Is This the Right AP Role for Me?

Due diligence and a few questions can help determine if an opportunity is a good fit.

Topics: Assistant Principals

I still remember my first educational leadership course at the local university vividly. My professor was a well-respected, portly academic who wore rounded spectacles and a single-button blazer with patches on the elbows. He was—and still is—a legend in the local school districts and education community.

He paced slowly in front of a full classroom and posed a serious question: “Are you sure you want to be an administrator?” We glanced around nervously; we were, quite frankly, confused. He posed the question again, this time receiving vigorous affirmations throughout the room.

“You’d better be darn sure that you’re ready for the shift from classroom teacher to assistant principal, because it is not an easy job,” he said. “It’s not as glamorous as many of you sitting here might believe. It’s arguably one of the toughest jobs you can have in the school system. And let me tell you what others won’t: The higher you climb up the administrative ladder, the more of you others can see.”

Considering the Role

Many of us didn’t understand the full scope and power of this diatribe at the time, but two decades later, it makes perfect sense to me. It’s sage advice for aspiring assistant principals who are leaving the splendid isolation of the learning environment to brave new territory as a representative of a school, a community, and a district.

Assistant principals learn while leading, says The Role of Assistant Principals: Evidence and Insights for Advancing School Leadership, a research review commissioned by The Wallace Foundation and published by Vanderbilt University/Mathematica, and they have a substantial role in establishing a positive school culture. But what if the school’s culture and goals aren’t a good match for the AP’s ambitions and leadership style?

Accepting an AP position should be given thoughtful consideration. It is not a decision that should be driven solely by the allure of financial gain or stature; such factors will be forgotten quickly once the novelty wears off. An aspiring assistant principal should be selective in their pursuit of a leadership post if they want to become effective in the role and forge a robust and rewarding career in the realm of educational administration.

As an aspiring AP, one of the most important things you can do is to get familiar with the school sites where you might be hired. Today, this can be done with relative ease and anonymity thanks to the web. A school’s digital footprint can reveal a host of things about its culture and priorities, as well as knowledge about school districts and the communities they serve.

A few questions you might want to ask going in:

  • What does the school’s data reveal?
  • Does this institution prioritize family engagement?
  • How is the school perceived among business and community stakeholders?
  • Are teachers given creative license within the learning environment?
  • How does the student population feel about the place where they spend so much of their time?
  • What systems does the school have in place, and how can you contribute to their improvement?

Many of these questions, and likely many more, can be answered with a few clicks on a keyboard. And as you gain a better understanding of the schools you consider, so, too, will you develop questions about what your role in each building might entail. The exercise should create a sense of wonder about how you might effect change in the school community and what kind of fit the position is for you and your life.

This process should be the precursor to the application and interview processes. By taking a deep dive into a school of interest, aspiring assistant principals are better equipped to make a determination about the pursuit and acceptance of a leadership position.

The importance of this cannot be underestimated. As the leader of a school site, an assistant principal can expect to spend a great number of days, nights, and even weekends working on job-related tasks and assignments. It is imperative not only that can you see yourself engaging wholeheartedly in the work but also that you believe in the central tenets espoused by the institution. If you are not passionate about and invested in what you are doing—and where you are doing it—your efficacy can be compromised.

Getting to Yes

Often, an aspiring assistant principal is so excited to receive an offer in leadership that they say yes without giving thought to what the position involves. In addition to doing preliminary research, any professional would be wise to formulate a list of questions that can help them make a decision about accepting a job offer.

Every day can be a unique one for a school site administrator, but acquiring a working knowledge of what daily leadership looks like in a building can be beneficial. Some questions that a prospective administrator might pose to their potential future colleagues include:

  • As a principal, what is your leadership style?
  • How would you describe the climate and culture of your school?
  • What are the primary concerns of this administration from a faculty standpoint?
  • What are the preferred methods of discipline? Is there a schoolwide behavior plan?
  • Considering this school’s mission and vision, what areas are the most challenging?
  • What are some of the top characteristics you are looking for in a potential administrator?
  • Beyond the outlined duties and responsibilities, what are your expectations of an AP?

While the responses to some of these inquiries might arise naturally as part of the screening process, coming prepared with a handful of meaningful questions is a great way to gauge if the school is a good fit. It also sends the message to those participating in the hiring process that you—the aspiring assistant principal—are giving consideration to how you can lead, as well as contribute to, the success of the building and its stakeholders.

While it isn’t possible to rule out every concern or challenge, taking a forthright and proactive stance from the start can ultimately help create a professional atmosphere in which everyone understands how they can work together to better serve students and their families. And you want to give your best to a school that’s ready to benefit from your work.

Tanisha N. Cunningham is principal of W.J. Bryan Elementary School in North Miami, Florida.