The Road To The Principalship: How to Get From Where You Are To Where You Want To Be

The Road To The Principalship:

How to Get From Where You Are To Where You Want To Be


Each spring, assistant principals begin applying for principal positions. There may only be one opening in your district or you may be applying in another school system. Assistant principals often apply for principal positions with hopes of becoming the instructional leader, leading school improvement, and supporting student understanding. Over the years, I have observed too many assistant principals who try to build their resume’ in a weekend, rather than during the time they are serving as an assistant principal. The road to the principalship involves the following behaviors and demonstrated leadership skills. If you highlight these skills on your resume’, but have not put your words into action, then it will be difficult to compete for a principal position. 


1) Good Leaders Ask Great Questions

Ask questions and it will appear that you don’t know it all before you become a principal. As a principal, you will continue to ask teachers, principals, students, and families questions. Too often, assistant principals spend their time trying to prove that they could be the next principal in the school district. No leader can know every curriculum area, understand every school board policy, or how to lead in every situation. If you ask questions, it will show others that you are a lifelong learner and that you are willing to grow as a leader. “If you want to make discoveries, if you want to disrupt the status quo, if you want to make progress and find new ways of thinking and doing, you need to ask questions” (John Maxwell, Good Leaders Ask Great Questions, 2014).  Continuous improvement begins with answering questions, rather than checking off goals. Too often, assistant principals begin asking questions about the principalship when the job is posted, rather than throughout the school year.


2)  Build Relationships

Show me a leader who can build relationships with students, families, teachers, community members, central office staff, and stakeholders and I will show you a future principal. Great leaders demonstrate an outward focus. Are you a leader who focuses on building your resume’ through your accomplishments and daily agenda or do you lead with others? You can climb to the top of a mountain alone, but it is much more rewarding to take others on the journey. When an assistant principal interviews for a principal position, the answers often begin with “I”. Interview teams are looking for leaders who start their answer with “We.” Look at your experience as an assistant principal. What have you done for others? Some assistant principals are excellent at building relationships with students, but they have not practiced building relationships with other stakeholders.


3)  Stand Out In The Crowd

When 40 assistant principals apply for a principal position, it is typically a tie on paper. In other words, the experiences all look similar. A strong principal candidate should stand out from the rest of the candidates. Some interview teams say, “The cream rises to the top.” If you list curriculum leadership, bus duty, car rider line, supervision and evaluation of teachers, and conference attendance, then you are no different than the rest of the applicants. During your time as an assistant principal, you can use your strengths to stand out in the crowd. Are you strong with technology integration? You could lead Tech Tuesdays. Did you develop a new program for struggling learners or did you implement the program that the school already had in existence when you took the position? Does your middle school have a unique after school program or school clubs that you helped coordinate? When you can put your stamp on a project and it has your leadership imprint on it, then you will stand out from the crowd. In other words, as a leader have you been a compliant leader or a contributor? When you are known as a district leader, then others will want to promote you as a building leader.


4)  Be A Risk Taker

Too many assistant principals play it safe, because they feel like the road to the principalship is through playing by the rules. While you should follow board policy and the direction of your building principal, you should also take risks. Education is changing at a rapid pace and the best principals are risk takers. You can be a disruptor by implementing Genius Hour, a Makerspace, a new master schedule, student recognition, or supporting a data wall and time for analyzing student data. If your references say you were a risk taker and you made the school better as an assistant principal, then you will have the qualities that the committee is seeking in a principal. When you take risks, you may fail. However, failure is a great teacher and you will be more prepared to become a principal. Risk taking leads to school improvement and great principals are not afraid to take risks.


5)  Be A Collaborative Leader

One of the biggest mistakes assistant principals make is striving to become #1. As you see other assistant principals in your school district, you may view them as the competition. You may be unaware of your own competitive nature and you may focus on beating others in order to become number one. Unlike the NCAA Basketball tournament, you do not become the champion by defeating those in your bracket or school district. Central office staff watch how you interact with others in meetings. Do you seek first to understand or do you dominate meetings? Do you have the best interests of students in mind or do you want your opinion to be heard? When do you recall working with other principals and assistant principals in the district? Are you so focused on building your resume’ that you do not support district goals? When you sit down for an interview, you may be eliminated from the pool of finalists based on your eagerness to climb to the top. If you are not viewed as a team player, then the interview team may view you as a team slayer (Sanborn, 2011).



Most educators don’t earn a masters degree in order to be an assistant principal. The goal is to become a principal. When an assistant principal position is posted, I am often asked, “What are you looking for in a principal?” While it is a great question, the time to demonstrate that you are principal material is throughout the year. Some aspiring principals burn bridges by overreacting to a board policy or state mandate. Many quality leaders have been overlooked in the interview setting because the words on the resume’ do not match the leader’s actual work in schools. You can write technology leader, instructional leader, collaborator, and innovator, but your actions should support the resume’. Leadership coach Steve Cosgrove shares, “You don’t get there by wishing, you get there by doing.”


Legendary college football coach Lou Holtz shares 3 Questions Asked of Every Leader:


  1. Can I Trust You?
  2. Are You Committed?
  3. Do You Care About Me? (Others)

Serving as a building principal is a privilege and a responsibility. Work to develop your leadership skills, but remember to build others on your leadership journey. How are students and adults better because you were the assistant principal? How have you added value to the principal? The time to build your resume’ is daily, not when the principal jobs are posted.


Dr. Steven Weber is the Associate Superintendent for Teaching and Learning with Fayetteville Public Schools (Arkansas). Connect with Weber on the ASCD EDge social network, or on Twitter @curriculumblog.

Is This Your Stop?

Today’s post is by Ben Dickson, a forward thinking educator who currently serves as Dean for a STEM Elementary School in Reno, NV. 

I hear that train a comin’ it’s rollin’ round the bend………… +

Less than 24 hours ago the Universe conspired to punch me in the gut. Now in the grand scheme of the all that is going on in the world this was a trivial event, a speck of dust on the Universe’s cosmic karma train, but it still hurt like hell none the less.

I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die….. +

Over the last couple of weeks I’d been working towards a goal that I saw as the culmination of a lot of effort, the highest point on this particular mountain. There may have been a bit of hubris on my part, as I figured I’d dotted every eye and crossed every T, played the game and now it was going to pay off. The “do A and then B will happen” was something I put a lot of faith in.

Based on my opening sentences you can guess where this is going…

Friday 5:04 pm email

“we regret to inform you ……”

Really??? REALLY??

I hear the train a comin’ it’s rollin’ round the bend and I ain’t see the sunshine since I don’t know when…..+

We all know that train. that one full of pity, anger, self-doubt, jealousy. It’s carrying a full load of negativity and has some empty seats.

all aboard!”

Wow, that’s not what I thought was going to happen. It was like that final paper you get back after going to class everyday, sitting in front taking notes, studying until 5 am…You wonder if they even read the paper or did you forget to answer something, did you accidently hit delete before you sent it? Was it the wrong file?

“Welcome Sir, take a seat next to Mr. Second Guessing.”

Really?? REALLY??

And now here we are at 4:03 in the morning and it’s time to get off the train.

“Next stop Now What Station?”

This is not the “Now what?” of “How am I going to eat or pay my rent?” (Perspective people…first world speck of dust on the cosmic karma train)

No this is the “now what?” that we ask our students when they fail. The “now what?” of asking what are you going to learn from this? The “now what” we sometimes see in the eyes of students or staff after we deliver some bad news.

So in lieu of any actual feedback around my particular speck of dust. I realize I need to turn inward and think about what I’m going to learn from this. We often talk about resiliency and the need to build it in our students but we also need to think of ourselves. How are we dealing with professional or personal setbacks? Are we switching trains or riding the same one all the time?

Are you you on a road to nowhere?

Are you riding a train to Heaven of Hell?

Are you in search of somewhere?

Or something that rings true? *

All aboard!

Robyn Jackson talks about the need to create Master Teachers in her book Never Underestimate Your Teachers and I believe the same concepts can be applied to leadership. How can I learn to be a Master Leader? How am I making conscious decisions about what staff and students need? How am I dividing responsibility and developing the unique talents of those I work with? To me it starts with some introspection. This event has provided me with the opportunity to take a hard look at my beliefs about leadership and how I put those into practice. To think more about my interactions with staff, students and families and look for opportunities to improve, look for those chances to move from a practicing leader to a master leader. I have my own philosophy around teaching, learning and leadership but that doesn’t mean it can’t improve and evolve. How am I constantly growing?

You can get a taste of the glory

By the ingestion of a simple truth*

I think about choices I’ve made, answers to life’s questions and not just those recent ones. Would I do things different? Would I change my answers? No, those answers and choices are at the core of my beliefs about not just  teaching and learning but about being a human: build relationships, support each person with what they need at that time and have a clear shared vision. But could my answers sometimes be better? Sure. Could I take time to seek other’s answers, of course

But here’s the thing. now it’s not about whose answers are right but how they are put into practice. Once we make statements or answer a certain way they are free in the universe for everyone to agree with, change, argue about and laugh at. for me the key is not the answers or the questions but how they play out everyday in my interactions with others. How am I putting those beliefs into practice? Where are the opportunities to learn and am I taking advantage? How am I helping others find their trains? How am I switching trains?

So for now my train is headed in another direction. I might keep looking back at that other one once in awhile, wondering what could have been,  but the important thing for me is to remember that I get to pick my stops,I get to decide which way I’m going and I’m the only one to decide which seat I take and when I look out the window I’m going to see a lot more mountains.

+Folsom Prison Blues-Johnny Cash

*It Could Be Sunshine-Love and Rockets

For further reading by Ben

Are You Leading with Questions?

Today’s post is by Rosa Isiah, a passionate lead learner/principal serving students daily at Lucille Smith Elementary School in California.

Are You Leading with Questions?

Think back to your last leadership or team meeting. As facilitator, did you create opportunities for the team to process and discuss questions? How did the team engage? Many of us walk into meetings with exhausting agendas that lack opportunities for dialogue or problem solving through questioning. Research indicates that questions, the right questions, can positively influence an organization in a variety of ways. A question has the power to identify problems, challenge the status quo, identify biases…all catalysts for creativity, collaboration, and change.

Asking the right questions after 22 years

After 22 years as an educator and educational leader, I’ve recently learned about the importance of effective questioning. I engage in the challenging and satisfying work of creating an organizational culture of risk-taking and problem-solving. I’ve learned to be mindful about asking questions in a number of settings and situations. My goal is to balance questioning with listening when engaging with students, teachers, and parents. The results are remarkable. The focus has shifted from what I think or want to what WE think and want for OUR school. I find myself doing less talking and becoming a deeper listener.

Who’s asking the questions?

If research indicates that questioning is transformational to an organization, why aren’t we doing more of it in the educational setting? Simply stated, our educational system does not foster, support, or encourage questioning. In a traditional system, the leader is the authority and keeper of knowledge. Questioning is often perceived as challenging authority. It’s impossible for an organization to identify problems and develop solutions when the team isn’t encouraged to think. Change the mindset and encourage your team members to take risks by asking questions. The entire organization will benefit.

Courageous Questions = Courageous Conversations

Questions challenge the status quo and disrupt dysfunctional systems. What if we didn’t go along with what’s always been done? Addressing achievement gaps, educational inequities, and a number of other educational and societal issues require us to ask courageous questions and engage in courageous conversations. We will continue to fail our neediest students if we lack the courage to ask “why?”

Inspire Creativity and Change

The most difficult part of our work is implementing change. Change requires one to release old habits and adopt new behaviors, forcing us out of our comfort zones. The process of change always begins with a great question and asking exploratory questions is crucial to problem solving and creativity. How might we begin to push our teams out of their comfort zones with the right questions? What are the right questions for change?

Our current educational system takes a solution-based approach to solving problems. We are eager to solve problems and provide solutions without dialogue and questioning. We are graded or evaluated based on coming up with solutions for problems that we may not necessarily need to solve. Asking the right questions has the power to transform not only our educational systems, but our lives. Questions spark innovation and creativity and challenge us to continue to improve our work. Great leaders lead by asking, not telling. Great leaders lead by asking the right questions, even if they do not have the answers.

How might you use questions to lead change in YOUR organization?

“Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.” – Voltaire


Berger, W. (2014). A more beautiful question. New York, NY: Bloomsbury