10 steps to becoming a principal


By Katy Curameng for UMass Global, an ACSA Partner4Purpose. Please find the original article here.

Becoming a principal of a school, whether it is at the elementary school, middle school, or high school level, can be a tough journey, and it’s not for everybody. Many teachers feel what they have to contribute is felt the deepest in the classroom and wish to impact student learning in that environment. But other educators are interested in being a principal and having a greater impact in the lives of children through leadership in the principal's office.

Like most occupations, there are many paths to becoming a principal but the most common (and often required) path is starting as a teacher. The specific requirements to becoming a principal, as well as the length of time it can take, also varies from state to state. There are some basic steps.

Earn your bachelor’s degree

Your bachelor's degree should be in line with the subject you intend to teach and/or the teaching credential you intend to pursue.

Earn your teaching credential

Either multiple subject or single subject depending on what you intend to teach. Credential programs are a great resource, not just a state requirement. Programs focus on Common Core standards and resources, including technology, that you can use inside and outside of the classroom.

Become a teacher and gain experience

Most schools will require a minimum of 1-3 years of teaching experience. Being a teacher will give you valuable experience in curriculum development, creating a safe learning environment, evaluating student work, and overall classroom management. This experience will help you understand what it takes to be a principal.

Teach various grade levels

The more experience you have with a wide age range of students, the more exposure you have to building knowledge.  Experience with multiple grades can help you have a better understanding for students and of the tools needed to provide for differing age groups. It also allows you to cultivate working relationships with more faculty members.

Get a master’s degree, including any state required licensing or credential

Most states will require the possession of an administrative or supervisory credential in addition to a Master of Educational Administration or Educational Leadership.


Take the opportunity to participate in school and community events.  Plan bake-sales, chaperone school dances, organize a book drive for a local library, etc.  Events are opportunities to contribute to your community's greater good, build leaderships skills and cultivate more relationships.

Research school public safety and security

Principals, administrators and teachers have the important responsibility of protecting children’s lives while on the school grounds. Understanding policies, procedures and strategies is important.  School safety training and conferences are great resources to prevent, identify and de-escalate possible confrontations.

Consider becoming a vice principal

Many intermediate and high school level institutions in larger areas hire vice principals.  Depending on the district, this role also may be known as a dean of students or assistant principal.  Since this position supports a principal, it is a great stepping stone to becoming one.

Create a plan of action

Research your local school district’s requirements to become a principal and then create a plan of action. Does your school require a school administrator license to become a principal?

Take your education to next level

Consider earning a Doctor of Education degree. In a competitive school district, this higher-education degree can be the edge you need to be hired as a principal and may potentially increase your wages.

What does a principal do?

A school principal operates as the educational leader of the school, providing a safe and productive learning environment for students. They are the face of the institution — not only to the students who attend but in the community it serves.

Some typical duties of a principal are:

  • Develop, implement and maintain curriculum standards and standards of conduct.
  • Identify goals and implement any activities to meet the core goals established.
  • Maintain the fiscal integrity of the budget, including when requesting or explaining funding for their school.
  • Evaluate the performance of the teachers and staff.
  • Establish and coordinate security procedures for students, staff and visitors.

The specific daily job duties of a principal will vary by the level of the school (elementary, middle or high school), the size of the student population and the school district. Larger schools may have additional resources, such as instructional coordinators or support staff, to assist with the workload. In smaller schools or districts, much of the day-to-day operation may fall on the principal. Typically principals will work year round, even during the summer, since this is the key time to be preparing for the upcoming school year.

If you’re not sure which level of school is right for you, think about how you see your role and how you want to interact with the students. For example, an elementary school principal will typically work with students between kindergarten to fifth or sixth grade. At this level, students need more nurturing and direct guidance, and you would likely have a great deal of interaction with parents. At the high school level, students begin to assert their freedoms and independence, and you may deal with more disciplinary or truancy problems. You would also likely help guide students with important life decisions such as college planning and preparation or other options after graduation. Each level has its benefits and challenges, so consider how you would best make your impact, given your own passions.

If this seems overwhelming, don’t forget all the positive aspects of leading a group of educators in the development of the next generation — the kids themselves! According to the principals who contribute at educationworld.com, the best part of the job is when they get to connect with students, whether it’s on the playground, in the hallways or when they do classroom visits. It’s connecting with the kids and seeing the impact that they have on their lives that make the job worth it. After all, it is all about the kids! Check out the Principal Files on educationworld.com for first-hand thoughts and experiences from principals in the field.

What is the average salary of a school principal per year?

While it varies from state to state and from district to district, depending on location and experience, the median annual wage for elementary, middle, and high school principals was $90,410 in May 2015. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $59,070, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $131,310.

Future employment growth for principals is largely dependent upon local school enrollment as well as state and local budgets. Nationally it is projected to grow 6 percent between 2014 and 2024, which is about as fast as the average for all occupations according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. You can research specific projections for your local area on their website here.

What does an assistant principal do?

Assistant principals, who are sometimes referred to as vice principals, support the principal with the functions related to school administration. Typically they are heavily involved with administrative tasks and are often responsible for enforcing disciplinary or attendance rules. In some districts, the assistant principal may be assigned to oversee areas such as student safety, academic counseling, a specific subject area such as literacy or math, or general facilities oversight. And they would also step in and fulfill the role of the principal in the principal's absence.

The typical career path to becoming an assistant principal is the same as becoming a principal, with the majority of states requiring public school assistant principals to have a school administrator or vice principal license. A good stop in your career path to becoming a principal is to spend a few years gaining administrative experience as an assistant principal. Assistant principals can work in private and public elementary, middle and high schools. The requirements for being an assistant principal at a private school may be less than those required of public school assistant principals, so do your research thoroughly for the different schools in your area.

What makes a good principal?

Every principal is different and will bring a variety of qualities and personality types to the job based on their education, background and years of experience. To be a qualified principal, you must have key knowledge, skills and abilities which you can read about here. The most successful principals strongly exhibit a few common qualities and traits.

Leadership is often stated as the most important trait of a successful principal. Being able to establish specific goals and objectives and design strategic plans to achieve them are vital. But equally important is people leadership and the ability to create a sense of community and family within the school, encouraging and building mutual trust and respect among each other. Good principals know they are not successful all on their own. The most successful ones recognize this and use their leadership to create other strong leaders and teachers around them.

Other common traits of the most successful principals are:

  • Student-centric – As the educational leader of the school, a good principal always makes decisions based upon what is best for the students, even when it isn’t the most popular decision. All decisions are well thought out with a deep regard for the progress and personal development of every single student.
  • A good listener – Show that you care about people by giving full attention when they speak and take the time to truly understand what they are saying. Listening objectively builds trust, so even when the problem cannot be solved, the person feels validated and heard. Listening to the concerns and ideas of teachers will give them a voice in the implementation of new ideas, which could benefit the overall success of the school and students.
  • Interpersonal communication – Having the ability to communicate effectively with staff, parents and students in a clear and respectful way is a critical trait. You need to be able to successfully represent your school and communicate its needs and requirements to superintendents and other community and state leaders.
  • Belief in lifelong learning – A good principal knows they must keep learning and growing and that they must inspire and encourage the teachers and educators around them down this same path by being a role model. By promoting and supporting teachers in their professional growth, they are also helping them excel in the classroom, which ultimately has a profound impact on student learning.  

Learn more about degree options and credentialing programs at UMass Global.

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