Theses Doctoral

Assistant Principal Transitions into the Principalship: A Qualitative Study Informed by Constructive-Developmental Theory

Cheng, Alan

Given the immense challenges of the principalship and the high turnover of school principals, school districts—and other organizations—have looked to assistant principals as a major source of leadership talent to take up the role of principal. In this qualitative dissertation, I explored how eight principals—from different USA locations—described, understood, and experienced the transition from assistant principal to principal. Specifically, I examined what they named as the professional learning experiences they had on the way to becoming principals and how, if at all, their prior learnings supported them in this transition.

Additionally, my study used purposeful developmental sampling to explore how, if at all, participants’ way of knowing (i.e., internal cognitive, emotional, interpersonal, and intrapersonal capacities), as assessed by an expert developmental psychologist who employed the Subject-Object Interview (a reliable developmental assessment tool), might help with understanding how they made meaning of their experiences in transitioning to the principalship and their learning experiences along the way.This study is unique in that it focuses on the experiences of assistant principals—who have become principals—and provides a rich insight during a particularly critical and vulnerable time in their career trajectory. The study has implications for how school districts and district leaders – superintendents and principals – can provide differentiated supports for aspiring school principals.

I recruited an expert developmental psychologist to conduct Subject-Object Interviews in order to develop a purposeful sample of eight participants, four who have a predominately socializing way of knowing and four who have a predominately self-authoring way of knowing. Eight Subject-Object interviews and sixteen in-depth, qualitative interviews (approximately 36 hours, transcribed verbatim) were the primary data source. Data analysis involved several iterative steps, including writing analytic notes and memos; reviewing, coding, categorizing data to identify key themes within and across cases; and crafting narrative summaries.

I learned from the participants that their transition to the principalship involved increasing complexity in their work in three dimensions: an increased breadth of responsibilities (8 of 8), including budgeting, scheduling, supervision of all staff, and, in some cases, district politics (4 of 8); more complex interpersonal conflict among a higher number of stakeholders as they transitioned to assume a new mantle of authority as principal (8 of 8); and looking inward to clarify their internal values, which they said helped manage the breadth and depth of the first two dimensions of complexity (8 of 8). I also found two types of professional learning experiences that participants named as most helpful during their transition. The first was receiving mentoring (8 of 8), and the second was leading a large, complex project during their time as assistant principal (4 of 8). An additional three participants said that they had wished most for the opportunity to lead a large, complex project like those described by the other participants (3 of 8).

For all five of the major findings – the three dimensions of complexity referenced above and the two types of professional learning that were most helpful to the participants in their transition – I found that the participant’s way of knowing was connected to how they experienced, made sense of, and managed that aspect of their transition.
Predominantly socializing knowers struggled to manage their time and determine which priorities were most important and often described that their rise to this level of authority left them feeling lonely or as an outsider (4 of 4) and that it was difficult to manage conflicts and the expectations that others had of them as principals (4 of 4). In addition, those with at least some capacity self-authorship described an awareness of how new principals needed to do the hard work to develop these internal values (3 of 3).

In contrast, the predominantly self-authoring participants told me that they did not feel like they were being pulled in multiple directions and described systems they had created to manage this kind of complexity (4 of 4). They also understood and appreciated others’ expectations of them as the authority figure and could turn inside to clarify their own beliefs to effectively manage the conflicts that arose (4 of 4). Finally, they pointed to these inner values as foundational to meeting the different types of complexity inherent in transitioning to the principalship (4 of 4). For the aspiring principals who are predominately self-authoring, they shared a higher level of comfort in their own ability to handle the increasing complexities that come with the principalship, and each of them (4 of 4) shared that they felt like they got what they needed as assistant principals to prepare them for the transition.

For aspiring principals who are predominantly socializing in their way of knowing, my research shows that their learning opportunities need to be designed to help them develop a level of comfort with conflict as an opportunity for positive change rather than something to avoid altogether. Furthermore, I recommend that principals mentor with developmental intentionality such that they tailor their mentorship and feedback to make it effective for each AP they mentor. Last, I recommend that principals provide opportunities for APs to lead large complex projects, appropriately scaled based on the AP’s developmental readiness.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Organization and Leadership
Thesis Advisors
Drago-Severson, Eleanor
Ed.D., Teachers College, Columbia University
Published Here
June 2, 2021