Most people think principals are people who run schools and vice principals (or assistant principals) simply help them. Vice principals are often considered backup leaders who can step in during an emergency — not unlike the vice president of the United States.
The role of a school vice principal is more nuanced than that. These professionals have their own jobs and career ladders.
How much do you know about vice principals in education and the work they do? Learn more about this crucial member of the teaching team and the often thankless jobs they take on.
What Do Vice Principals Do?
Vice principals aren’t just deputies to the current principals in charge. They often have to lead school programs and work as advocates between teachers and district leaders. If the job of an assistant principal seems vague, it’s because the day-to-day tasks that they take on can vary greatly.
“You name it, I do it,” says Afua Agyeman-Badu, former assistant principal and current principal for Chicago Public Schools. “I don’t just do discipline. I work with our teachers. I communicate with our families. I support our scholars. I lead grade-level team meetings. And, I work very closely with my principal. Our work is very intertwined.”
Vice principals can play a significant role in school culture. They can check in with teachers and make them feel confident in their work. They can ensure the school is a comfortable place to be. These goals are usually accomplished through dozens of small tasks throughout the day.
“I am an assistant principal in a middle school (grades 6-8),” says Chris Cochran, a secondary assistant principal in Rogers, Arkansas. “My number one job is to create and sustain a school environment where both students and teachers feel safe (physically, emotionally, and mentally) to teach, learn, innovate, and socialize.”
Vice principals typically work with the district to advocate for resources and get programs approved. Once these programs are funded, the vice principals either run them or work with the teachers who do.
“Research tells us that school leaders are key to ensuring high achievement for all students and are powerful levers for change,” write Elina Alayeva and Leah Hamilton for The Hechinger Report. “School leaders can serve as multipliers — increasing the efficacy of a teaching staff, impacting an entire school rather than a handful of kids.”
Overall, the vice principal works to keep the school running and never stops fighting to make it a better place to be.
Why Are Vice Principals Important?
Vice principals are valuable parts of the administration team because their jobs are so flexible. They aren’t limited to one department, which means they can take a high-level view of what the school needs.
“School climate is something you can influence and monitor as assistant principal,” says educator Ryan Donlan, author of “All Other Duties as Assigned: The Assistant Principal’s Critical Role in Supporting Schools Inside and Out.”
“Because of your visibility throughout the school, you can embody school climate for others at the same time that you keep an eye on it. Take its temperature, then work to manage it.”
Vice principals also fill gaps in the knowledge, skills and schedules of the principals they work with. Principals are humans, too. They have their own weaknesses, but by working with their assistant principals they can achieve their goals.
“I think principals, hopefully, will always be thinking about their assistant principals as great resources, who are going to see things from different perspectives, who have so much to offer,” says Katherine Holden, Assistant Principal of The Year for 2022 in Oregon. “They are connected to different programs or even different teachers and staff members in different ways.”
Assistant principals also work closely with members of the community. They connect with parents, government officials, school board members and other people to improve the educational experiences of students.
“To do this job well, for our stakeholders, our students, it takes more than yourself,” says Dana Perez, assistant principal at Rogers Park Middle School in Connecticut. “I don’t know everything. That’s something I’ve learned over time. The best way to solve anything is with your community members.”
Vice Principals: Qualifications and Certifications
It is usually harder to become a vice principal than a teacher, although the qualifications depend on the demand for assistant principals in your area. There also might be state and local requirements that are stricter in some areas than others.
In Texas, for instance, many districts need to fill vice principal vacancies but struggle to find qualified candidates, says Jennifer Barton, a compensation and HR consultant at Texas Association of School Boards.
“As of 2019, the only standard certificate available for individuals seeking to be an assistant principal or principal is the Principal as Instructional Leader,” she writes. “The minimum requirement to be enrolled in an educator preparation program (EPP) to become certified as a Principal as Instructional Leader is a bachelor’s degree issued by an accredited university. However, most EPPs for principal certification have additional, rigorous requirements to be admitted into the program.”
Those requirements can include candidates who have master’s degrees, valid teaching certificates, experience in the classroom and passed various exams.
If you have some of these qualifications and want to learn more about the path to becoming a vice principal, check out the National Association of Elementary School Principals. The organization honors National Assistant Principals Week every April and has multiple programs for professional development. Review the National Aspiring Principals Academy (NAPA) if you are interested in stepping into a principal or assistant principal’s role.
Additionally, successful vice principals never stop learning. They continue to seek out opportunities to grow and apply new skills to the school experience. For example, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction offers accelerator leadership programs for state assistant principals. The NCDPI program invests in school leaders so they can better serve their schools.
Vice Principals Income
Salary levels vary across the field of vice principals. Most of these professionals earn an average salary of $88,764, but the range is wide: from $53,000 to $152,000 according to career intelligence site Zippia. This is a significant pay bump from working as a teacher, a position with an average annual salary of $47,989.
It’s not always fair to compare the salaries of vice principals and teachers. Not every vice principal is a teacher who stepped into an administrative role.
“It is strange when I hear people say that someone got ‘promoted from teacher to vice-principal’,” says Chris Kennedy, superintendent of schools of the West Vancouver School District in Canada. “Teaching and administration in education are such different jobs, it is not as though you are the best teacher and then become the vice-principal.”
Additionally, there may be some instances where you teach in addition to running a school. This occurs in areas without available staff members and in smaller schools where there aren’t large administrative teams.
“I’m in a unique situation,” says Tim Cavey, middle school vice principal and teacher. “My middle school is small: just three homeroom classes for each of the three grade levels between 6 and 8. With only 220 students, I still teach for 60% of my time. The other 40% is devoted to my vice-principal role.”
Cavey created a useful guide explaining what he does as a vice principal and how he holds himself accountable. This is a great option to reference if you are interested in learning more about assistant principals.
Demand for Vice Principals
Like many school officials and teachers, vice principals are facing high rates of burnout. Scott Treibitz a spokesperson for the American Federation of School Administrators says a lot of principals were stretched to the limit during the pandemic, causing some to leave the field entirely.
In addition to substitute teaching, school administrators have driven school buses, cleaned school bathrooms, worked as crossing guards, and served in cafeterias to keep their schools running. “School leaders are overwhelmed by the mounting workload, the mental health of students, teaching staff, and support staff,” says Treibitz. “I call them the unsung heroes of what’s going on in education right now.”
These leaders also had to navigate changing COVID rules set out by district and state officials. They have had to implement policies with limited resources. This became frustrating as the rules changed often due to the nature of the pandemic and in some cases were nearly impossible to follow.
Greg Moffitt, who was an elementary school assistant principal and principal for 10 years before moving to director of principal development at District of Columbia Public Schools, says his job was like “solving the staffing Rubik’s Cube all day long.” Making a choice can solve one problem but create another. He notes that when “anxiety goes up, empathy goes down.” Today’s vice principals need patience.
For anyone thinking about becoming a vice principal, know that you have support systems in place. Your principal, admin team and teachers want to see you succeed and they can help you learn the ropes.
“Far too often, new assistant principals fail to ask questions when they need to. It’s okay to ask for help,” writes the team at The New School Leader. “We do not have to know everything the moment that we take our first administrative job. We have to get to know our leaders, and one of the best ways to do that is by asking questions.”
Vice principals are part of almost every element of school operations. Even though they work with teachers and community members to create healthy cultures within schools, assistant principals are often treated like backups to the principals they work in partnership with. Take some time to appreciate the vice principals you know and all of the hard work they do.