Educational Leadership & Policy

How Do You Become a School Principal, Anyway?

How Do You Become a School Principal, Anyway?
You'll be tasked with successfully managing a lot of different personalities. Image from Unsplash
Lucien Formichella profile
Lucien Formichella June 29, 2019

Do you like heavy workloads, painfully honest middle schoolers, and lots of red tape? This career may be the one for you.

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Good school principals are underrepresented in TV and movies (unless their name is Dumbledore). But, maybe you’re into elementary school pranks, like a couple of kids—BUELLER!—calling you and pretending to be a grief-stricken parent. If you can handle an inordinate amount of nonsense and a whole staff of school employees, you might want to consider the career path to becoming a principal.

Pros and Cons of Becoming a Principal


  • As a principal, you’ll be the leader of your school and have major input on decisions like hiring, curriculum planning, teacher professional development, among many other factors. In a way, you’ll be able to create your ideal school environment.
  • You’ll be tasked with successfully managing a lot of different personalities, which are both ideal responsibilities for any candidate with strong human development and social skills.
  • You’ll ensure that quality education is delivered to all students by defining effective instructional practices and seeing that teachers receive professional development in cases where their techniques may not be up to standard, like in testing or gamification.


  • The job comes with high burnout rates, especially for principals who face bureaucratic roadblocks, heavy workloads, and disagreements with faculty. Given your workload, you’ll likely be the first to your school and the last to leave every day, which makes self-care tricky.
  • You’ll also have to deal with a lot of negativity, such as teacher complaints, discipline issues, parents who feel their children aren’t being given adequate education or even criticism from the school board. Add it all up and it easily feel overwhelming—especially given the whole “my child’s school principal is intimidating” trope.
  • Other factors that impede satisfaction may depend on where you work or the demographics of the students you work with. Think about painfully honest middle schoolers, or how high-strung parents can be when their children start applying to college. Throw in an assistant principal that just doesn’t seem to get it, plus that weird disinfected smell that all public schools seem to have and you’re looking at a potentially unpleasant job, even if you throw in one of those pine cone air fresheners.

“I’m ready for a degree!”

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Kinds of School Principal Careers

Every principal’s job is to facilitate student achievement, at least during the school year, but the way that happens differs between the elementary, middle, and high school levels. This doesn’t mean that you’ll start out as the principal for your school district’s elementary school, and graduating to running the high school. They are all distinct jobs.

Elementary school principals interact more with parents than secondary school principals. They also have more of a role in the actual education process, such as through teacher supervision. In addition to focusing more on literal school administration, secondary school principals have to deal with more truancy violations—meaning, when students skip school—than their counterparts.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS for short) public school principals actually make a higher median salary than those at private schools.

  • Public elementary and secondary school principals: $96,760
  • Private elementary and secondary school principals: $84,990

According to Zippia, the lowest ten percent in the field earned less than $39,000 in salary, while the top 10 percent of earners pull in more than $157,000.

Educational Commitment to Become a Principal

There is a pretty substantial educational commitment involved in becoming a principal. Having a master’s degree in education administration or leadership is your end goal. Before that, it’s helpful to have a bachelor’s degree in education.

The time commitment involved in getting your degree varies. After budgeting four years for your bachelor’s degree, you will be faced with options. These are just a few:

  1. Going straight into a full-time master’s program after undergrad and finishing your degree in one to two years.

  2. Gaining experience in a classroom setting (which is possible with just an associate’s degree in education), then pursuing a master’s degree.

  3. Becoming a teacher, Praxis test and all, before making the switch to principal. Depending on your state, this could require you to have a master’s degree in education. With a graduate degree at the ready, you’ll only need a few years of teaching experience to advance your career.

  4. Teaching in a state that only requires you to have a bachelor’s degree? Consider pursuing a part-time or online master’s degree program, especially one that offers higheducation rankings in selectivity and accreditation. With your own classroom to manage and graduate-level coursework calling, this path creates a pretty hectic schedule. Then again, effective principals are good at managing their time, so why not start now?

Licensure and Accreditation for Becoming a Principal

So, you polished up your resume and are all set to ask that superintendent for a job, right? Not so fast. Consider certification, which in addition to licensure, can be thought of as a way to prove your potential for leadership and growth in a school setting. Principal certification candidates are commonly tested on their organizational and leadership skills, instructional knowledge, and their understanding of school operations.

This is where teaching experience may again be a benefit, since the majority of statesrequire school leader certification candidates to hold a master’s degree and have at least three years’ teaching experience.

When it comes to licensure, things get very state-specific. In some cases, a school leader, educational leadership or related certification is required. In most cases, candidates must pass a licensure exam on administrative and instructional practice. Once employed, candidates can also complete a pre-approved mentoring program chosen by their employer.

Resources for Becoming a Principal

You teach because you love it—hopefully—but if you’re trying to find some ways to cut the cost of graduate school on your path to becoming a school principal, there are some scholarship opportunities. Some scholarships for master’s degree programs are available only to teachers who are trying to go back to school in order to become principals. It is a whole Russian nesting doll scenario of teachers teaching teachers how to teach other teachers.

If you are a principal, and are looking to sharpen your leadership skills or increase your general knowledge of the position, you might want to start reading some educational leadership blogs. These are written by principals who are looking to share their secrets and help increase the knowledge of others. How nice.

There are also a number of conferences and organizations that help school principals become more effective leaders and stay on top of the current industry trends and requirements. Don’t just become a principal. Become an effective principal.

Given all the time and effort you’ll spend leading faculty, staff, and students, it’s possible that you may look for ways to connect with school administrators without having to leave your office—or couch. Twitter, in particular, offers an amazing network to connect with education leaders around the world through something as simple as a hashtag.

Typical Career Path for Principals

The turnover rate is extremely high among principals. School leaders deal with a lot and student achievement, or a lack of it often contributes to principals leaving their jobs after just five years, especially those who work at schools where a large number of students perform below grade level. While some principals leave the profession entirely others change schools in the hopes of finding a better district or more supportive school board.

If you find success in your career, however, and want to take the next logical step, you may consider becoming a school district superintendent. This position usually requires between two and five years of experience as, say a high school principal, so you will be well prepared. Plus, you already have a master’s degree, which is another requirement for the job.

Alternative careers include curriculum design or course development. You could also seek out roles in corporate education, which includes coaching or mentoring employees in weakness areas, or running courses on company software or tools.

Further Accreditation or Education for Principals

The hard part is (partly) over. You are a high school principal, and clean eggs off your car during spirit week. It’s awesome. You love educational administration and have been in the position for five years. You even quote panelists from the Economist Higher Education Forum to unsuspecting people at parties.

Now it’s time to renew your license.

Principals must renew the licenses every five or six years, depending on their state. This usually means completing 50 hours of professional development through an accredited program that has been approved by the state. But that’s ok. You love higher education and charting the professional development of your staff. School bake sales don’t hurt, either.

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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