6 Challenges for a New Assistant Principal

6 Challenges for a New Assistant Principal

6 Challenges  for a New Assistant Principal, by Michael Duggan, Assistant Principal of Bronxdale High School.

One year ago I began my internship as the interim assistant principal for Bronxdale High School.  As a lead teacher in the school I thought my transition into a leadership position would come easily.  My principal, although very supportive, warned me that my promotion may not go as smoothly as I expected.  She was right!  Although I felt prepared to take on the next steps in my career due to the College of St. Rose and CITE, I realize now that I have a lot to learn.

My expectations were that I would be treated by the staff the same, I’d be able to learn quickly, and that I wouldn’t have to change the way I did things much. 

As I reflect back I can categorize my first year mistakes in hopes that someone can learn from them.  Here are some things I learned… the hard way.


  1. The relationships you had with teachers will change

You’ll hear this in just about every advanced education and leadership course you take, I know I did.  All of my St. Rose/CITE professors brought up this topic at some point and they were all correct.  I thought that the friendships and professional relationships I developed were stronger than all of that.  Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t have to stop being friendly, but as a leader I’ve learned that professionalism and a laser focus on student achievement is more important than what people may think about you.  The truth is, you’ll lose work friends and the luxury to be off-guard.  As a leader, your teachers are listening to your words and are keenly aware of your actions. 

In order to find success in this area one should absolutely start taking on leadership positions within the school before even telling others you’ll be taking courses to become an administrator.   This will make the transition much smoother if you stay in the same school as well as help you acquire important skills you’ll need later on.   Developing a professional reputation is incredibly important as a budding administrator.

Although I stumbled at times with this in my first year I did find that two key groups of people are important to maintain stability as you transition into administration.  First, your relationships with your union representative and union leaders are crucial.  It can be a delicate balance, but these relationships must be strengthened.  You won’t get much accomplished as an administrator if your teacher’s union despises you!  Get to know unions!

Another group are that I found very important and helpful are those teachers that are already in leadership positions.  These are generally your department heads or lead teachers.  These are people that you can bounce ideas off of and receive critical feedback.  I personally relied on some in this group a great deal my first year.  Its been my experience that teachers in this group have aspirations for administration also. 

2. Lead through community building

My biggest mistake was starting my role as interim AP “guns ablazin’!”  I was a dedicated teacher and tenacious student advocate, so naturally I thought that was how I would approach leading adults.  I was wrong!  The damage that model caused is still being repaired, even as recently as Friday.

My advice is to be the leader who builds a trusting community.  Not everyone will trust you, but if you build a culture that values the community above all else, you’ll be better off.  Your initial St. Rose/CITE courses are all about developing PLCs for a reason.  Hold onto all of your St. Rose/CITE course work because it is very useful, especially the projects, readings and discussions on PLCs and culture.

3. Validate and listen

These are the keys to building a trusting community.  You’ll find at times, many many times, that teachers are worse than your most annoying students.  Some complain just for the sake of complaining.  And if you’re thinking “not, me, I never complain.”  Yes you do.  You complain a lot!  I didn’t realize how much of a pain I was to my administration until I became an administrator!  I would complain about furniture in the classroom, lack of paper in the copy room, lack of toner in the copy machine, my commute, my long hours and on and on. 

The point is, you’re going to hear a lot of complaints as an administrator, some valid, many not, but you have to validate and listen.  One of the best professional development trainings I’ve gone to in the last year was on Collaborative Problem Solving, or CPS.  One of the keys to CPS is to validate without emotion.  Its something that I’m working on, but an important tool.  As an administrator you’ll want to solve many of the problems people bring to you.  For your sanity, my best advice is to validate those problems and help the person with the problem find ways to solve it, rather than you doing all the work.  As Kim Marshall would say, remove some of the “rocks” from your load!

4. Know your data

This is easy to understand, but I can’t over estimate the importance of data.  You have to know your school and your students.  You’ll be asked about everything from the demographics of your students, to the percentage who qualify for free or reduced lunch, to how many teachers received an “effective” rating in Domain 1e. 


Study and learn a lot.  First: study for the SBL exams.  They’re not as easy as some would lead you to believe.  They actually make you think as an administrator.   When you’re preparing for the exam, definitely go to the review classes that St. Rose/CITE organizes.  Try to go to at least three, with different professors.  Each professor has a bag of tricks that will help you, so getting to learn from different ones will help a great deal! 

Second, study your school and know data.  Know your kids.  Every single student will know you as an administrator.  Learn names!

Third, go to a lot of professional development.  This past year I went to more PDs than in the previous five.  I may be embellishing a bit, but you get the point.  Keep growing in the profession.  Its incredibly important to be knowledgeable on the latest education trends, laws, education politics, etc. 

6. Balance

The final piece of advice I have for those taking the next step in their education career (read: giant leap), is to speak with the loved ones around you and be open and honest about the long hours that you have to put in, the additional screen time you’ll need at home and the responsibility you’ll feel for running a school.  The transition can absolutely take over your life, so you must find a balance between home and life.  Make sure you’re exercising both your mind and body to stay healthy.  I’m still working on my balance and everything else!

Mike Duggan is the assistant principal of Bronxdale High School.  He was an AP Biology and Environmental Science teacher in the NYC DOE for over a decade.

Mike graduated from the College of St.Rose/ CITE School Building Leader program. For more information on this program, please go here.


CITE is the Center for Integrated Training and Education. For over 25 years, CITE has and continues to train TEACHERS (Early ChildhoodProfessional CertificationSpecial Ed,Grad CoursesBilingual coursesDASA); COUNSELORS (SchoolMental Health MastersAdvanced Certificate); and ADMINISTRATORS (SBLSDLPublic AdminDoctorate) in all five boroughs of NYC, Yonkers, Westchester, and Long Island.

CITE PD offers CTLE-approved in-school professional development tailored to your school’s needs and your vision. Info: citepd.com

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