For schools, strong leadership can mean the difference between failing and thriving. The right leadership both fosters a positive school culture and motivates students and teachers to reach their full potential. By using their expert management skills and knowledge of education, administrators provide the support key to student success. According to the landmark Wallace Foundation study “How Leadership Influences Student Learning,” only teaching influences student achievement more than a school’s leadership.
To make a positive impact as a school leader, educators should consider what makes a good school principal and then seek to develop those qualities.
The Roles and Responsibilities of Assistant Principals
Assistant principals serve in administrative positions, working with teachers and other administrators to run schools. They make sure both students and teachers meet federal and state performance guidelines, and they manage school safety. While assistant principals often handle student disciplinary issues, they also deal with other school management issues, including:
- Curriculum instruction
- Student services and activities
- Personnel management
Typical Duties of an Assistant Principal
Assistant principals play a key role in laying out and enforcing a school’s policies. Through coordination with principals and sometimes board members, they also help set goals and objectives for both instruction and extracurricular activities. Their work requires collaboration with faculty and an ability to listen, motivate, and give constructive feedback that leads to teacher growth. Though the responsibilities of an assistant principal can shift according to their work environment, such as school type and level, these administrators generally engage in the following tasks:
- Discussing student behavior and learning problems with parents
- Implementing school safety procedures and ensuring compliance
- Handling disciplinary issues
- Observing and evaluating teachers
- Providing meaningful feedback and support to teachers regarding curriculum standards and learning materials
- Overseeing the maintenance of school facilities and grounds
- Purchasing supplies and equipment or approving supply orders
- Managing attendance
- Collaborating with other administrators to set budgets
- Tracking performance and attendance systems
- Hiring and training faculty and staff
- Coordinating school schedules
What a Successful Assistant Principal Does
Assistant principals have layered responsibilities. They must balance the demands of being a resource to teachers, supporting students, responding to parents, and managing a school’s daily operations. To successfully complete their administrative, instructional, and disciplinary tasks, an assistant principal must cultivate many vital skills and traits.
So, what makes a good assistant principal?
1. Takes Initiative
Effective assistant principals don’t sit back when issues need attention; they take steps to address them. Taking initiative begins with assessing a school environment to identify teachers’ and students’ concerns and needs. It then involves actively seeking ways to resolve difficulties, fix problems, and find fresh approaches to managing tough situations.
For example, teachers may have overlapping needs for their classes when it comes to accessing facilities such as a computer lab or the school library. Assistant principals can initiate a system that aims to better distribute access to facilities. They can also look for new solutions to meet teachers’ needs, such as investigating how to procure mobile laptops.
By taking the initiative to respond to problems, assistant principals earn the respect of faculty and students alike. This respect both improves morale and inspires cooperation.
2. Practices Active Listening
The ability to listen actively is an essential skill for any school leader. Teachers, students, and parents need to feel that their experiences and ideas matter. Active listening improves the quality of the conversations and increases thoughtful exchanges. In turn, assistant principals gain better insight into the issues facing them, their faculty members, and their students, which allows them to respond more strategically.
Bringing out the best in others requires a deep understanding of who they are, their strengths, their limitations, and their circumstances. Active listening plays a key role in building that understanding.
3. Adopts a Growth Mindset
When teachers believe they can close achievement gaps and students believe they can excel, both groups have reason to put in more effort. Effective assistant principals not only adopt a growth mindset but also work to build it among faculty and students. People’s mindsets guide their practices and interactions, so it’s critical for administrators to cultivate a school mindset grounded in a belief that growth is possible. A growth mindset can drive teachers and students to take on challenges.
For example, if a student believes in their ability to succeed in math, they will be more likely to sign up for a calculus class. If a teacher believes their special education students can reach proficiency levels in reading, they will be more likely to invest effort in professional development geared toward addressing special education needs. Finally, if an assistant principal believes their teachers yearn to succeed, they will be more likely seek out ways to best support those teachers and continuously adapt to feedback.
4. Demonstrates a Willingness to Challenge the Status Quo
Growth also relies on a willingness to challenge existing conditions. Regardless of a school’s level of achievement, administrators should not assume there is no room for improvement, and administrators in struggling schools should closely examine their methods and policies.
It’s easy to continue doing things in a certain way simply because that’s what people are used to. However, this practice often results in lost opportunities for student achievement. Assistant principals need to work with teachers and other administrators to carefully reflect, discuss, and evaluate what is and isn’t working in their schools. They should look at indicators of progress toward goals and consider what different strategies they may need to implement.
Once they have identified ineffective practices and policies, school leaders can make the necessary adjustments. Real and ongoing school improvement depends on leaders’ willingness to regularly reexamine how they operate and make changes accordingly.
5. Actively Promotes Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
All students deserve equitable opportunities to thrive and learn. Assistant principals play an important role in promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion in their schools and work to ensure all students can succeed academically, regardless of their physical, cognitive, social, racial, or emotional differences. In addition to building programs that deliver high-quality instruction appropriate to individual student needs, as well as necessary interventions and support, assistant principals must examine their schools’ practices.
For example, studies have repeatedly shown that students of color receive disproportionately more discipline referrals than white students. With key roles in discipline, assistant principals must look at their data to see how discipline is distributed in their schools. Assistant principals can also organize professional development that helps teachers identify implicit bias and develop strategies that counter it. It’s also critical that school leaders locate and eliminate any practices that lead to opportunity gaps, the overrepresentation of students of color in special education, and the underrepresentation of students of color in gifted programs.
Because assistant principals participate in school recruitment and hiring, they should be aware of the demographic makeup of their school faculty and leadership. Students should see teachers and school leaders who look like them. This reinforces a sense of belonging. Also noteworthy are numerous studies that show the benefits of a diverse faculty, as exemplified by the following insights from Andre M. Perry’s Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities:
- Having one Black teacher between third and fifth grade lowers the dropout rates of low-income Black students by 39%.
- Having Black teachers lowers the suspension rates of Black students.
- Having Black teachers increases the number of Black students who attend college.
6. Advocates for Teachers and Students
Effective assistant principals advocate for teachers and students so they can reach their full potential. Advocacy requires getting to know teachers and students personally to develop an understanding of how different policies affect them. For instance, through their relationships with teachers, assistant principals may discover teachers lack planning time and feel overwhelmed by meetings. In such a situation, assistant principals can advocate that meeting agendas be repurposed to incorporate planning activities.
Advocating for teachers and students can improve morale and cooperation. Teacher and student voices often go unnoticed without the influence of someone in a leadership position. However, assistant principals who work with senior administrators and school boards are well-positioned to give voice to teachers’ and students’ needs.
7. Takes Ownership When Things Go Wrong and Gives Credit When Things Go Right
Administrators who place blame on teachers and take credit for successes will not earn love, respect, or cooperation. To inspire teachers and students, school leaders must give recognition for hard work and find ways to motivate those who are disengaged. Celebrating successes is critical to building a growth mindset, creating unity, and inspiring purpose.
Assistant principals can set up programs that publicly reward teachers and students for their achievements and effort. This can be in the form of awards given in assemblies or even bulletin boards devoted to star teachers or star students of the month. However, when goals are not met or problems do arise, strong leaders must self-examine and consider where they made mistakes. By taking ownership when things go wrong, administrators communicate their commitment to their teams. Leaders who take responsibility for failures help their teams regroup more quickly and renew their commitments to achieving goals.
8. Leads With Compassion and Empathy
Assistant principals can have a lasting impact on teachers, influencing their ability to grow and improve or making them feel stifled and unsupported. Teachers deal with considerable daily stress and challenges. To overcome the inherent difficulties of their jobs, they need supportive administrators.
Supportive administrators not only try to treat teachers fairly but also see them as people with their own struggles, talents, and dreams. When school leaders treat teachers with compassion and empathy, teachers excel. By acting as an ally to teachers, an assistant principal gains their trust and makes it easier for teachers to absorb feedback and learn from constructive criticism.
9. Communicates Effectively
Managing all the moving parts inherent to the daily operations of a school requires excellent communication skills. Whether leading a meeting about instructional strategies, providing feedback to a teacher about a classroom observation, or meeting with parents unhappy with a school policy, assistant principals must express themselves clearly and diplomatically. The ability to communicate effectively allows assistant principals to deescalate heated situations, clarify new policies to faculty, effectively coach new teachers, and much more.
Additionally, thriving schools have a sense of community. To cultivate a sense of community, teachers and students must feel they have open back-and-forth communication with school leaders. Open communication fosters trust and strengthens partnerships between a school and the families it serves.
10. Uses Critical Thinking to Solve Problems Creatively
Assistant principals manage complex and open-ended situations all the time. As such, they need to remain alert and thoughtful about the various ways to resolve problems. The interconnected nature of school communities makes it critical for leaders to take into account the different factors and stakeholders in a school and how they might impact each other before coming up with an action plan. Whether dealing with instructional leadership, personnel matters, or discipline, assistant principals must carefully analyze which approach to take and anticipate how various solutions can affect other aspects of the school and learning environment.
Job Outlook and Salaries for an Assistant Principal
Assistant principals’ salaries vary according to the region where they work, their level of education, and their years of experience. These school leaders make between $55,000 and $102,000 a year according to October 2020 PayScale data, with a median annual salary of approximately $73,000. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 4% job growth for principals between 2019 and 2029, which is a promising outlook for assistant principals seeking to advance their careers.
Discover What It Takes to Lead Thriving Schools
Assistant principals can make an important difference in a school’s instructional leadership, organization, and sense of community. Educators inspired to make a difference as school leaders should find out more about what makes a good assistant principal.
Explore how Mills College’s online Master of Arts in Educational Leadership program equips future administrators with the expertise to lead thriving schools.