Working as a school principal in the United States is a demanding, time-consuming position. In many ways, principals are on the clock even when they are off the clock. Principals are always looking ahead to the next school day, so when snow is in the forecast, a teacher falls sick, or a field trip needs to be rescheduled, their phone is the one that rings first.
It’s just as hectic when they actually walk in the building. From the first bell to the last, principals are dealing not only with the typical day-to-day tasks of creating schedules, mentoring teachers, handling disciplinary problems, and running school events—they are also on the hook for plumbing emergencies, handling teacher absences, responding to district or community requests, and just generally taking time out to handle any emerging issue that comes up.
It really sounds like principals could use some help handling all those demanding tasks, doesn’t it?
This is exactly where the assistant principal comes in.
When the principal needs a spare right hand, the vice principal is there. When emergency number two or three of the day breaks out, the assistant principal is on the case. With identical training and qualifications to the school’s top dog, assistant principals are a vital part of keeping any school, public or private, ticking smoothly.
Assistant Principal Job Description: What Do Assistant Principals Do?
Assistant principals, also known as vice principals, hold the same general responsibilities as the individuals in the big office. That is, their fundamental role in the education system is to foster a safe and encouraging environment for students to:
What do assistant principals do? Whatever leadership and administrative tasks the principal can’t get to.
That means an assistant principal may be asked to take on almost any of the same regular or one-off tasks that come at a principal on any given day. In fact, an assistant principal may have to step up into those big shoes at any time if the principal is away or otherwise occupied.
Assistant Principal Duties are All About Expanding the Principal’s Capacity
So what does it actually look like when you get down to the details of an assistant principal’s assigned duties?
You can expect the same general grab bag of tasks that any principal must handle:
On top of all those general tasks around keeping a school running and making sure kids are safe and learning their lessons, assistant principal jobs often have a more specific focus. Particularly in larger schools, they may be delegated to handle an entire department or administrative focus related to the points listed above.
Assistant principals don’t get summers off. When the last teacher leaves the building for a well-deserved spell of sunshine and freedom, the principal and assistant principal will still be coming in to the hollow, empty school building each day, overseeing maintenance and planning for the next school year.
Like any kind of job that is second from the top, your role is to make the boss look good. So, assistant principals must be perceptive and creative, picking up the slack and anticipating the school’s needs to ensure the principal isn’t overwhelmed.
Assistant Principal Positions Come with Many Different Specializations
While you can imagine principal jobs as being specialized by the grade levels of the school they serve, assistant principal jobs not only vary by grade, but also by the organizational setup of the school and district they are in.
In the largest schools, there can be an entire hierarchy of vice principal jobs, separated by functional area.
So assistant principals often need to be prepared not just for one of the three main types of schools (elementary, middle, or high school) but also a specific range of tasks associated with a particular function in that school.
What Do Assistant Principals Do in Roles Like…
Assistant Principal for Administration
Vice principals in administration take on the inevitable piles of paperwork that come with running big schools. From filling out district status reports to ensuring student files are updated and correct, they make the back-office hum.
Assistant Principal for Operations
Assistant principals in ops are specialists in logistical and transportation services, overseeing supplies and procurement, busing, and facilities like clinics and kitchens.
Assistant Principal for Special Education
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2021 15 percent of all public school students were covered by an IEP (Individualized Education Program). That’s a lot of special needs kids. A dedicated vice principal for special ed can take care of the special attention these students and their parents need without additional distraction.
Assistant Principal for Engineering/Facilities
Infrastructure is sometimes overlooked as a part of the learning experience, but students in schools without working heating, air conditioning, plumbing, and so on don’t get much learning done! These roles take care of the gritty details of keeping the lights on and toilets flushing so principals don’t have to.
Assistant Principal for Curriculum and Instruction
This job dives into the arts of pedagogy and coaching, working closely with teachers and curriculum development experts to provide exceptional learning opportunities to students.
Assistant Principal for Student Activities
Coordinates sports and extracurricular opportunities for the student body, handling scheduling, transportation coordination, and other logistics to open up more options for students to socialize, interact, and engage in unique experiences.
Assistant Principal for Student Life/Student Culture
These assistant principal roles are often more common in charter or private school settings, coordinating after school clubs, cultural events, and attendance, while also dealing with disciplinary issues with tact and assurance. They may also focus on college preparation and overseeing placement services.
Unique Types of Schools Call for Distinctive Assistant Principal Positions
So when it comes to vice principals’ jobs, international schools, magnet schools, and virtual schools all represent unique challenges and opportunities. They aren’t as common as other types of vice principal positions, partly because the schools themselves aren’t as common. It’s also typical for these schools to be smaller and not have any formal vice principal position at all.
But in terms of challenging assistant principal jobs, charter schools, magnets, and others are something that will set your resume apart when you move on to the next level. The special expertise you’ll need to cultivate in these environments will activate your creativity, flexibility, and inspiration as an educational leader.
The path to landing private school and other unique vice principal positions is basically the same as any assistant principal role, however. In most states, licensing is still required just as in public schools. You’ll find that private and charter schools come with different pressures and priorities. But with the right training, you’ll be up for the challenge!
Although these are some of the most common ways the supervisory pie gets sliced up at schools, there are no hard and fast rules. Some districts throw together what can seem like a grab bag of different specializations, like assistant principals for supervision and facilities, or assistant principals for facilities and testing. In other cases, you’ll find assistant principals in charge of departments such as math or social studies.
There isn’t any formal naming standard for assistant principal roles—you can find identical positions listed under the name vice principal, as well.
This level of specialization is more typical in larger schools. With a larger student body, building, and community footprint, it’s common for schools to divide up responsibilities in these areas. As many as a dozen assistant principals set up shop in the nation’s largest schools.
As is true with principal jobs, the character and specifics of what’s required of vice principals also shifts by grade level.
Qualifying for Assistant Principal Jobs Starts with the Right Disposition – and a Degree in Educational Leadership
There is some good and some bad news about the path to becoming an assistant principal. The good news is, it’s almost always identical to the path to becoming a principal… And the bad news is, it’s almost always identical to the path to becoming a principal.
So when you get to the other side of the process of meeting assistant principal qualifications, you’re also fully qualified to become a full principal as well, with all the additional salary and responsibility that comes with it.
The role of assistant principal is almost always just a stop along the path to becoming a principal in your own right. So it’s also common to look at it as a sort of apprenticeship, learning under the supervision and mentorship of an experienced principal before you take the reins yourself.
In some states, this is formalized through licensing structures that create initial or probationary steps toward earning a full educational administrator license as principal.
But it also means there are no shortcuts to landing an assistant principal’s job—you will spend just as long in school, just as much time building experience, and must pass all the same tests as you would for a principal’s job.
Assistant Principal Job Skill Requirements Closely Match Those of the Principal
The biggest thing the educational leadership pipeline does with future assistant principals is instill leadership skills. At the assistant principal level, the buck doesn’t actually stop on your desk most of the time. But you still need to hone the same kind of qualities as if it did. After all, on any given day, it could!
So you’ll be expected to learn and demonstrate educational leadership skills such as:
While vice-principals don’t have the same requirements to motivate and inspire the staff and student body, it’s a role where many people start to develop those talents. Through combination of your training and on-the-job mentoring for principals and other senior leaders, you’ll start to put leadership skills into practice.
Earning the Right Degrees for Vice Principal Jobs in Schools Nationwide
That training will come through graduate studies such as a Master of Education (MEd) in Educational Leadership, or a Master of Arts in Educational Administration.
The exact title of the degree isn’t the key part, however. Instead, you’ll have to ensure that whatever program you choose includes a set of required classes that the state has set for principal licensure. This is often indicated by a concentration or specialty with the degree, such as an MEd in Education Administration, K-12 Principal concentration.
That may only be 20 or so credits of your total program, but will hit the high points of topics like:
But a full degree will also go more in-depth in coverage of the skills and practices required of education leaders. That will include courses in areas such as:
You’re also perfectly free to go out and get your educational qualifications through an even more advanced program, like an Educational Specialist in Education Leadership, or a PhD in Education Administration.
In some states, it’s possible to become licensed as an assistant principal with only a bachelor’s degree, but for full licensure you still need to meet the minimum required graduate coursework specified in the state’s EPP (Educator Preparation Program) for principal licensure. So you may be able to get an initial license as you are starting out in the field, but you’ll almost certainly need to have a master’s under your belt by the time you are up for full licensure.
You’re also going to have a wide range of different electives to choose from. In some cases, you may even be able to pursue separate concentrations, tacking on the necessary EPP work with specialties such as:
These degrees almost always come with an internship or other practical experience. Just as with teacher licensing, there’s nothing like putting pedagogical theory into the hamster wheel of an actual classroom environment to make sure you grasp all the implications. Further, this kind of on-site experience is usually also part of meeting licensing qualifications.
Assistant Principal Jobs Are Fully Licensed Positions in Most States
On top of getting the right degree with the right coursework for licensure in your state, you’ll have to pass a few more qualifications to become certified as an assistant principal.
As noted above, this is almost always the same license and same qualifications as for principals. The actual name of the credential varies from state to state. There are a wide range of titles, such as:
They all boil down to the authority to run a school in that state, however.
At some small schools, it’s not out of the question for a teacher to be asked to fill a part-time role as assistant principal. States often have licensing exceptions for vice principal jobs in schools that aren’t large enough for a dedicated position.
But candidates need far more than just a master’s degree. Most licenses additional require that prospective assistant principals:
Licensure is the same at every grade level, but in some states, you will have to go on to earn higher levels of qualification from your initial credential to keep advancing in educational administration.
And, just as with teachers, assistant principals must undergo state-mandated continuing education to maintain their certification over time.
What Kind of Salary Do Assistant Principal Jobs Pay?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is the agency in the United States that tracks trends and levels in compensation for different categories of jobs. Unfortunately, they don’t break down educational administration positions between principal and assistant principals—it’s all in the same bucket.
As of 2021, BLS reported that the average salary for all principals in the United States came out at $98,420 per year.
But as an assistant principal, you can expect your starting salary to be well below that. If we consider that the lowest ten percent of principals include most freshly minted assistant principals, then the rate of $61,480 is a more realistic picture of where you’ll start.
Like principals themselves, however, you can expect your compensation to vary depending on the grade level of the institution you are working in. Elementary school positions will tend to pay less than middle schools, which have lower salaries than high schools.
Location is also a factor. Big urban school districts have big schools and big problems, not to mention a relatively high cost of living—those are going to offer assistant principals a higher salary than a rural district. And, like any educational leadership position, assistant principal salaries are affected by the state they are in and how it funds education systems in general. You can get some idea of the wide variations by looking at the averages in these representative states in different regions of the country.
On the plus side, assistant principals also enjoy the strong benefits packages that are common in the education industry. You’re likely to have relatively good healthcare, sick leave, retirement, and vacation benefits.
It’s likely that your time as an assistant principal will be limited. Most people in the role are on their way to the top job, in time. But there is much to learn and many rewards that come from working as a vice principal. It has many of the same opportunities as the principal’s role:
And you can take all those things in without the same level of responsibility that a principal must shoulder. All the while, you’ll be learning and growing yourself, honing the skills you need to become a more effective vice principal… and a principal.
2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Elementary, Middle, and High School Principals reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed April 2023.