How to Become a Principal

The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things. Ronald Reagan
Principal gives a student her diploma

The principal of a school is like the center of a wheel. The principal keeps everything in line and in good working order. The principal is in charge of keeping the school working so that teachers, students and support staff can function and complete their respective jobs. A principal needs to be a strong leader to staff, a fair hiring agent for new teachers and aides, an advocate to students and a disciplinarian when necessary. A principal also serves as an intermediary between the county board of education and the school system in which they are employed.

Qualities of a School Principal

So what makes a great school principal?

The type of person who would serve as a strong principal is one that can multitask daily. This person should be diplomatic in all decisions, but willing to stand up for what they believe is right. A principal should be able to interact professionally with students, parents and teaching staff. A principal must be motivated and able to motivate.

Most of all, a principal should be a leader, not simply a boss.

Beyond simply calling the shots, a principal's job is to encourage each faculty member to do their best, which in the cases of different individuals can mean different things. After all, the best schools include a diversity of faculty members whose different skills, talents, and teaching styles create a well-rounded education for students. Rather than taking a "one size fits all" approach, a principal must be able to encourage and connect with the variety of talented individuals on staff. This means strong people skills, excellent attention to detail, and an enthusiastic outlook.

Indeed, at best, an institution reflects the vision of a school principal, meaning principals should work hard to formulate how they would like a school to function and the primary goals it is trying to achieve. This can mean turning around underperforming schools or maintaining high standards for schools that are meeting or exceeding benchmarks. It can also mean setting clear goals for student achievement as well as outlining specific expectations for teachers, so that everyone knows exactly what they are working toward. Your specific decisions as a principal should respond directly to the individual school where you are working and the needs of its community. Upon being hired as the principal of a school, a great first step is to assess these needs through conversations with faculty, school stakeholders, students, and parents.

Finally, a principal must be exceptionally calm under pressure. The job of a principal can involve putting out fires of all types, which means it is imperative to keep a clear head and maintain a positive attitude even during moments of great stress. This is again where a principal can serve as an example to others: by keeping up high spirits and staying calm and collected, they will be able to set the tone for others around them, ensuring that everything continues to run smoothly.

What Do Teachers Want From a Principal?As noted above, one of the most difficult but engaging aspects of a principal's job is that they engage with nearly everyone who is involved with their school, from students and parents to district personnel to, of course, faculty. The last of these is especially important, as it is a school's teachers who report directly to the principal and therefore rely on his or her oversight on any difficult questions or concerns that arise on the job.

So what is most important from a teacher's perspective? Here are a few of the most crucial qualities of a good principal, according to teachers themselves:

  • Clear expectations. A principal's vision for a school must be not only inspiring but comprehensive, with actionable guidelines that faculty members can follow with clarity. By providing a framework within which teachers can understand their key objectives, principals can create an environment in which everyone can thrive at their job, in turn leading to a more positive academic experience for students.
  • Strong communication. This is a crucial component of setting clear expectations. Principals are often responsible for messaging various decisions and goals to the rest of school faculty and staff. In all types of communication, principals must be careful and conscientious, with a knowledge of who their audience is and what they are trying to achieve in the long term. Monitoring teachers - especially new teachers - can also be a very important part of principals' jobs. When providing feedback to teachers, it's important for principals to be direct in their instructions and constructive in their criticism, making sure that faculty members understand whatever issues they might need to deal with and also feel recognized for what they are doing well. Indeed, making teachers feel appreciated and seen for their difficult work goes a long way in boosting overall morale at a school.
  • High energy. As mentioned above, a principal is in a position to set the energy level for their school, becoming a role model for others. Indeed, anyone working at a school is entrusted with significant responsibilities, many of which can be overwhelming and some of which can also be exhausting. Having a leader figure who is enthusiastic and ready to hit the ground running each day will bring out the same vivacity from all employees.
  • Principals must pull off a difficult balance with teachers, on the one hand keeping thorough oversight over their work and on the other, trusting in their ability to do their jobs fully. Indeed, teachers will have the most positive experience at their schools if they feel that they are able to perform their jobs with creativity and integrity - even if they are monitored by supervisors, it is important that teachers not feel that the administration is breathing down their neck. One way to build this trust as a principal is by forging supportive relationships with faculty members that make them feel appreciated for their unique perspectives and abilities, making it easier to communicate and provide corrective feedback when necessary.

On the Job Duties

A principal is responsible for the hiring of teachers within his or her school. If teaching elementary school, this involves grade-level teachers and aides. Middle and high school teachers are typically larger in number, and subject specific instead of grade specific. The principal is also responsible for observing these teachers in the use of teaching materials to oversee curriculum execution.

school staff smiling togetherA principal will need to meet with parents to discuss specific concerns with students, interact with the student body, and handle any emergency issues that arise in the school. The principal must also establish personal development activities for teachers, while setting school standards and a way in which to meet those standards. These are the overall duties of a principal, but daily duties also are present.

Each day a principal of a school is responsible for keeping the school safe and running smoothly. A principal may be needed to perform duties that are also performed by teachers, such as lunch duty, recess monitoring, hall duty, or on occasion, covering a class while a teacher is in a meeting. A principal also has the daily duty of dealing with any discipline issues in the school, while making overall decisions that could affect the entire school.

Job Growth

Though being a principal can be a difficult experience, it can also be rewarding. Principal jobs can lead to positions in the school board or in specially appointed positions in other school districts. Principal jobs at the elementary, middle and high-school levels are expected to show a 4% growth overall through the year 2029, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

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How Do You Become a Principal?

To become a principal, one must begin on a path very similar to that of becoming a teacher. However, a master's degree in an education field typically is required for school principals.

Education Requirements for School Principals

School Principal Teaching Experience

Typically, a school principal will be required to have one to five years of experience teaching in a specific subject area or general grade level. This means that a principal must have valid teaching certification.

Master's Degree and Administrative Credentials for School Principals

Principals will also need a master's degree in education, educational leadership or educational administration. Along with the higher-level degree, principals will also need to earn administrative credentials through their state. Each state can create their own requirements beyond the basics of a degree, so check with the local district before making definitive plans.

If you do choose to become a school principal, you will first go through education classes just like a teacher that focus on development of children, classroom management and teaching techniques for a specific area of study.

You will be required to complete observation hours, student teaching, state level testing and a portfolio.

After gaining experience as an educator, you may then be required to complete an administration degree or leadership degree at the master's level. This degree will require classes in leadership, school administrative duties, best practices for a school and, in many cases, interviewing skills and techniques. An administrative degree usually requires the equivalent of student teaching performed with a current school administrator.

Many principals get a degree in educational leadership or education administration.

Tests to Pass to Become a School Principal

The administration-level tests are much like teacher proficiency exams, however they focus specifically on administrative elements, such as:

  • Budgeting
  • Applicable laws
  • Leadership skills, etc.

A test is available at all levels, elementary, middle and high school. Scores for such tests are set by the state or district and can vary from area to area. Some districts will allow a principal to be hired with a master's degree in any form of leadership, but the basic teaching degree and certification are required.

Find Information About Becoming a Teacher In Your State

Each state has different requirements for becoming a certified teacher. To find out specific requirements, click on your state.

What Does a School Principal Do?

Becoming a principal is a highly important job that can affect the lives of many people throughout an administrator's career.

A school principal has to be organized to create master schedules, keep records organized and manage all the people and problems that can occur. A principal is able to handle all concerns for teachers, parents, staff and students in a professional manner. A principal must be organized and tireless as they are expected to arrive early and leave late each day, attend nearly every extracurricular activity and monitor teachers each day.

A principal must wear many hats. He or she must be a moderator, disciplinarian, boss, leader, organizer, cheerleader and teacher. If it occurs in a school, a principal must be willing to do the job or, in the least, be involved. A principal has the opportunity to make huge changes for a school overall and for individuals within that school and community.

A principal is a school employee, just as a teacher, however the hours and work dates are much different. A principal does and should plan to work much of the summer and long hours during the school year. The job is difficult, but the rewards are priceless.

A principal can expect to work in a school setting, typically in an office that is central to the school. The school can be elementary, middle or high school and can be a public, private, charter or alternative school. School principals should be present within their schools so others have a leader to look up to and appreciate.

School Principal Jobs & Job Duties

Principals across the United States are chosen because of their leadership ability. They are proactive, multidimensional collaborative leaders in education.

A principal's management, communication and direction creates and sustains school and system cultures that improve student learning and personal development.

While jobs do vary, below are listed the most common traits of principalship in both elementary and secondary schools.

Elementary School Principals

Similar to their high school counterpart, elementary school principals have a multifaceted role in caring for and guiding the school. Elementary principals:

  • Are in charge of managing public and private schools for children from preschool to grade 8 to ensure the smooth running of schools
  • Work with district administrators, superintendents, faculty and staff, setting budgets and hiring and evaluating teachers and support staff
  • Set teacher, schoolwide and student performance goals; care for building, facilities, materials, and supplies; and facilitate communication between internal stakeholders
  • Advocate on behalf of school, students and events to community and parents
  • Understand and apply the principals of educational leadership and school law
  • Maintain a standard of student behavior that underlies classroom policy and management
  • Resolve student behavioral problems on school grounds, en route to school and within the community
  • Administer the collection, retention, transfer and destruction of business and educational documents including student records and school improvements
  • Facilitate and advise on the needs of special education population and student testing
  • Have a working knowledge of student demographics, attendance and grades
  • Coordinate Title I logistics, grant applications, and No Child Left Behind requirements
  • Report to and receive direction from the superintendent regarding other duties

High School Principal

Similar to their elementary school counterparts, secondary school principals have a multifaceted role in caring for and guiding the school. High school principals:

  • Manage public and private schools for children from grade 9 to grade 12
  • Ensure smooth running of schools by coordinating a variety of interests, programs, timelines, facility usage, agendas, and budgetary concerns
  • Manage, evaluate and supervise clear procedures for the operation and functioning of the school that are in line with the mission and goals of the school and district
  • Manage instructional programs, extracurricular activities, discipline, building maintenance, program evaluation, personnel management, office operations, and emergency procedures systems to ensure a safe and orderly climate
  • Comply with laws, board policies and civil regulations
  • Supervise the school's instructional programs, including observing teachers and classes in addition to teaching as time permits
  • Notify authorities regarding violence, vandalism, attendance and discipline issues within the school. Collaborate with community authorities to the fullest extent regarding these and other safety issues
  • Adhere to the most stringent ethical and professional standards in order to serve a s a role model for students, school personnel, and community stakeholders
  • Maintain an attractive, organized, functional, healthy, clean, and safe facility; pay special attention to those factors that directly enhance the learning experience
  • Assume personal and administrative responsibility for the health, safety, and welfare of each student, employee and visitor to the school or its grounds
  • Establish a policy and schedule to supervise students in non-classroom areas, including before school and after school
  • Ensure that student records are complete and current; ensure confidentiality of all records, conversations, and information of each student at every level

Elementary and high school principals can take advantage of a number of employment avenues. Read on to learn more.

A day in the life of a school principal

With such wide ranging responsibilities that involve so many different people, no two days in the life of a school principal are likely to be the same. Indeed, this is a career path for those who seek great variety in their life and are capable of juggling multiple roles and communicating with a huge number of individuals with diverging perspectives and interests. However, those who become school principals are drawn to this fast-paced lifestyle, enjoying the many different responsibilities of their job and the numerous professionals with whom they come into contact.

So What Do Principals Do All Day?Though each day will come with its own tasks, one constant is that each day will always involve shifting between school principal duties.

An average day may start with reviewing correspondences and upcoming appointments, which may lead to check-ins with teachers before students even arrive on campus. Once class time begins, principals will perform a variety of tasks, including classroom visits to monitor teacher performance, meetings with school stakeholders including board members and district supervisors. They will also meet with other administrators about matters including scheduling, budgeting, and other important decisions.

After the school day has ended, principals often have additional responsibilities, including parent conferences, faculty meetings, and school events including performances, sporting events, and other campus activities. It is important for principals to participate in these events, as they are part of campus culture and building school spirit.

As this list makes clear, the average day for a principal involves a tremendous number of duties and responsibilities that can be overwhelming. However, the fulfillment of running an institution that is educating and empowering young students is a terrific and highly meaningful reward, one that keeps dedicated school principals returning to their busy but exciting jobs year after year.

For more information on the ins and outs of life as a school principal, take a look at the following blog posts:

Where Can Certified School Principals Work?

A licensed principal can work in any school and at any level in which they have certification. Depending on the choice of school, the principal can expect different things.

Public Schools

This can include public schools, which offer a free education for all students at all levels. In public schools, the curriculum is organized the district. Public schools usually have very diverse student populations. A public school is likely to be much more diverse in social economic areas as well as ability levels.

Private Schools

Private schools on the other hand, are not free to attend. There is a set tuition that needs to be paid for each student to attend. However, the curriculum is chosen by the school. Private schools tend to bring a more affluent clientele but could require religious or group affiliations.

Charter Schools

Charter schools are another option. Charter schools are usually free and linked to the public school system, but have the option to accept or reject students based on the school's set of criteria. However, a charter school may be held to much higher standards in the public eye because of the sources of funding.

School Principal Organizations & Associations

NASSP - National Association of Secondary School Principals: Nationwide organization for principals that seeks to transform education through school leadership, recognizing that the fulfillment of each student's potential relies on great leaders in every school committed to the success of each student.

NAESP - National Association of Elementary School Principals: The NAESP is a professional organization serving elementary and middle school principals and other education leaders throughout the U.S, Canada and overseas.

ICP - International Confederation of Principals: Global association for school principals organizations to discuss the challenges facing school leaders in every community.

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What is the Salary of a Principal?

Principals in the United States earn a mean annual salary of $106,960, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This does not include the great health, retirement, and pension benefits that come along with the job as well. The salary will increase with each year of experience. By contrast, principals in the private sector may earn considerably less. Principals with more professional or educational qualifications may be able for a higher salary. A move from one district to another may also facilitate a raise in salary.

The top employers of principals are elementary and secondary schools, which offer a mean annual salary of $106,850. Principals can also find employment at other educational institutions, including educational support services (offering an average annual salary of $109,350), religious organizations (which offer an average $90,760 per year), and child care services (offering an average annual salary of $67,390).

2022 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Education Administrators, Kindergarten through Secondary, reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed June 2023.


What degree do you need to become a principal?
Requirements to become a principal can vary depending on your location and the educational institution where you are planning on working. Typically, school principals have received a Master's in Education, Educational Leadership, Administration, or a related field. They will also likely need the administrative credentials required by their state and/or the specific institution where they are applying to work, which usually means completing a school principal certification program. If you are looking into opportunities to become a principal at a particular school, it's important to look into the exact requirements of the hiring institution.

How long does it take to become a principal?
There are several steps to becoming a principal, some of which will take a fixed amount of time (such as a master's program) and others which are not rigidly specific requirements but overall expectations. Assuming that one already holds a bachelor's degree, these steps include gaining teaching experience over several years (typically three to five), earning a master's degree (which takes approximately two years), and completing a school principal certification program (which takes up to a year). This means that one can ballpark a process of around six to seven years before becoming a full-fledged school principal. However, given that this process includes classroom teaching, you will already be gaining meaningful work experience and potentially establishing professional connections within the same school where you'll become an administrator.

Is a principal an administrator?
Yes, a principal is the highest ranking administrative role within a school. Other administrative titles include assistant principal (or vice principal), superintendent, school business administrator, and director of curriculum.

Do principals work year round?
The yearly schedule of a principal can vary greatly depending on the institution where they are working. Their work calendar often differs somewhat from the other faculty members at school, as it is useful for principals to use summer break to perform administrative tasks such as curriculum planning, hiring new staff, and coordinating professional development programs, among others. If you are a principal comparing job offers from different institutions, it will be worth looking into the specific schedule at each school.