So You Want to Be a Principal: Steps You Should Take

  (Updated February 16, 2022)
Dr. Benjamin Washington
Dr. Benjamin Washington
High School Assistant Principal; Ed.D. Educational Leadership
Male teacher smiling and standing in the front of a classroom with his arms crossed.

School leadership is a rewarding experience that comes with many different aspects. The school building has various moving pieces that work together for the benefit of the student. Whether it is facilitating school-wide instruction, building relationships in the community, or implementing school district policies, leadership for the principal comes in many forms.

Effective teachers are well-versed in specific curriculums and teaching and learning experiences, while effective principals facilitate the art of leadership and collaboration. For those who want to become a principal, it is important to understand what a principal does and how they impact students daily.

Why Should an Educator Consider a Principal Position?

Becoming a school principal is a rewarding experience. For educators who aspire to lead outside of their classroom, becoming an assistant principal or principal is a path to leadership. As a building-level administrator, the principal makes a broad impact on instruction, student achievement, and community building.

Some educators may feel the calling to move from out of their classroom and make a different impact on the school. Others may want a salary increase and career advancement. Regardless of why, becoming a principal can be beneficial.

The benefits of being a principal come from impacting students and their families. Considering a principalship comes after years of teaching or advancing from teacher to assistant principal. These are both pathways that give the educator experiences to bring to their new position as a principal.

Personal Skills to Develop

The school principal must wear many hats. An effective school administrator must advocate for students and teachers, be an expert with instructional leadership, and be a community liaison. An effective principal’s personal skills include communication, organization, and consistency.

Teachers and students need encouragement, and parents need reassurance that the school is doing what is best for their child. The school principal as a leader shares the school’s mission and vision with staff and implements it daily by collaborating with teachers, counselors, and community stakeholders.

Another benefit of being a school administrator is that the leader’s skills are constantly growing. To be effective, the principal must stay up to date with the latest school leadership trends, policies, and expectations and provide opportunities for the professional development of their staff.

This enables the principal to constantly seek new opportunities for growth for themselves and the teachers and students they serve daily. The skills of communication, vision sharing, teacher evaluation, and collaboration all contribute to the success of the school and the students it serves.

Required Education

In order to become a principal, one must first be a teacher. To become a teacher, the prospective educator must obtain a bachelor’s degree in a particular area such as elementary or secondary education. Once this is done, the educator must have a graduate degree in educational leadership or educational administration to be a principal. Examples of courses in these programs include:

  • School law
  • School and community relations
  • Supervision and evaluation of teachers
  • Curriculum management
  • Ethical leadership

Some states require only a certification in education administration. However, the majority of education programs have the certification as part of their master’s degree. These programs have concentrations for elementary principal certification and secondary principal certification, although some programs have a K-12 certification.

Furthermore, many principals obtain an Ed.D. or Ph.D. in educational leadership or curriculum and instruction, although it is not required for the principalship. For principals who obtain a doctorate, they may want to go even further to a position such as assistant superintendent or superintendent.

In addition to the formal education received, principals are constantly learning new ways to lead and help others grow. For this to happen, the effective principal continuously seeks opportunities to grow professionally.

Professional Opportunities

For building-level leaders and principals, there are opportunities for professional development. Some school districts have leadership academies for assistant principals who aspire to become principals. Additionally, there are principal induction programs that have veteran administrators mentor first- and second-year principals.

According to the New York Leadership Academy, research shows that rural principals who do not have access to principal induction programs result in 90% of principals leaving the position or returning to the classroom. However, most states have a form of principal induction program either in the local district or the state department of education.

Furthermore, organizations such as the National Association of Elementary School Principals and National Association of Secondary School Principals offer professional development and networking opportunities. As principals continue to pursue professional opportunities to grow, there are other paths their career can take.

Career Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics the median salary for elementary, middle, and high school principals is $98,490 per year. Between 2020 and 2030, employment for school principals is expected to grow by 8%. Many successful principals continue their path forward by becoming directors of elementary or secondary education or superintendents.

Overall, the impact a principal makes with others influences school culture and further personal and career growth opportunities. Becoming a school principal is a positive path for leaders who want to make a systematic change and lead students and teachers towards success.

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