Self-Assessment Strategies for Assistant Principals

Topics: Assistant Principals

The disruptions brought on by the pandemic clarified the importance of shared leadership models that leverage a team approach to school leadership. With the number of assistant principals serving in U.S. public schools at an all-time high, the AP position functions as a key element in the equation and as a solution to a number of problems. One of those problems is the high turnover rates seen among principals in schools nationwide, says a report released in June 2023 by Policy Studies Associates and commissioned by The Wallace Foundation, “Assistant Principal Advancement: A Guide for School Districts.”

For districts, the report encourages the examination of current practices, forecasting of staff vacancies, identification of likely candidates, and development of ways to prepare APs to move into principal roles. But for aspiring school leaders, advancement might demand the development of pathways that don’t yet exist.

With the AP role being the unofficial stepping-stone to the principalship and substantial growth in their numbers nationwide, the report says, most of today’s principals have AP experience. But it’s the principal who has the greatest impact on a school’s direction, so a strong leadership pipeline that equips APs to advance can greatly benefit schools—and particularly high-poverty schools.

In spite of the promise of programs to cultivate capable principal candidates, the structures districts have in place today for AP development vary. For example, Loudon County (Virginia) Public Schools recently launched a Leadership Academy for APs and defined its evaluation criteria for administrators, but has yet to take the next step to identify candidates suitable for advancement. “I am not aware of an effective method of doing this in my district,” Janet Lewis, AP of Dominion Trail Elementary School said in an NAESP focus group. “I’ve heard other APs complain about the lack of acknowledgement.”

The Derry Township (Pennsylvania) School District is on the way to having a comprehensive plan in place, identifying APs who want to become principals, gauging their effectiveness, and helping them learn more with a range of professional development offerings. Efforts to expand principal candidate diversity, however, could use “more champions,” said Anna Gawel, AP at Hershey Intermediate School.

Pathways to Leadership

Developing a robust talent pipeline means identifying candidates who may be ready to move into building leadership. Principals and their supervisors are key to spotting talent; they can look for the skills, competencies, and performance that match district and building expectations. Each candidate’s career goals should align with the school’s mission, needs, and leadership standards.

The report says that it’s up to the district to implement a pathway of professional learning to the principalship—one that bridges the gaps between leadership training programs and the real-life demands a principal will face. In the absence of such support, APs and principals may need to build the essential components of professional learning from the ground up. To identify areas in which professional learning is already strong and where preparation needs to be strengthened, a building-level review of data can gather perspectives from principals, principal supervisors, assistant principals, and teachers.

Specific needs will likely emerge for individual candidates. “Without a background in special education, everything in that area was a black hole for me,” said Tamera Marco, AP at Hunt Elementary School in Puyallup, Washington. “I had a hard conversation with HR as a result. I didn’t know enough in that area to be a competent leader.”

Candidate Self-Assessment

Based on the report’s recommendations, candidates appropriate for advancement must exhibit superior leadership behaviors and be ready to move up. APs should gauge themselves on the following factors to determine whether they are prime candidates:

  • Career goals. Do your career goals include taking on the principalship, and how soon? The principal advances district priorities at the building level, so the AP should be prepared to internalize and support those goals.
  • Alignment of skills. Aspiring principals should have the opportunity and support to demonstrate skills, competencies, and performance expectations that are in alignment with established principal standards.
  • Diversity. Evidence suggests that students in schools led by principals of the same race realize better outcomes. Diversity encompasses the full breadth of a person’s identity, however; race is only one aspect.
  • Culturally responsive leadership. Culturally responsive leaders can create inclusive environments by using equity audits, tapping school data to address cultural gaps in achievement, challenging exclusionary policies, and promoting inclusive instructional and behavioral practices.
  • Performance. In selecting a new principal, districts will look at an assistant principal’s past performance in formal evaluations and other evidence of a positive relationship between the AP’s tenure and student achievement.
  • Experience working with effective principals. Research says APs who work with effective principals have a greater likelihood of success in the principalship, but talented APs who have excelled in low-performing schools may also make good candidates for advancement.

An Understudy With Initiative

APs looking to advance can reflect independently on the areas of practice available in their districts and advocate for opportunities where deficiencies exist. The report highlights several areas in which APs can forge professional learning pathways:

  • High-quality mentoring and coaching. Ideally, the principal should provide (and invite) feedback to improve the quality of coaching and mentoring while focusing on building AP capacity. Look for and effective, experienced principal who has trained as a mentor, worked with other assistant principals, and/or served previously as an AP.
  • Job shadowing experiences. APs should seek out job-shadowing opportunities with principals of nearby schools who demonstrate proficiency in a range of leadership areas, including fiscal management, culture and climate, and instructional leadership.
  • Collegial learning networks. APs can benefit from opportunities to meet with cohorts of principal hopefuls to learn from each other, reflect, and enhance leadership practice in preparation for the principalship. Professional organizations such as NAESP are a good place to begin.
  • Job-embedded learning experiences. With input from principals, APs should seek out professional learning content that addresses critical skills that have posed challenges to novice principals, principal supervisors, teachers, and other stakeholders. Research-based practices can help inform decisions, enhance school culture and climate, and complete other tasks that align with the day-to-day duties performed by principals.
  • Center learning in equity. APs should pursue applied learning experiences that focus on equity and culturally responsive leadership. Look for opportunities to provide actionable feedback to teachers as instructional leaders and opportunities to improve student achievement and social-emotional well-being.

“My experience in the AP role has been like a mentorship,” Meghan Denson, AP at Hoover, Alabama’s Brock’s Gap Intermediate School, told NAESP. “I have been able to see what it is like to run a school in all aspects. I’m thankful to be under a principal who has given me experiences to be ready for the next step if I choose to take it.”

The AP’s To-Do List

What should APs do to build their skills before moving up? The report offers the following recommendations:

  1. Prioritize professional growth. Actively seek out opportunities for learning and development in areas such as leadership skills, instructional strategies, and equity-centered practices. Engage in workshops, conferences, and networking to enhance your expertise. “I was part of a program that created a WhatsApp,” said Geraldine Peltier, AP at Dunseith Day School in Dunseith, North Dakota. “You could go and text questions or problems, and others in the community could immediately text back to give me feedback. That gave me a whole support system, and I didn’t have to wait for a meetup.”
  2. Cultivate a leadership mindset. Approach the AP role with a strategic vision. Focus on the broader goals of the school and district and how your contributions align with those objectives. Think critically and proactively about innovative solutions.
  3. Build strong relationships. Forge positive connections with colleagues, teachers, students, parents, and community members. Effective leadership is built through communication and collaboration, so engage in active listening and consider diverse feedback. “We are all coming from different perspectives,” said Willie Burrel, AP at Mona Shores Middle School in Grand Haven, Michigan. “We need to work on strengthening relationships. A good leader must always focus their attention on what the other person might be going through. I step outside myself and ‘love on’ other people.”
  4. Seek mentorship and coaching. Connect with experienced principals and administrators for mentorship and coaching. Learn from their insights, challenges, and successes. Ask for guidance to refine your leadership style and navigate difficult situations. “My principal and I have worked together for four years, and our vision is very much aligned,” said Donielle Jones, AP at Deer Run Elementary School in Indianapolis, Indiana. “It really works when there is true mentorship and no hidden agendas. I believe our school culture is good because of our teamwork, and if my district approves, I may move into a principalship soon.”
  5. Embrace continuous improvement. Adopt a growth-oriented mindset by reflecting on your experiences and seeking feedback regularly. Identify areas in which you may be able to enhance your skills. Reassess your goals and adapt your strategies accordingly.

By following these recommendations, assistant principals can prepare themselves for success within their roles and position themselves for advancement—while continually contributing to the enhancement of student outcomes and school success. The AP role may be a stepping stone to the principalship, but it takes dedication to develop into a leader who’s ready to take the reins on Day One.

Kaylen Tucker is NAESP associate executive director, Communications, and editor-in-chief of Principal magazine.

Gracie Branch is associate executive director, Professional Learning, at NAESP.