Education Administration

Elementary School Principals Guide the Next Generation. Are You Up for the Challenge?

Elementary School Principals Guide the Next Generation. Are You Up for the Challenge?
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Noodle Staff September 3, 2018

From greeting students to overseeing the budget, being an elementary school principal is a big responsibility. Are you ready for the challenge? Allow Noodle to guide the way.

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Did you know that the success or failure of a student begins in elementary school? Students who receive a quality elementary school education are less likely to drop-out of high school. As educators and policy makers are looking for ways to improve the drop-out rate, it is becoming increasingly clear that we need to invest in children when they are young rather than the middle and high school years when they are already in academic trouble.

What does this startling information have to do with elementary school principals? Everything. For one, (NAESP) explains, “Elementary principals have a unique opportunity to bridge early childhood education with formal schooling…” By providing instruction and leadership for teachers and students, an elementary school principal can make a big difference.

Most importantly, the success of a school, and hence, a child’s education, is directly related to the strength of the school’s principal. The best schools have the best principals. Therefore, elementary school principals are not simply spending their days surrounded by little kids – they are huge influencers of the future. They are guiding the next generation.

For those with a passion for education and a desire to influence the world for the better, becoming an elementary school principal will be a fulfilling career. Allow me to walk you through what being an elementary school principal is really like, as well as explain the various pathways to earning this prestigious title.

What Today’s Principals Do

There is a false assumption that being an elementary school teacher is easy or that all elementary school teachers do is play. This is far from true! In the same way, anyone who thinks being an elementary school principal is easy is mistaken. The job is full of challenges, but those with the title find the job rewarding.

According to What Makes a Successful Principal, the role of the principal has evolved over time. While the principal has always been seen as the head of a school, it has changed from head teacher in the 1800s to an administrative manager in the 1960s to today’s instructional leader.

If you think an elementary school principal simply manages administrative duties, you are wrong. While the bulk of their work is in administration (also why they are referred to as school administrators), today’s principals are viewed as visionaries and educational leaders. As Billy Jenkins explains, “Today, most school leaders seek a balance in their role as manager-administrator and instructional leader.” What does this mean? It means that even if someone is a good manager, it does not mean they would necessarily be a good principal. In order to be a successful principal, you must be someone who leads with expertise and understands the latest trends in education.

A Typical Elementary School Principal Job Description

An elementary school principal does a little bit of everything at a school. From greeting students to overseeing the budget, the school principal has a big responsibility. Principals are year-round employees, meaning they do not get the summers off like classroom teachers. They work year-round to make sure the school is running smoothly and is maximizing student potential.

As the leader of the school, the elementary school principal is responsible for hiring and managing staff. This also includes evaluating teachers, as well as supporting teachers throughout the academic year. They are also the ones responsible for ensuring their staff has professional development opportunities.

Principals also deal with the school budget. They must form relationships with the community and apply for grants as needed. Additionally, they are responsible for developing curriculum and approving materials and resources for the classroom. The development of curriculum is what sets them apart as instructional leaders.

They also must make sure their school complies with state laws, which involves a significant amount of paperwork. And, they maintain the school facilities. When there are problems with the facilities (or renovations), the principal has to find ways to solve the problem. It is through these types of tasks that they work as the manager of the school and often do things that many people do not even see.

What most people know about the elementary school principal is that they interact with students – often, when students are in trouble. However, this is not the most accurate description. Yes, elementary school principals handle discipline issues. Discipline is a necessary part of the job, but the best principals focus on developing a healthy school culture. For example, elementary school principals will use positive reinforcement to point kids in the right direction and maintain a positive school environment.

But, ultimately, they are invested in their students’ success. Principals are responsible for student achievement. Principals work closely with teachers to make sure students are learning what they need to in the classroom. They work with students to push them towards success.

Additionally, elementary school principals are the liaisons between the school, parents, and the community. Elementary school principals, in particular, will meet regularly with parents. They are also recognized as a leader in the community.

In addition to these typical elementary school principal responsibilities, NAESP names these five other key functions of school principals:

  • Shape a vision of academic success for all students

  • Create a climate hospitable to education

  • Cultivate leadership in others

  • Improve instruction for teachers and students

  • Manage people, data, and processes to lead to improvement

If this role sounds like one you are ready to sink your teeth in, then let’s move on to our discussion of how you can get there.

Wondering How to Become an Elementary School Principal? Keep Reading.

While the pathway to become an elementary school principal will vary from one person to the next, there are some things that will remain the same. For example, to be an elementary school principal in a public school, you will need a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. Fortunately, the job outlook is (projected to grow 8 percent from 2016 to 2026) which is encouraging for those just beginning to consider becoming an elementary school principal.

First, you must obtain a bachelor’s degree. Ideally, it would be best if you received your bachelor’s degree in the field of education. However, many individuals earn a degree in a different field and then pursue alternative teaching certification (which varies by state).

Next, you need to obtain your teacher certification. Again, this will vary according to the state where you plan to teach. Noodle’s guide to how to obtain teacher certification will help you determine the right pathway for you. Typically, in order to become a certified teacher, you must hold a bachelor’s degree and then pass the required teaching certification exams and complete student teaching.

Next, teach at the grade level you wish to be a school administrator in for a few years.

Note – There are cases where you do not have teach before becoming a school principal. However, many states do require school principals to have a certain number of years of classroom experience. In addition to the state requirement, many people believe that those who want to be principals should spend time in the classroom, so they have first-hand knowledge of what actually happens in the classroom. Spending time as a teacher will help you develop your skills as an educational leader.

If you are not a teacher, but you want to be a school principal, you will still be required to pass all the required certification exams and hold the appropriate degrees. For example, you should pursue a master’s degree in educational leadership. While the requirements vary by state, some private schools do not require school principals to hold specific degrees or have classroom experience. But, keep in mind, you will be competing for the role of school principal against others who likely will have both a master’s degree in education and classroom experience.

Finally, you will need to be certified in school administration. Licensure requirements vary from state to state. Most states will require you to take a state-specific exam in school administration or educational leadership. Once you pass the exam and have met other requirements (such as holding a valid teaching license and hold a bachelor’s or master’s degree), you may apply for your school administrator license.

Apply for the job!

Why Getting a Masters to Become an Elementary School Principal is Necessary

Even if the state you are seeking school administrator certification or licensure does not require a master’s degree, most states do have this requirement. If you move at some point in your career, this will be a hindrance.

However, earning a master’s degree as an elementary school principal will be a major benefit to you as a leader. Today’s principals are no longer simply seen as someone who handles all the administration tasks. Instead, today’s principals are viewed as experts in the field of education. They are current on the latest trends and are visionaries. They have a strong desire to improve education.

The best way to become an expert in education is to continue learning yourself. When you take graduate level courses in educational leadership, you will learn how to influence teachers and students positively.

Most master’s degree programs can be completed in two years. Many of these programs are designed for those already teaching. For example, there are currently several online master’s degree programs for educational leadership, which allow those teaching to work towards earning this degree after school hours while they are spending their days in the classroom. Of course, there are traditional programs for those who would rather take classes in-person.

What Skills Make Strong Principals

Great principals make great schools. It takes someone with a passion for education and a love of students to be a strong principal. But, that’s not all! School principals have to both lead and manage. These are essentially two different skill sets. A leader inspires, whereas a manager organizes. According to Successful School Leadership, there are four skill areas that make great principals: influencing skills, learning skills, facilitating skills, and creative skills.

The best principals inspire their teachers, lead their students, and build relationships with the community. They take these skill sets and use them to influence positive change and improve school success. If you have leadership skills and a desire to make a difference in the lives of children, a career as an elementary school principal may be just the right fit.

Works Cited

Day, C., & Sammons, P. (2016). Successful school leadership. Retrieved May 16, 2018, from Education Development Trust. Reprint of 2014 Report.

How to Get a Teaching Certificate if you Have a Bachelor’s | Noodle. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Jenkins, B. (2009, January/February). What It Takes to Be an Instructional Leader. Retrieved May 15, 2018, from

Pierson, A. (2014). What Makes a Successful Principal? Incorporating School Principal Background in State and District Policy (Doctoral dissertation, Pardee Rand Graduate School) [Abstract]. Retrieved May 15, 2018, from

NAESP. (Ed.). (n.d.). The Power of the Principal: Advocacy in Action. Retrieved May 16, 2018, from

NAESP & NASSP. (2013). Leadership Matters: What the Research Says About the Importance of Principal Leadership. Retrieved May 16, 2018, from

Summary – Principals. (2018, April 13). Retrieved May 16, 2018, from

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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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