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Everything you need to know about being a school administrator

Being a school administrator

We often hear that it takes a special type of person to thrive as a teacher. The most effective educators seem to have continuous streams of compassion and vast supplies of patience embedded in their DNA. And that doesn’t even cover the impeccable planning and organizational skills they draw upon to craft engaging, informative lesson plans.

But not every educator wants to teach in the classroom for their entire life. If you’re interested in moving beyond being a teacher leader and taking your career to the next level, you may want to consider a position as a school administrator.

Generally speaking, administrative positions in schools afford you the opportunity to take on a leadership role, impacting organizational decisions related to hiring, budget allocation, policy and more. If that piques your interest, read on as we sift through some of the job titles within school administration. We’ll also cover the typical duties a school administrator may encounter and the educational requirements you’ll need to get there.

What is a school administrator? A look at the career options

School administration encompasses career paths ranging from the primary school level all the way to the collegiate system. While daily duties may vary depending on the job title, these professionals share some common overarching responsibilities: assisting students, supporting faculty, maintaining academic records and more.

School administrators typically work a 12-month year. During the summers, their efforts may focus more on hiring new teachers, coordinating infrastructure maintenance or managing curriculum development.

Different job titles may require different skills, but the best candidates for most school administrator positions are typically compassionate, adaptable, patient and organized. They must also be well-versed in collaboration and negotiation in order to effectively advocate for policies that benefit the school.

Potential job titles within the umbrella of school administration include the following:

  • Principal
  • Assistant principal
  • Superintendent
  • Dean of students
  • Dean of admissions
  • Provost
  • Department chair

What does a school administrator do?

Now that you’re familiar with some of the different positions available within school administration, you’re likely curious about their day-to-day duties. It’s easiest to separate them into a few categories.

At the primary and secondary school levels

You’ll find principals, assistant principals and superintendents in elementary, middle and high schools. Principals manage all school operations. This can include overseeing daily school activities, coordinating curricula, providing a safe and productive learning environment for students, and more.

School principals also evaluate teachers’ performance and manage budgets. While the principal typically handles issues related to the school and its personnel, assistant principals — also referred to as vice principals — help with student discipline, scheduling and other day-to-day issues.

What does a school administrator do if they don’t fit into those roles? Consider superintendents, who are responsible for overseeing an entire school district. You might consider these professionals the CEOs of their districts. Not only are superintendents responsible for hiring, supervising and managing the central staff and principals, but they also respond to the demands of other parties within the district — people like parents, advocates and the community at large.

At the postsecondary school level

Deans, provosts and department chairs are some of the educational leaders you’ll find at the collegiate level. A dean of students is responsible for overseeing the conduct and general well-being of a college or university’s student body. They meet with students and advise them on personal problems, academics or housing. In this role, administrators may also create and oversee student services and campus life activities.

Deans of admissions can also be responsible for deciding whether prospective students should be admitted to their college or university. The details of this task include determining how many new students can be admitted, reviewing applications and analyzing data about applicants and admitted students.

Provosts — also called chief academic officers — assist college presidents and chancellors in making faculty hiring and tenure decisions, developing academic policies and managing budgets. They may also be responsible for overseeing faculty research.

The collegiate school administrator role that many of us are most familiar with is the department chair, referred to as associate dean at some schools. One faculty member from each department fills this role. Department chairs and associate deans act as liaisons between students and faculty in their respective departments, assisting with things like student complaints about professors, disputed grades, or allegations of harassment or discrimination.

How to become an administrator

So how can you pursue one of these school administrator roles? It depends on the education level in which you’re involved.

At the primary and secondary school levels

To become a principal, you’ll first need to garner several years of work experience as a teacher. Principals also typically require a master’s degree in educational leadership or educational administration and state-specific principal licensure. Candidates who have a diverse range of experiences as well as expertise in topics like public safety and security are especially in demand.

Vice principals also begin their careers as baccalaureate-qualified teachers. After garnering some classroom experience, educators with their sights set on assistant principal positions will want to pursue a master’s degree in educational leadership or educational administration.

While it’s not required, many administrators find that the most effective path toward becoming a superintendent is to first serve as a principal. This would require a master’s degree in an appropriate field. Most candidates work as a principal for 5 to 10 years before pursuing a superintendent position. In competitive markets, a doctoral degree in education can give hopefuls a leg up.

At the postsecondary school level

In general, administrative positions in schools at the college level require at least a master’s degree in a field like educational leadership or educational administration. That said, some small colleges or community colleges consider a bachelor’s degree sufficient.

The outliers are provost and dean positions, which often seek candidates with doctoral degrees. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports those who began their careers as professors may possess a doctorate in the field they taught while other provosts and deans will have earned a Ph.D. in higher education or a related subject.

Department chairs are required to hold full-time faculty status as an assistant or associate professor to be eligible for appointment. Most of the successful department chair candidates have at least five years of experience along with graduate degrees in their fields. 

While many college administrator roles require several years of experience in a postsecondary administrative setting, some positions — such as roles in admissions or student affairs — are less dependent on prior administrative experience.

Work your way toward a role in educational leadership

If you’ve been considering the idea of advancing to a school administrator position, now you have a better idea of how to make it happen. In all likelihood, you’ll want to consider advancing your education.

To learn more about your options for school admin programs, take a look at University of Massachusetts Global’s master’s in educational leadership and administration, which includes a California-approved preliminary administrative services credential.

 

*This article was originally published in 2019 and was last updated in May 2021.

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