How to Become a Principal

If you only associate the principal’s office with being in trouble, it may be time for you to update your view of school administration. Perfect for former teachers craving more adult-to-adult conversation, school principals require a little more school, but pay off with a higher salary than the average teacher. Becoming a principal may seem like a daunting task but, armed with the right information, how to become a principal will become a much clearer process.

Principal Licensure and Certification

The licensure, certification, and experience requirements to become a principal vary state by state but feature some common threads. It is likely that states will have some form of educational requirement, such as a masters degree, as well as additional various requirements such as a formal certificate of school leadership or a professional administrator license. It might be helpful to visit the department of education website for your state to find out more about how to become a principal.

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Job Description for Principals

A school principal is in charge of all the operations at their school: they oversee teachers, coordinate curricula, plan and manage school events, maintain a budget, and keep the environment safe and conducive to learning.

This is a role with a lot of power, but with that comes a lot of responsibility, specifically to the state and federal standards. Principals and administrators are in a great position to shape the way their school operates and make a change, but they’re also beholden to requirements for their students’ performance on tests and their teachers ability to drive those test scores.

Some schools allocate assistant principals to help share duties, which can be as nitty gritty as hiring cafeteria workers, or as big picture as enforcing attendance policies. Administrators will also need to draw on their knowledge of teaching for tasks like mediating parent-teacher meetings, observing classrooms, and evaluating teacher performance. They work full-time, year-round because while everyone else goes home, they’re the ones responsible for writing up reports on student test scores, or drafting next semester’s class schedules.

It can be a challenging, highly visible job, but the role of principal has plenty of task variety and offers the satisfaction of making real change. If lesson plans and lunchtime quiz grading has got you down, the high risk, high reward role of administration might be a good fit for you.

According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, you might also perform the following job functions:

  • Policy and planning
  • Recruiting, hiring, and supervision of faculty and staff
  • Student events and services
  • Parent, teacher, staff, student, and community relations
  • Record-keeping
  • Quality assurance
  • Budgeting and purchasing
  • Interpretation and implementation of regulations

Steps to Becoming a Principal

School principals need about several years of experience, according to the BLS. That experience is usually in teaching, but can sometimes work their way up from an assistant principal. Educationally, candidates should have a master’s degree, and often have a bachelor’s in education.

From principal, some people advance to superintendent (which might require additional education, like a doctorate of education), or transition into other careers like instructional coordinators, post secondary administration, or go on to manage other types of schools, like childcare centers.

Interested in becoming a public administrator? Read more about earning an online Master of Public Administration.

Salary Information for Principals

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average Elementary, Middle, and High School Principal made about $96,400 in 2019. Principal’s salaries are largely determined by the type of school they are employed by, the size of school, and the funding within the district their school operates within. Other facts influence principal’s salaries as well, such as the years of experience they are bringing to the school or seniority within the administration and district.

Demand for Principals

The job outlook for elementary, middle, and high school principals is about average, with availability of jobs projected to increase at a rate of 4% from 2018-2028. Principals are a vital part of any school and, because of this, there will always be a general need for competent principals and school administrators.

School Administration Shortages by State

shortage area is defined by the U.S. Department of Education as a role in which “there is an inadequate supply” of qualified professionals. The Department allows states to identify their own shortage areas but encourages them to follow a prescribed methodology based on unfilled positions, positions filled by professionals with irregular certifications, and positions filled by professionals certified in other areas. Because the Department allows states to report shortages as they wish, some states only report teacher shortages while others include administrative shortages as well. Please reference each state’s department of education to learn more about their particular shortage areas.

The following states report a shortage of school administrators:

  • Idaho
  • North Dakota
  • Vermont

Teachers on Making the Transition to School Administration

“I had planned on teaching longer than I did but was asked by my Principal to take on the role of Associate Principal at the building in which I taught. I knew administration was a career goal as I was interested in working to affect change on a larger scale.” —Jeff Herb, 8 Questions with a Tech-Savvy Principal

“I was terrified of leaving the classroom, but now my classroom is just bigger. I still teach every week, I still read to classes, I play at recess, I go to PE, I make time to do things that make me happy as an educator and all it’s done is grow me into a better one.”  —Todd Nesloney, 8 Questions with a Lead Learner & Principal

“A school administrator, I have the opportunity to create a community where students, teachers, and administrators are teaching and learning— simultaneously, under the same roof.” —Alicia Bowman, 8 Questions with an Elementary School Principal

“Professionally, it is satisfying to work with such a broad range of students from across the state of Montana, many in circumstances where our program provides a needed alternative to their face-to-face environment.” —Jason Neiffer, 8 Questions with a Curriculum Director

Interested in reading more about school administration career transitions? Catch up on the latest Outside the Classroom and 8 Questions interviews.

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Job Functions for Different Employers

The key difference between public vs. private employment for school administrators is job title: public schools generally call their administrators, principals, private schools may call them headmasters or program directors, and universities or colleges may call them deans, provosts, department heads, or cast them in roles like admissions officers.

Common skills needed for most positions include:

  • Interpersonal
  • Decision making
  • Critical thinking
  • Organizational
  • Time management
  • Negotiation
  • Communication

Information updated May 2020