The Road to the Principalship

Steven WeberBlog, Connect Better, Engage Better, Lead Better, Reflect Better


  • The road to the principalship involves the following five behaviors and demonstrated leadership skills developed over time with evidence of action: good leaders ask great questions, build relationships, stand out in the crowd, and are risk-takers and collaborative leaders.
  • The words on the resume should match the leader’s actual work in schools. 

Each spring, assistant principals begin applying for principal positions. There may 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.

The Road to the Principalship: 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” (Good Leaders Ask Great Questions, John Maxwell, 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.

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. Your actions should support the resume. Click To Tweet

The Road to the Principalship: 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.

The Road to the Principalship: 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 compliant or a contributor? When you are known as a district leader, then others will want to promote you as a building leader.

The Road to the Principalship: 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.

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The Road to the Principalship: 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, the interview team may view you as a team slayer (Sanborn, 2011).


Most educators do not earn a master’s 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.”

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.

About Steven Weber

Dr. Steven Weber is the Associate Superintendent for Teaching and Learning with Fayetteville Public Schools (AR). His areas of research include curriculum design, formative assessment, professional learning, and school leadership.