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How to become a school principal: Your step-by-step guide toward educational leadership

become a principal

As an experienced teacher who’s had a tremendous impact on students, it makes perfect sense to begin considering how you can take your career to the next level. Becoming a school principal could be the perfect opportunity. In this leadership role, you could use the skills and experience you gained in the classroom to influence and improve a school as a whole.

Before you make a career-changing decision, you probably have some questions. What degree do you need to be a principal? What are some typical job duties? What principal requirements will you need to meet?

We have the answers to all these questions and more. So keep reading to review the important information you need to know about becoming a school principal.

What does a principal do?

You likely have a decent idea of some basic school principal duties, but there’s a lot to the role you may not realize. A principal is the educational leader of a school, reporting to the superintendent who oversees its district. Daily responsibilities will vary depending upon the size of the school and its resources.

In general, the principal fulfills several key functions:

  • Teacher leader: Guides academic goal setting and curriculum development as well as teacher evaluation.
  • School leader: Manages operations, oversees budget needs, organizes district-level policy and coordinates security and safety.
  • Student advocate: Assesses student needs, addresses parent concerns, manages student relations and handles disciplinary actions.
  • Public representative: Advocates for school needs, justifies funding to legislators and addresses community concerns.

How to become a school principal

If you’re currently a teacher, you’ve already fulfilled one of the most important principal requirements: being a licensed, experienced educator with at least a bachelor’s-level degree. But hiring managers won’t stop there. They’ll be looking for the experience, credentials and attributes that show you will be an effective education leader.

Here are a few steps you can take to help you build both the necessary and preferred principal requirements:

1. Diversify your teaching experience

Most schools require several years of teaching experience before becoming a school principal—and that’s just a minimum. Once in the position, you’ll have to understand the needs of a variety of student segments.

Taking steps to make sure your experience includes a range of educational settings can be beneficial. But as a busy teacher who has limited opportunities to vary your experience in your day-to-day work, it can be difficult to pinpoint ways you can diversify.

Dr. Patricia Clark White, dean of the School of Education at University of Massachusetts Global, suggests discussing these aspirations with your current school leadership. “Talk with your principal about your interest in preparing for that type of position. Ask if you can shadow him or her,” Dr. Clark White advises. “Volunteer to take on some of the tasks the principal does, like duty schedules, budget monitoring, student discipline, chairing school committees, working with the PTA on fundraisers and parent education.”

Other options include working with children in extracurricular activities or programs for kids with specific abilities and even getting involved with local youth clubs that operate outside of your specific school district. Compiling diverse experiences like these will help you be prepared to take on school principal duties when the time comes.

2. Develop relationships in your school and community

Leadership skills are near the top of the list of principal requirements. One way to develop expertise in this area is to volunteer in your community and organize groups within and outside of your school.

You may choose to plan fundraising opportunities for much-needed school supplies. You might advocate for teachers who need extra support in challenging classrooms. You could even organize opportunities for students to give back to their communities and build skills in the process. You can demonstrate leadership skills and cultivate important relationships by serving your community—all while bolstering your resume for becoming a principal.

3. Build expertise in public safety and security

In today’s world, school principals must be aware of safety and security issues from a wide range of perspectives. They may need to address bullying, harassment, emergency procedures and even violence. Parents, students, faculty and staff all want to foster a school environment that protects their rights and safety.

How can you build this expertise? Attend trainings or conferences about school safety to learn how you can address these concerns in your school district. By learning about policies in your school and others, you can better develop, implement and improve safety policies when you become a principal.

4. Research and network with school districts that have opportunities for growth

Like it or not, networking is an important part of getting any job. As early as you can, start researching what types of schools you might want to work in. Consider your own professional goals, how you want to impact students and where you’ll find the kind of career opportunities you want.

You may discover you’d prefer becoming a principal in a smaller school that allows you to work one-on-one with students. Or perhaps you want to work in a larger, more complex environment. By expressing your interest and curiosity in these areas or attending conferences where you can meet peers, you’ll be better connected with those who can impact your future professional life.

5. Explore “stepping-stone” roles

Not all teachers can easily make the leap from faculty member to principal. And not all schools are set up for that direct transition. Depending upon the size of the school and its resources, the principal may or may not have support staff who assist in school administration and management.

Start looking for job postings like “vice principal,” “assistant principal” or “instructional coordinator.” Roles like these provide opportunities to demonstrate your skills and become familiar with the realities of school leadership. You’ll be able to point to specific initiatives you’ve completed and show you have what it takes to tackle the challenges of being a school principal.

6. Research and pursue required licensing in your state

On the path to building experience, don’t forget to look at your state’s requirements for school principals. Most states require public school principals to be licensed as school administrators. Private schools, however, typically do not. Do note that principal requirements vary from state to state, so you’ll want to make sure to do your research.

California, for example, boasts a two-tiered credentialing process. The first credential is a Preliminary Administrative Services credential, which is good for five years. The second is a Clear Administrative Services Credential, which can qualify you to be a school administrator in the state indefinitely. Those coming from out of state to teach in California will need to ensure their qualifications are aligned with the state’s regulations.

7. Pursue an advanced degree

The minimum requirement for elementary, middle and high school principals is a bachelor’s degree. But the typical entry-level education is a master’s degree or higher. Why? Because school districts look for education leadership skills and knowledge that are distinct from classroom teaching.

A master’s degree focused on education administration can help you prepare to manage staff, develop budgets, evaluate and develop curriculum, and handle education policy issues. Pursuing a relevant, advanced degree in education is one of the most important steps you can take in becoming a principal. And since earning your degree can take time, it’s wise to start exploring your options early.

Keys to success when you become a school principal

You may have all the qualifications to become a school principal, but what will help you succeed when you get there? Excelling in this role requires soft skills, according to Dr. Kathy Theuer, professor and associate dean of University of Massachusetts Global’s School of Education. Things like collaboration, communication and active listening are must-haves in her opinion. You’ll also need to be comfortable with public speaking and be willing to act as a mentor to both staff and students.

Becoming a principal will provide you the opportunity to lead transformational change that improves schools and school systems. And it gives you the chance to empower others and nurture their talents. This position allows you to make a difference in the lives of students, teachers, staff and your community.

Other FAQs about becoming a principal

You now have a better understanding of typical school principal duties and how you can prepare for them. But you may have some lingering questions as you consider pursuing this important role. Consider the following information:

What degree do you need to be a principal?

We used real-time market analysis data to examine nearly 9,000 school principal jobs posted in the past year. The data shows that a majority of postings (57 percent) require at least a master’s degree.* In fact, a doctoral degree is often preferred for this level of leadership.

How much do principals make?

The additional responsibilities that principals take on are rewarded with additional compensation. School principal salaries are influenced by factors like years of experience, level of education, geographic location, type of institution and more. But all things considered, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports the average principal salary in 2020 was $98,490 annually.

What are the most important skills for principals?

We covered the common principal requirements as they relate to education and training, but what skills are most desired by employers? According to the analysis of school principal jobs, the following skills are in highest demand*:

  • Teaching
  • Budgeting
  • Scheduling
  • Staff management and development
  • Special education
  • Educational programs
  • Project management
  • Curriculum and lesson planning
  • Community relations
  • Conflict management

Start on your path to becoming a principal

Even the most effective teacher relies on strong school guidance. If you think becoming a school principal could suit your personality, career goals and desire to positively impact students, consider the advice above to help you prepare for this educational leadership role.

Now that you know more about how to become a principal and the duties involved, you can begin taking active steps towards acquiring the necessary experience and education to meet the typical principal requirements. University of Massachusetts Global has a long history of training successful educational leaders by providing quality education with the flexibility you need to advance your career.

Learn more about how our Master of Arts in Educational Leadership and Administration program can take your career to the next level.


*Burning-Glass.com (analysis of 8,849 school principal job postings that listed minimum education requirements, April 01, 2020 – March 31, 2021)

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