Transitioning from Assistant Principal to Principal

Dr. Felicia Bolden
Dr. Felicia Bolden
Elementary School Principal; Ed.D. in Teacher Leadership
Female teacher standing in a school hallway holding a clipboard and papers.

The principalship is one of the most rewarding jobs an educator can have. Every student and school community deserve an effective and influential principal. The journey to becoming a principal takes years of preparation and determination, and there are many challenges principals will face. Aspiring principals must be patient and willing to work towards the goal of becoming a school principal.

Differences Between Assistant Principal and Principal

Principals and assistant principals are required to have a principal certification and advanced leadership certification upon entering administrative roles. They must also be certified to conduct teacher observations using protocols that align with state-mandated teacher evaluation systems. A minimum of three to four years as a classroom teacher is a prerequisite to the assistant principal’s role, and assistant principals need three to four years of school leadership experience for the principal’s role. Assistant principals are responsible for monitoring instruction, coordinating school events, establishing and maintaining safety procedures, implementing policies and procedures, and connecting with the community. Assistant principals work closely with building principals to support the vision of their school community.

The responsibilities of a principal include but are not limited to instructional leadership, professional development, school community relations, human resources, fiscal responsibility, and facility management. Principals work closely with area superintendents, parent teacher organizations, and local community officials to support the vision of the district. Implementing and adhering to the policies can be a challenge when stakeholders do not understand “the why” of decision making (Sinek, 2009). It is the principal’s job to ensure all stakeholders understand the implementation of school initiatives. When educators, parents, and students understand “the why”, they are more likely to follow the vision of the principal.

Managing human relations is a component of the principalship that requires preparation and planning. Many of the challenges principals face are related to managing and leading people with a multitude of personalities and beliefs. Great principals must have effective soft skills to be able to manage human behavior (Green & Leonard, 2019). Dealing with different personalities can affect the emotional intelligence of a principal. Being a problem solver, solution oriented, and influential are key leadership traits to help principals manage their emotional intelligence.

Although the titles of principals and assistant principals are different, they must work collaboratively to ensure the success of their schools. Collaboration and the ability to connect with others are key traits administrators need to help schools experience academic success. Principals and assistant principals should always focus on serving the needs of the entire school community.

Requirements to Become a Principal

Principal programs normally take one to two years to complete to obtain a master’s degree in administration and supervision. The courses may include face-to-face classes, online sessions, and an intern program that can last from six months up to a year. Many school districts also require assistant principals to participate in leadership cohorts and obtain instructional leadership certificates before becoming principals. The leadership cohorts are designed to help aspiring principals self-assess their leadership skills and to create a leadership plan. Districts utilizing leadership cohorts ensure aspiring administrators are equipped for the principalship by providing intensive leadership training.

Many districts also require aspiring principals to take leadership profile surveys to help them identify and analyze their leadership styles. Principals must also be aware of their perceived leadership styles by staff and the school community (Sun, 2004). Awareness of those perceptions can help principals better assist and lead the people they serve. As the role of a principal evolves, requirements may change.

Transitioning from Assistant Principal to Principal

Assistant principals can best prepare for the principalship by securing a leadership coach as a mentor and reading literature published by experienced principals. Assistant principals should also practice for the interview process by reviewing the types of questions that could be asked, have an awareness of their body language and posture, and develop a professional social media profile.

Once an assistant principal thinks he or she is ready for the job and has identified a school or district they are interested in, data collection and analysis of the school’s performance is essential before interviewing for the principalship. Aspiring principals must also be prepared to implement a 30-, 60-, or 90-day leadership plan. Knowing a school’s improvement plan, mission, vision, and academic goals is helpful before an interview.

Overall, the ability to connect with students, staff, and parents is a key leadership trait all assistant principals will need to survive the principalship as they manage the culture and climate of their school. According to Ware and Kitsantas (2007), principals must lead teams with collective efficacy and a common shared belief to accomplish tasks that will ultimately benefit the school community.


The principalship is one of the most rewarding careers an educator can embark upon. Principals influence students, staff, families, and community members on a daily basis. The hours are long, and the work is challenging. Tasks become extensive on a daily basis. However, with hard work and determination, principals can lead successful schools and positively impact their school community.

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