What Does a Vice-Principal Do? (And How Do I Become One?)
March 10, 2021
Vice-principals do a little bit of everything, from curriculum planning to student discipline to textbook inventory. If you're a jack of all trades with a passion for school administration, vice-principal could be the role for you.
Many people think of the role of vice-principal (sometimes called an assistant principal or a deputy principal) as a mere stepping stone on the way to the top of the educational ladder. While it's true that serving as vice-principal is usually required to get a job as a school principal, not everyone who decides to become a vice-principal of an elementary, middle, or high school aspires to the principal's office. Some are satisfied right where they are.
And why not? Vice-principals have an interesting job. They do just about anything and everything, from meeting with parents of misbehaving students to managing faculty to acting as a community liaison. They may also serve as de facto counselors, listening to students' concerns and complaints. What the role looks like depends on the needs of the school.
Vice-principals don't have the same decision-making authority as principals, but they don't have as many responsibilities, either. In the eyes of students and teachers, they may be just as commanding as the principal, yet their day-to-day duties are typically less stressful.
In this article, we'll cover:
- What is a vice-principal?
- What does a vice-principal do?
- The educational commitment to become a vice-principal
- The licenses and certifications you'll need to become a vice-principal
- The pros and cons of becoming a vice-principal
Do you have what it takes to become a vice-principal? Read on to find out.
What is a vice-principal?
The vice-principal is the school administrator directly below the principal in the chain of command. The role is considered an entry-level leadership position, even though vice-principals typically have many years of experience in education. A survey by the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) found that principals typically teach for 10 years before moving into school administration.
How long a vice-principal is required to teach before moving into administration depends on the district and the state; each has its own requirements. There may be one vice-principal at smaller schools, while larger schools may have several vice-principals on staff, each of whom oversees a single department.
What does a vice-principal do?
Vice-principals tend to be deeply involved in the daily administrative, educational, and maintenance functions of running a school. At some schools, the vice-principal may also be responsible for developing new curricula and evaluating teachers—both tasks once handled almost exclusively by principals.
On any given day, you can find vice-principals:
- Handling student discipline
- Taking inventories and ordering textbooks and supplies
- Overseeing social and recreational programs such as clubs
- Managing teachers and other staff
- Addressing health and safety concerns
- Meeting with parents
- Enforcing attendance rules
- Strategizing school improvements
- Serving as testing coordinator and accounting for testing materials
- Hiring and training staff
- Supervising bus and lunch operations
- Communicating with community members
- Planning emergency drills, evacuations, and lock-downs
- Addressing personnel issues
- Coordinating custodial, cafeteria, and other non-education services
They're also responsible for carrying out the principal's decisions. In the event that the principal must take a leave of absence, they may fill in for as long as required as interim principal.
To succeed in this role requires a great deal of flexibility and a willingness to step into any other role in your school. In the book The Assistant Principal: Leadership Choices and Challenges, authors Catherine Marshall and Richard M. Hooley explain just why it's hard to sum up the role of vice-principal:
"The assistant principal seldom has a consistent, well-defined job description, delineation of duties, or way of measuring outcomes from accomplishment of tasks. Along with fixed, assigned tasks, assistant principals pick up multiple jobs every hour… Role ambiguity means the assistant principal's roles and duties include many "gray areas"—ill-defined, inconsistent, and at times, incoherent responsibilities, roles, and resources."
How much vice-principals earn depends on where they work and whether they're at an elementary, middle, or high school. According to Payscale.com, elementary school vice-principals earn about $72,000 while high school vice-principals earn closer to $90,000. Middle school principal salaries fall somewhere in between.
The educational commitment to become a vice-principal
There are no universal educational requirements for vice-principals, but most states require that vice-principals have both a bachelor's degree and a master's degree. Most also require several years of teaching experience, or experience as a school adjustment counselor, to qualify for the necessary licenses and certifications.
As a result, most aspiring vice-principals begin their careers by earning a bachelor's degree in education (a degree in school counseling is a less popular option). What you study as an undergraduate will likely depend on the subject you hope to teach. Those hoping to teach high school math might seek a Bachelor of Science in mathematics education. Those looking to teach at the elementary level will more likely pursue a Bachelor of Science in elementary education.
Full-time students typically complete bachelor's programs in four years. Dual-degree teacher preparation programs can get you to the finish line more quickly.
Many vice-principals have a Master of Science in Education or Master of Arts in Teaching degrees, but those aren't your only options. A Master of Education in Teacher Leadership or Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership may ultimately prove more useful to you in your administrative career. The Master of Arts in Education with a concentration in administration and supervision is another option—one that straddles the line between teaching degrees and administrative degrees.
The educational commitment to become a vice-principal ends at the master's degree level, but some vice-principals—especially those who dream of becoming principals, superintendents, or educational leaders—ultimately pursue the doctorate. Degree options at this level include the Doctor of Education degree, the Doctor of Educational Leadership degree, and the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Education degree.
The licenses and certifications you'll need to become a vice-principal
A lot of professionals in school administration—including vice-principals—begin their careers as teachers, which means that many hold teaching licenses. Licensing requirements differ by state, but most states require that teachers pass the PRAXIS exams, complete an application, and provide the state board of education with proof that they have completed a relevant degree program.
Education administration professionals at all levels must be licensed in most states, though again, requirements vary. In Massachusetts, for example, applicants need to do the following:
- Pass the Communication and Literacy Skills MTEL
- Complete a state-approved educator preparation program OR complete 300 approved apprenticeship hours OR passed a panel review
- Complete a Performance Assessment for Initial License (MA-PAL)
- Earn the Sheltered English Immersion Endorsements (SEI)
In some states, the Board of Education offers alternative licensing pathways for education administrators who haven't earned a master's degree (learn more about Ohio's alternative licensing pathway). These usually require licensure candidates to be enrolled in a master's degree program and to fulfill the full requirements of administrative licensure within a set time period.
Private schools often have less-stringent requirements, as they are free to set their own rules.
The pros and cons of becoming a vice-principal
Pros of becoming a vice-principal
- Every day is a little different when you become a vice-principal, and you'll be surrounded by youthful energy. There's nothing like working with kids to keep you on your toes.
- You'll have the authority to improve your school. Being a leader means you'll be in a position to impact everything from curriculum to student achievement goals to the quality of the cafeteria food.
- In this position, you'll have many opportunities to interact with and learn from higher-level administrators. If your eventual goal is to become a principal, you'll get a bird's eye view of the role and the qualities necessary for advancement.
- You may knowingly or unknowingly have a lasting impact on the students at your school. Travis Shillings, assistant principal at Brassfield Elementary School and a Wake County Public School 2014 Assistant Principal of the Year finalist, described the impact one assistant principal had on his life in a video made for the competition. He said, "I had a principal in my elementary school that I got along really well with (probably saw him more than I needed to see him as a kid) but he helped me become the student that I became, and then as I grew up in high school and going into college I really wanted to work with students like me."
Cons of becoming a vice-principal
- Many people decide to become vice-principals because they are hoping for automatic advancement when the existing principal leaves or retires. However, there are no guarantees. Your principal may stay for the long haul or you may not be the one chosen to replace them
- This can be a very stressful job. Vice-principals deliver bad news to parents and deal with openly defiant students. They have to balance the very real needs of teachers against very real budgetary constraints.
- Just because students get out at 3 p.m. doesn't mean administrators are off the clock. High school vice-principals often end up working on evenings and weekends.
- Vice-principals have to be ready, willing, and able to learn new skills on the fly. You may be called upon to deal with finances, human resources, data security, community relationships, interpersonal relationships, educational advisement, and public relations.
- This can be a thankless job, and you won't have the status that the principal typically receives. vice-principals seldom receive recognition and are often perceived as little more than disciplinarians. As a result, they frequently have to back-burner other work when students misbehave.
Only you can decide if the pros outweigh the cons. This is obviously a good career option if your goal is to become a principal someday, but if you think of this role as nothing more than a pit stop, you may find you don't enjoy it as much as you could. Some people spend the entirety of their post-teaching careers in the vice-principal's office—not because they have to, but because they enjoy the job.
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