and growing the leadership skills that research says can improve student outcomes; one day, they will take on the principalship. But how can they know they’re ready?

Christopher Bailey was an assistant principal in the Katy Independent School District near Houston for six years before he moved six hours away to Abilene, Texas, and made the jump to principal. The pandemic made his first year at Clack Middle School more challenging, but Bailey relied on the skills he developed as an AP and high school band director to get up to speed. “I don’t think that there’s any way you can fully prepare for the gig of principal,” he says.

“If you find yourself doing more systems-level tasks, I think that is a good sign you are ready to apply for the job of principal.” —Christopher Bailey, principal, Clack Middle School, Abilene, Texas

“All my mentors along the way would say, ‘The principalship is a totally different job than the assistant principal job.’ I would say, “Yeah, whatever. I’m doing the work for my boss anyway. How different could it be?’” Bailey says. “But it’s a very different job. Being a principal is more about systems-level thinking, which is frankly more difficult than I expected it to be.”

To APs who are thinking about making the leap and want to be certain they’re ready, Bailey offers the following advice:

  1. Look to make systems-level decisions. “I had two assistant principal roles at two different schools. The first was mostly supervising discipline, but the second was student support for special programs. I developed the campus improvement plan and the master schedule. If you find yourself doing more systems-level tasks, I think that is a good sign you are ready to apply for the job of principal. I encourage aspiring principals to seek out opportunities to develop systems for school improvement, instead of waiting to be asked.”
  2. Consider leadership roles in extracurricular activities. “My job as a band director helped. Running a band program is, in many ways, a microcosm of the larger school system. As a band director, you are working with large groups of students, a staff of other band directors and support staff, and organizing community support through the parent organization. Creating campus systems and developing a student-centered culture of excellence and belonging is very similar to what I tried to do every day.”
  3. Research the job and the culture of the school district before you apply. “If it’s not a place where you can learn, grow, and share your expertise, then it’s probably not going to be a good experience. If you’re miserable at your particular campus, everyone around you will be, too. Find the right spot for you and your family.”
  4. Consider the pros and cons of applying inside your existing district and outside of it. “You see a lot of internal hiring for the principalship. People who are promoted within a system have a leg up as far as the institutional knowledge, the politics, [and] the dynamics in a community, which can be a good thing. If you come from the outside, it can be a steep learning curve. Developing institutional knowledge here in Abilene has been as much of a challenge as implementing the changes I want to see on campus. But I can bring new ideas and new thoughts to the job.”
  5. Take on new responsibilities. “One of the telltale signs you’re ready is when people you trust—your mentors—start giving you more responsibility. My previous boss would give me more responsibility and I took those opportunities and tried to reach out and expand my work beyond the role of the assistant principal. The biggest advice I would give is don’t ever say no. If someone asks you to do something, do it.”

Dr. Michelle Penn, principal and leadership development coach at The High School for Global Citizenship in New York City, adds that districts can encourage and prepare APs to move up. “District leaders can tap experienced and effective principals to lead the professional learning series for assistant principals so that it is relevant and current,” she says. “Districts can create small professional learning networks that consist of APs, principals, and district leaders learning and problem-solving together.”

APs can play an active role in those responsibilities in preparation for the next steps in their careers. “I got the opportunity to lead professional development for other district leaders,” says Alicia Flores, associate principal at Vista Square Elementary in Chula Vista, California, part of a Wallace Foundation Principal Pipeline Initiative (PPI) district. “Take that step so that you begin to gain leadership roles.”

Cristina Rouvalis is a Pittsburgh-based freelancer whose work has appeared in PARADE, Inc., Hemispheres,, and other national publications.