How to Transition Into a Career In School Administration
March 10, 2021
Teachers touch the lives of a few dozen students each year. If you want to have a broader impact, this guide to school administration careers is for you.
Most of us can remember at least one teacher who profoundly affected our lives. In contrast, very few people recall any of the school administrators who may have had as much of an impact, albeit indirectly. And yet, that impact can be just as important as that of teachers when it comes to student engagement and achievement.
That's not just hype but actual observable, measurable impact. For example, a Stanford University study found that New York City students scored worse on standardized tests in schools with less experienced principals. Another study conducted by the National Association of Secondary School Principals concluded that leadership "is second only to classroom instruction among all school-related factors that contribute to what students learn at school."
Students may not realize how big of a role educational leadership plays in their success, but teachers certainly understand the effect administrators can have on a school. Some teachers hope to join the ranks of school administrators but don't know where to start. This guide to becoming a career school administrator is for them. In it, we answer the following questions:
- What does an administrator do at a school?
- Do career school administrators typically have master's degrees?
- Are school administrators licensed?
- What skills do you need to be an education administrator?
- What does the advancement path for school administrators look like?
- Do you have to be a teacher before you can become a school administrator?
- How much do education administrators earn?
- Is it worth going from teacher to administrator?
What does an administrator do at a school?
School administrators wear many hats and have many titles—vice principal and principal are just two of them—but their primary job is to support faculty, other staff, and students. Depending on the needs of public schools and private schools, administrators can act as liaisons among families and teachers, records managers, staff development coordinators, human resources managers, and mentors.
The long list of tasks school administrators may handle can include anything and everything related to keeping a school up and running. When you become a school administrator, you might be called upon to:
- Address personnel issues
- Coordinate custodial, cafeteria, and non-education services
- Choose instructional materials
- Develop operational processes
- Discipline students with behavior issues
- Evaluate teacher performance
- Handle teacher union relations
- Hire (and fire) faculty and staff
- Manage your school's social media presence
- Onboard and train faculty and staff
- Oversee regulatory compliance
- Oversee school safety
- Oversee student affairs and clubs
- Plan and implement curricula
- Serve as head of PR
- Serve as testing coordinator
- Set and enforce department budgets
- Set academic standards for each grade level
On top of all this, school administrators are often held responsible for teacher performance and student achievement and have to answer to the school board.
Do career school administrators typically have master's degrees?
You will almost certainly need a master's degree in education administration or educational leadership to advance in administrative roles in education. Some states allow teachers to advance into administrative roles with bachelor's degrees, but school districts in those states may still prefer to hire school administrators with Master of Arts in Teaching or Master of Education degrees. Some districts even require teachers to have doctoral degrees in education like the Doctor of Educational Leadership to qualify for certain higher-level administrative roles.
According to the Education Commission of the States, 37 states require candidates for administrator certification to hold a master's degree. However, there are also 39 states with alternative pathways to licensure—often involving administrator preparation programs and field experience.
Are school administrators licensed?
Each state has its own requirements when it comes to licensure and certification for education administrators. Most either publish those requirements on the state department of education website or make them available to those who request them.
In Massachusetts, for example, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Office of Educator Licensure website lists the following licenses for administrators (along with a summary of requirements):
- The one-year temporary license for fully licensed teachers from out-of-state who have an employment history of three years or longer.
- The five-year provisional license for aspiring superintendents and assistant superintendents who have valid teaching licenses but have not met all the requirements to qualify for the next level of administrator licensure.
- The five-year initial license for school administrators seeking licensure for the first time. To qualify, they must pass the Communication and Literacy Skills MTEL, earn the Sheltered English Immersion Endorsement, and complete a Performance Assessment for Initial License.
- The renewable professional license for fully credentialed school administrators who complete a one-year induction program with a trained mentor.
What skills do you need to be an education administrator?
School administrators in elementary, middle, and secondary schools, and in higher education, are more like business executives than like teachers. Organization skills, patience, problem-solving skills, and multitasking come in handy in school administration.
These professionals often have highly developed communication skills—the kind of leaders who can take a conversation or meeting in the direction it needs to go and also know when to stop talking and listen. They're also visionaries and optimists. They have a sense of what they want to accomplish in their schools, and when roadblocks arise, they find workarounds.
Effective school administrators believe in the power of education and that it's possible to make education better. Most importantly, they're realistic in assessing how school systems work now but confident that a better future is just around the corner.
What does the advancement path for school administrators look like?
Career advancement in education administration varies from state to state and from district to district. In general, however, aspiring school administrators launch careers as licensed teachers in whatever grade level they enjoy most. During their years in the classroom, they may study the responsibilities and work habits of administrators.
After pursuing and earning a graduate degree in education leadership, school administration, or instructional leadership, they'll do whatever else is necessary to get a school administrator license. Sometimes that involves a full-time internship or working in administration under the supervision of a designated mentor. Most administrators in higher-level leadership roles work as vice principals or principals before moving into positions like district superintendent, district director, dean of a college or university, or provost.
If you're currently a teacher, you can take steps right now to land an administrative position in the future. Getting a master's degree focused on leadership in education is one. Expressing an interest in administrative roles and taking on some administrative duties at your school is another. It's not unusual for schools and districts to promote from within when motivated and passionate teachers show an interest in leadership positions.
Do you have to be a teacher before you can become a school administrator?
It's technically possible to become a school administrator without working as a teacher first, just as it's technically possible to become a school administrator in some states with only a bachelor's degree. Most of the time, however, administrators have teaching experience. The Stanford study linked above found that more than 85 percent of principals were teachers first and typically amassed about a decade of experience in the classroom before making the transition. In some districts, that figure is much lower.
There are three main reasons so many educational administrators work as teachers first:
- Many master's degree programs focused on educational leadership require applicants to be licensed teachers with significant classroom experience.
- The administrator certification rules in many states require licensure candidates to have advanced degrees like a master's in education or even an education doctorate
- School administrators with teaching experience may be more effective. They understand what students and teachers need in ways career executives might not. They're better at evaluating teachers and curricula. Finally, they are keenly aware that success in education is about more than reducing costs.
How much do education administrators earn?
School administrator pay varies based on title and district salary schedules. Other factors like location, highest level of education, and work experience also play a role in calculating salary.
Elementary, middle school, and high school principals earn about $96,000. Vice principals and assistant principals earn anywhere from $75,000 to close to $90,000; vice principals in high schools earn the most. School superintendent salaries range from $95,000 all the way up to $260,000, according to the American Association of School Administrators' Superintendent Salary and Benefits Study.
Education administrators in states like Connecticut, California, New York, New Jersey, and Washington earn the highest average salaries, but it's worth noting that the cost of living in those states can be high; a bigger paycheck doesn't necessarily go as far.
Administrators with master's degrees also earn more. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that "education administrators had the highest percentage wage premium, with 44 percent higher wages for master's degree holders than for bachelor's degree holders."
Here's something else to consider: one reason school administrators are paid more than teachers is that they work year-round. You should also be aware that less experienced vice principals, principals, and other administrators only earn slightly more than the highest-paid teachers. It may take a while to reach your actual earning potential after switching from teaching to educational administration. "It was true that my salary increased," Suzanne Capek Tingley wrote in a post on Hey Teach, "but if I calculated the additional evening responsibilities and summer work, my hourly rate of pay remained about the same. My salary improved over time, though, and I ended up making more than I would have had I stayed in the classroom."
Is it worth going from teacher to administrator?
The answer depends on why you're making the change. You'll earn more money as a school administrator, but there are plenty of ways you can boost your earning potential without leaving the classroom. Plus, the income gap between teachers and administrators isn't that wide when you look at early career school administrator salaries.
You'll also work more hours in administrative roles and have a broader range of responsibilities. Teaching isn't an easy job, but the rewards of seeing students flourish are profound and can sometimes make up for less-than-stellar paychecks. Working as an administrator is challenging in an entirely different way and can be more stressful. You won't always see your work bear fruit right away, and you can't claim success unless your students, staff, and school are thriving.
Educational administrators in the United States can have a bigger impact than teachers, however, because their decisions affect hundreds or even thousands of students. That inspires many teachers who've dreamed of changing how students are taught and changing the system to transition into education administration. Effective administrators can transform schools—and even entire districts as they advance in their careers. They "facilitate learning experiences that inspire, interest, and actively involve students" and promote engagement among teachers. They resolve the kinds of logistical and interpersonal conflicts that impede learning. And they spend every working hour supporting others.
Do career school administrators get paid more than teachers? Yes. Do they get paid enough for what they do? Probably not. But like teaching, this isn't a job you do for the money. If you're thinking about transitioning into school administration because you want to make a difference, it will be worth it.
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