By Wendy Mills

As a principal for the past 10 years, I have been able to create and sustain positive, powerful and productive partnerships with my assistant principals through some simple but impactful ways.

Whether you have the advantage of hiring your own assistant principal or you join a team where the assistant principal precedes you, it’s critical to remember the 3 Cs: Connect, Clarify and Commission!

While I am not suggesting a principal and assistant principal should aim to become best friends, I am encouraging campus principals to intentionally find ways to connect with their assistant principal on both a professional and personal level long before getting down to the business of leading the campus.

When connection happens first, then collaboration will more assuredly follow. To ensure this is not left to chance, consider the following when cultivating a strong working relationship with your assistant principal.

1. Get Acquainted
Let’s face it. In the world of school administration, the two of you will be spending a significant amount of time leading and learning together.

For this reason, it’s important to make time early on to meet with your assistant principal, preferably off campus, where you can sit down over coffee, tea or lunch with the specific goal of getting to know one another.

As a starter, this conversation should include basic information like where each of you grew up, where you went to college, where you may have traveled, do you have school aged children of your own, and what types of hobbies you enjoy in your free time.

Up to this point in the conversation, things are still pretty surface level, but you both might be pleasantly surprised to find you do share some connections or similarities.

This is typically also the point in the meeting where it is easy to feel like you both know enough about one another to start moving full speed ahead with discussing more “important” things like master schedule planning, data analysis or staff development needs.

Instead, I will challenge you to stay focused on connecting and go a bit deeper by sharing more insightful parts of your story which could include:

  • What was school like for you at this level (elementary, middle or high school)?
  • What was the most difficult/challenging part of school for you growing up?
  • When you were still in the classroom teaching, what did you enjoy most?
  • When you were still in the classroom teaching, what do you remember about your principals? Your assistant principals?
  • What led you to becoming a campus administrator?
  • What leadership strengths are you confident operating in?
  • What aspects of school leadership still create challenges for you despite your level of experience?
  • What are your future career goals/aspirations?

This is where the real connection is forged. You each now can see what most likely influences the other’s comfort level with certain subjects or grade levels. You have a better understanding of the models of leadership each of you have experienced or observed, and you are more familiar with where the other is headed with regards to future jobs or career pursuits.

Although fast and furious, this first meeting will set the tone for your future work together and will allow each of you to know how best to complement each other.

2. Weekly Check-Ins
My assistant principals and I look forward to this time each week to simply catch up with each other since the majority of the week is just one big blur of drive by conversations or texts to stay updated on current happenings around the campus. Even if it’s just for the first or last 10 minutes of the day each Monday or Friday, set aside time to check in regularly with your assistant principals and always allow them to share first.

3. Staff Questionnaire
Every year, I create a staff questionnaire to discover little nuggets of information about my staff. It typically includes things like favorite snacks, food allergies, a food preference checklist (vegan, vegetarian, gluten free, sugar free, etc), birthday, favorite sport, and even a space to share whether or not they are comfortable with being featured on our social media pages. My assistant principals and I are also responsible for completing this form as well to ensure we know how the other likes to be appreciated or to be fully aware of any restrictions that we should avoid when gift-giving. Small gestures like this also make it easier to connect with your assistant principal throughout the year.

Much like principals encourage teachers to take time to establish relationships before rigor with their students, principals should always seek to connect before moving into the second of the 3 Cs.

Once a principal has taken time to get acquainted with their assistant principal, a next important step is to clarify.

In my experience as both an assistant principal and now a principal, there is nothing more damaging to building a strong leadership team than blurred lines and surprises when it comes to roles, responsibilities and procedures. I believe a big part of why my assistant principals and I are so cohesive is because we are all well aware of the part we each have agreed to play, and I take time to outline how things should work to keep them from fumbling or guessing about what should be done.

As the principal, you should take time to fully inventory the needs of your campus, as well as the strengths both you and your assistant principal bring to the table, and then clearly outline the specific roles each of you will assume in the operations of your campus. This includes straightforward matters like:

  • Who will be the early administrator on campus for bus duty?
  • Who will cover lunch duty and on which days?
  • Who covers ARDs and for which grade levels?
  • Who will handle disciplinary matters with students?
  • Who will be responsible for presenting professional development each month?
  • What is the expected dress code for administrators on this campus?
  • Is there an expectation to stay later than assigned on particular days of the week?
  • What is the expectation for classroom visits/observations on this campus?

And this should also include clarity for more serious matters like:

  • What will be the process for handling irate parents who call and ask to speak to an administrator?
  • When the principal is off campus and an issue arises, what protocol will be followed to ensure it will be handled appropriately?
  • When drafting whole campus emails, does it require principal approval first?
  • If a staff member comes to one administrator attempting to speak poorly of another administrator on our campus, how will we each handle that situation?

The word “commission” means, “the authority to perform a task or certain duties”.

Wanna know a secret? It is oftentimes hard for principals to admit they are not the expert on all things. Many times in school leadership, principals take the lead on things that would be much better suited for their assistant principals. This is why being able to get acquainted with your assistant principals and to work collaboratively to clarify duties and roles based on strengths is so important.

For example, I have always taken great pride in my ability to create and manage our campus wide systems for tracking student data. I am very well equipped to set up spreadsheets and formulas to calculate data but it takes me a while. However, after getting acquainted with one of my assistant principals and realizing that his skill set allows him to do that same task pretty much with his eyes closed, I commissioned him to take the lead.

Not only did commissioning him to perform this task free me up to focus on other aspects of campus leadership, but it also allowed him to solidify his place in our school as a major instructional support for teachers when it comes to data analysis and response to the academic needs of our students.

I am also quite savvy when it comes to all things instruction, but my other assistant principal is very passionate about and capable of supporting teachers with curriculum. As the principal I could have easily felt as though I would be losing my upper hand on supporting teachers with lesson design, pacing guides, and targeted interventions, but instead, I commissioned him to take the lead in that area. My assistant principal was fresh out of the classroom and very in tune with the reality of what teachers were having to do to prepare for their classes in a way that I just do not relate to being 14 years removed from the classroom. Since giving him the authority to take the lead in this area, our teachers receive more timely and relevant support.

When principals learn not to just delegate, but to also commission assistant principals to lead in areas where they are strong, then pride, productivity, and a sense of respect is cultivated. This again is only possible when principals take the time to get acquainted with their assistants and use that information to clarify who will be responsible for leading in key areas for the benefit of the campus.

On the flip side, there are times where I am the stronger lead, so I invite my assistant principals to come in and observe me when I have to engage in tasks like creating campus budgets, recruitment, staffing and hiring, or when I sometimes have to facilitate crucial conversations with non-compliant staff.

They both appreciate the “real-time” training opportunities, and I enjoy debriefing with them afterwards because it gives me a chance to hear what they learned and to allow them to ask questions for their personal growth.

Let’s Reflect
A principal’s ability to create and maintain collaborative relationships with an assistant principal can be made easier when implementing the 3 Cs.

Think about the status of your current principal/ assistant principal relationship.

  1. In what ways have you connected with your assistant principal to become acquainted enough to create a positive, productive and powerful team?
  2. How do you typically clarify duties, roles and responsibilities amongst you and your assistant principal? Do you consider each of your strengths when determining those duties or are you basing those roles and responsibilities on a traditional hierarchical system?
  3. How do you intentionally grow your assistant principals and commission them in ways that allow them to fully take the lead in specific areas with confidence?


Wendy Mills is a graduate of The University of Texas at Austin, where she earned both a bachelors and Masters in Education. Over the past 13 years, she has served as a campus administrator in Lockhart, Austin and Cedar Hill ISD. Since 2017, she has served in the unique role of principal for both Norman and Sims Elementary Schools in Austin ISD. Both schools have merged successfully under her leadership, and are set to move into their newly modernized campus January 2021. Ms. Mills has a true passion for mentoring and growing other aspiring leaders and supporting turnaround efforts in schools with high populations of economically disadvantaged students.

TEPSA Leader, Winter 2021, Vol 34, No. 1

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The Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association (TEPSA), whose hallmark is educational leaders learning with and from each other, has served Texas PK-8 school leaders since 1917. Member owned and member governed, TEPSA has more than 6000 members who direct the activities of 3 million PK-8 school children. TEPSA is an affiliate of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

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