Is Becoming a Principal Really All It’s Cracked Up to Be?

Mary McLaughlin
Special Education Teacher

Assuming you already have your bachelor's degree in education, a teaching license and have spent a handful of years teaching in the classroom, you can start taking the steps it takes to become a principal.

The next step is to start earning an advanced degree in school administration, pass your state's credentialing exam and obtain a license for school administrators as required by your state.

Even after you check all the boxes for the education and credentialing process, you better have the right disposition for the job too, and the right soft skills too

Most teachers will tell you that a good principal…

  • Knows staff as people and makes team members feel valued and appreciated
  • Sets clearly defined expectations
  • Is able to have difficult conversations while remaining kind
  • Holds people accountable without being demoralizing
  • Is a physical presence in hallways, cafeterias, classrooms, commons areas, and at events
  • Always knows what's going on in the building
  • Looks at issues from as many perspectives as possible

If that's not enough, they're also humble, approachable, measured, trustworthy, have great delegation skills, and are great communicators.

Sounds easy, right?

The Pay Bumps and Other Perks of Becoming a Principal

Becoming a principal means assuming a role that in certain ways combines the key aspects of every job within the school's walls. Principals have traditionally worked all summer, but some states are now trading as much as eight weeks off (typically June and July!) in exchange for less frequent pay increases.


The national average salary for a school administrator was $98,490 per year as of 2020, but the spread is pretty significant by region:

  • Northeast - $144,628
  • Southeast - $89,957
  • Northwest - $113,031
  • Southwest - $95,071

May 2020, US Bureau of Labor Statistics


The predominant model for healthcare coverage mirrors what school districts offer the teachers in their ranks, with benefits covering between 79% and 84% of the total annual cost of the plan.


Depending on the state and hiring date, many school administrators retire with a state pension plan, often referred to as a defined benefit plan. In simplest terms, while you work you pay in and when you no longer work, you are paid based on a prescribed formula.

Some states are starting to move toward a privatized retirement plan such as a 401k. Though the mechanisms are different, the basic idea and end result are the same: security in retirement.

Free Professional Development

There are still districts out there that provide administrators with a budget for professional development that's distributed to the building's administrative team.

With so much at stake these days, and with the methods and technology changing and evolving all the time, administrative teams need to keep the pedal to the floor when it comes to their learning and professional development, now more than ever.

Reimbursement for Continuing Education Expenses

Tuition reimbursement programs offer an opportunity for obtaining college credits toward a specific advanced degree program.

In all likelihood, you'll meet the qualifications for an administrator position in your district by earning a master's degree in education administration, so it's more likely than not that if you're ambitious enough to take the next step, it's an EdD or PhD in Education that you'll be pursuing. It's a valuable education to have, and it will make invaluable to the district you work for. And that's something districts often more than happy to invest in.

Bonus Pay

Bonus pay can be an occasional perk for principals. Based on student and teacher performance, some districts incentivize school leaders in order to reach certain benchmarks.

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The Intangible Rewards Speak for Themselves

Anybody working in education in any capacity knows that our wealth is rooted in our passion for teaching and learning.

We want to leave a legacy that takes time to build. Investing in the lives of kids is no easy task but being present for a former student's inauguration into public office, seeing a nurse at a hospital who smiles as he recalls your words of encouragement, or running across a former student with a troubled upbringing who was always in your office but beat the odds to go on to lead a happy, successful life…well, there's just no feeling quite like it.

As a veteran teacher of two-plus decades, I can tell you that being a school principal is no cake walk. Having spent seven years as a building administrator at a Midwest K-8 school, I did more than strut around the building drinking coffee and feeling important.

Building administrators are the leaders of the building. They set the tone for the school's culture and climate. Faculty, staff, and students draw from the energy and expectations they set.

For years I called myself a "recovering middle school administrator" and while it sounds negative, it's quite the opposite. In all honesty, I miss the joy of it. Yes, the work is challenging and while the days can be long, there is an intrinsic reward in knowing that what your team is doing MATTERS in the life of students.

Administrators are at the forefront of new ideas in education, technology, government policies, trends, and just about everything else.

School administrators are important figures, and indeed, leaders in the broader communities they serve. During times of crises, communities look to their schools for a sense of normalcy and for assurance that no matter what might be going on in the world, school is still open, and everything's going to be okay.

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