Education Administration

Get Ready To Lead: Degree Requirements For Becoming A School Principal

Get Ready To Lead: Degree Requirements For Becoming A School Principal
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Noodle Staff July 6, 2018

When you look back at your time in school, how do you remember your school principal? Was the principal a stern leader whom all the kids feared, a friendly advisor who inspired student success, or, maybe, were they somewhere in the middle? No matter what role your principal played in your life, they must have left a big impression; now, it’s you turn to become a school principal.

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What Degree Do You Need to be a Principal?

Being a school principal is a big calling, and an even bigger task. As the principal of an elementary, middle, or high school, it is your job to be a support system for all of the school’s teachers so that they can better educate their students. Your primary role will be making sure that teachers have everything they need to run their classes smoothly on a daily basis. This will also mean working as a disciplinarian at times. Externally, you will be the representative for your school when it comes to working with the local school board.

Being the principal of a school is a big responsibility. However, if you love working with students and you have a desire to lead, it is a career choice with many rewards. You will have a positive impact on the lives of thousands of students as they pass through your school, and, by extension, you will have a positive impact on your community. The young people who walk your hallways will go on to be important members of society, and they will always remember the integral role you played in their formative years. Clearly, school principals are an important part of our society; but what degree do you need to become a principal?


“I'm Interested in Education Leadership!”

The salary medians for professionals with a master's or doctorate in Education Administration range from $75,000 to $320,000 depending on the location, degree, and qualified job position. (source)

A Doctor of Education (EdD) or PhD can advance a career even further than a master’s—meaning more responsibility and better pay.

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Becoming a school principal

There are many routes you can take to become a school principal, and every person will have a slightly different journey. Therefore, you should not be looking for a one-size-fits-all approach. Your path to becoming a school principal will depend on your education level, how much teaching experience you have, and what kinds of relationships you have built with your school’s administration.

Start teaching

First and foremost, on your way to becoming a school principal you will need to earn a bachelor’s degree. Preferably, your degree will be in education. However, if you’ve already earned a bachelor’s degree in another field, don’t worry; this will not prevent you from becoming a principal. No matter what field your bachelor’s is in, you will want to become certified as a teacher. Once you’re certified, you can get into a classroom and start gaining some experience. It’s a good idea to be a teacher at some point on your path to becoming a principal, because schools are most interested in hiring principals who have experience as classroom teachers. They want people who will know how a school works, inside and out. Additionally, since principals work closely with teachers, it is important for them to understand what it is like to be a teacher in a classroom.

Working as a teacher is also a great way to build relationships with a school’s administration. When job opportunities arise, you will be the first to know about them. This leads to another good way to get your foot in the door to become a school principal: be a vice or assistant principal first. This is a great way to develop leadership skills on the job, and if a principal position becomes available you will be set up for a smooth transition. As you pursue your career in school leadership, you may even discover other school administrative jobs that interest you.

Finally, no matter how ready you think you are for the job of being a principal, you won’t be completely prepared to assume the role until you have earned your master’s degree. Note that many master’s degrees in the field of education and educational leadership are designed for working teachers. That means that even if you’re working in a classroom during the day, you can advance your education through evening and weekend classes so that you are ultimately be ready to become a principal.

While a master’s is a requirement for the job of being a principal, there isn’t one particular master’s degree you need to earn in order to qualify. There are many degrees you can pursue; simply choose the one that works best with your goals and needs. Here are a few different kinds of master’s degrees you might consider:

Master’s in Educational Leadership & Policy (EPL)

A Master’s in Educational Leadership & Policy is an excellent degree to have on your CV when it is time to apply for jobs as a school principal. In addition, this degree will prepare you for a variety of careers in educational leadership, so becoming a principal does not have to be the only milestone of your career in education. A Master’s in Educational Leadership & Policy will open doors for you to become an educational researcher, an adult teacher, or an educational specialist. You can even take your career to the district, state, or national levels by becoming a district superintendent, district administrator, or policy maker. There are many potential career paths with a Master’s in Educational Leadership.

__Why else might you pursue an ELP degree?__ In this degree program, you will learn just what it takes to run a school as a principal. You will have the chance to ask questions of teachers and administrators who have been there, and are willing to share their wisdom with future educators. Additionally, you will study educational policy. You will learn how the education system is run at the district, state, and national levels. And you will get a full understanding of your powers and limitations as a teacher and as a school principal. By the end of your degree, you will be well-versed on how your school district is run; this will be invaluable knowledge if find yourself in the principal’s office. You will understand the many dimensions of your role in our nation’s education system as a whole.

As a plus, this is a degree that you can pursue either online or in the classroom. So if you’re a teacher or working professional hoping to expand your career options, you will be able to find a master’s program that suits your particular needs.

Master’s in Education Administration

A Master’s in Education Administration is another suitable degree to earn on your way to becoming a school principal. This degree is exactly what it sounds like: it prepares students for a career in education administration. While the degree leaves out the governmental policy you would learn about in a Master’s of Educational Leadership & Policy program, this degree will still prepare you for the role of school principal. Additionally, this master’s degree will qualify you for a career at the district level as a superintendent, or at the university level as a registrar or dean.

In this program, you will be trained in leadership and learn just what it takes to run a school. You will also be taught how the school administration works from top to bottom, so that you will understand your place in the education system.

This is another great degree to pursue online or at night while teaching. No matter what your are looking for in a program, there will be an option that suits your lifestyle.

Master’s in Education

When pursuing a career as a principal, another great master’s program to consider is a Master’s in Education. A Master’s in Education may seem less specific than the other two master’s programs we’ve discussed, but it is still an excellent choice for your path towards the principal’s office. Unlike a Master’s in Teaching, a Master’s in Education focuses on education theory. You will learn how to work with all kinds of students, including elementary school students, middle school students, high school students, adult learners, and students with special needs. This degree will help you excel as a principal, because as an administrator, you will be tasked with instructing the teachers in your school. So instead of using your education skills in the classroom to teach students, the teachers will become your pupils; their education and continuing development will become incredibly important to you as you promote the health of your school.

Apart from preparing you to be a school principal, this master’s degree will qualify you to be a school counselor, instructional theologist, curriculum developer, or educational consultant. Like the other degrees we’ve mentioned, this degree is available online or in a traditional classroom setting.

Other principal options

These three degrees are excellent options that will set you up for success as a school principal, but they do not signify the only ways to become a principal. If you already have a master’s degree in another field, there are options for you as well. Earning the proper educational certification and spending some time as a teacher will put you on the right path to becoming a principal.

This means your first steps will be to gain your certification as a teacher, and then to land a job as a teacher in your school district. You will then be able to pursue your administrative licensing, which will qualify you for a principal position.

Principal training programs

Whether you have pursued a master’s degree from this list or not, a principal training program is a great way to sharpen your leadership skills and ensure that you will be the best principal you can be. Most of these schools offer classes over the summer; so, while your students are having fun in the sun, you can become an even better educator.

These programs offer classroom-style lectures as well as principal simulation training. By the time you have landed your first job as a principal, you will have practiced for the real world situations that arise on the job. Additionally, some of these programs offer opportunities for you to be mentored for a period of time after you have already become a principal. This means that you will be able to consult with a trusted, experienced, impartial advisor if you have any questions about or issues on the job.


Becoming a principal may seem like a daunting task. However, with the right tools and guidance, your journey to the principal’s office can be an enjoyable, rewarding experience. Just remember that everyone’s path is a little different, and there is no one right way to arrive at your first day as a principal. The three degrees discussed here are simply three great places to start.

Works cited

Principal Training Programs and Alternative Methods

Becoming a School Principal

Path to Principal Career

What can you do with a degree in educational leaders?

Why a degree in education leadership?

Online Master’s in Education Admin

Pursuing an online masters in education admin degree

Masters in teaching vs masters in education

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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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