The Power of Peer Support in AP Leadership

Juggling new and growing responsibilities, assistant principals can look to communities of practice to feel connected, supported, and energized.

Topics: Assistant Principals, School Culture and Climate

The role of the assistant principal (AP) is highly unique, fast-paced, and truly varies based on the needs and personality of a principal and district. The dedicated individuals that take on this amorphous role have a deep desire to impact schools positively. They also share an unquenching love for continued learning and growing—not just for their students and teachers but also for themselves.

Research shows that collaboration positively impacts teachers’ development, efficacy, and student achievement. Yet very little is written about the benefits of school leaders collaborating to tackle some of our buildings’ greatest challenges. The reality is that collaboration and connection are even more significant than ever before for APs—and it will continue to be a priority as the number of APs grows nationwide.

Nationally, the number of APs, along with the percentage of schools with them, has increased markedly over the past 25 years, according to a study, “The Role of Assistant Principals: Evidence and Insights for Advancing School Leadership,” conducted by The Wallace Foundation. Today, about half of U.S. public schools have APs, up from a third 25 years ago.

Navigating New Demands

Since the pandemic, APs have learned to juggle newly delegated roles and responsibilities that even graduate studies did not prepare them for. Many APs have since added some of these duties to the cadre of their responsibilities:

  • Providing meals to families to prevent food insecurity;
  • Contact tracing;
  • Conducting attendance and wellness home visits;
  • Covering preps and recess duty due to staffing shortages;
  • Promoting the emotional and mental health of teachers; and
  • Resolving intense trauma-induced student behavior issues.

Amid these new demands, APs still feel the pressure of finding time to reflect on their practice, manage the experiences they are being assigned, and collaborate with others so they can keep developing their leadership skills.

As an AP in New York—a state that was devastated by COVID—I quickly found myself in that space. In 2022, during my fourth year as an AP, I was juggling a host of new responsibilities, yet I was starving for ways to nourish myself professionally so that I could support and nourish my staff, students, and parents.

I seemed to have outgrown my trustworthy sources for professional development. The in-person conferences and workshops were “unsafe” or too time consuming to attend, and magazines, blogs, Facebook groups, or my mentors could no longer answer questions to the new challenges that my school confronted. I yearned to foster professional relationships with like-minded school leaders beyond my building and district. In the leadership book She Leads: The Women’s Guide to a Career in Educational Leadership, authors Majalise Tolan and Rachael George validate my desire: “Finding support outside of your district provides alternative ways of thinking and more global advice.”

Connection and Collaboration

Enter the NAESP AP Community of Practice—a group that I was drawn in by the thought of new ideas, support, and professional growth. After the first one-hour virtual afterschool session, I was quickly reminded that, like my teachers who appreciate the PLCs, common planning time, and grade level opportunities, APs also appreciate a safe space by and for APs to share, connect, and grow their practice.

In fact, I was not alone. As you read on, you’ll hear from other APs across the U.S. who are part of a growing new trend of school leaders. These APs are collaborating, supporting one another, and developing leadership skills through the innovative virtual pathway: the AP Community of Practice.

Why is collaboration key to your growth as an AP?

“By myself, I have only so much experience and knowledge,” said Lyon Terry, AP at Mount View Elementary School in Seattle, Washington. “When I collaborate, I am able to draw upon the knowledge and experience of others, increasing all of our abilities.”

“When I was a teacher, I had hundreds of colleagues to learn from, challenge me, and reflect with,” said Gary Karlson, AP at Aquebogue Elementary School in Riverhead, New York. “That group is much smaller as an AP. While I feel fortunate to reflect consistently with my principal, connecting across the country allows for new thought pathways.”

How has the AP Community of Practice benefitted your leadership?

“I have enjoyed meeting new people and learning how others lead across the country,” said Michael Costa, AP at PS16 in Brooklyn, New York. “I have brought back articles and resources to my school, which have improved instruction, climate, and culture.”

“[I’ve benefited from] the feeling of having a space to share with and learn from others,” said Maura Clinton-Jones, AP at Griffin Memorial School in Litchfield, Hew Hampshire. “School administration can be a lonely field, and knowing that there are others going through what I am is so helpful. Shout out to Donna McGuire [a school administrator in the New York City school system] and her steadfast leadership of our AP Community of Practice! If you are not already part of this group, why not?”

We’re all looking to connect with you at the AP Community of Practice. Join us!

Natalie Nelson is an assistant principal at Clara H. Carlson Elementary School in Elmont, New York.