Transitioning from Principal to Superintendent

Jon Julius
Jon Julius
K-12 superintendent; Ph.D. in Education Administration
The word ‘superintendent’ shown in a dictionary.

If you have made the transition from teaching to administration, you may be thinking about an eventual step into the role of superintendent. Though the job is challenging, it has its share of rewards as well. Weighing the options will be helpful in determining whether another transition is warranted in your career path. It is important to realize your interests, along with your strengths and weaknesses before deciding to make the move.

Differences Between Principal and Superintendent

Going from building level administration to the district level can be quite a big step, depending on the size of the school system. Perhaps the biggest difference might be the accountability aspect. Typically, a principal reports to a higher level administrator. Being a superintendent, however, requires a seven-member board to support high-level decision-making. There are also many stakeholders in the district that the superintendent must be in communication with. Managing this many people can be cumbersome at times, considering the personalities, levels of involvement, or potential political agendas of board members. It is quite a different dynamic when elected officials essentially become a supervisor of an educational professional.

The job itself is also quite different. Principals typically handle day-to-day operations of a building and have interaction with teachers and students on a daily basis. Many of the principal’s tasks are time sensitive. Conversely, the superintendent is removed from these daily interactions and is often housed away from the school buildings in a separate office. While a superintendent’s work generally contains timelines for tasks, they aren’t generally as urgent as those at the building level. You might often hear of the term “putting out fires”. The principal puts out the candles every day while the superintendent fights the house fires that happen a few times a year.

With bigger problems to handle as a superintendent, good decision-making skills are a must and developing a support system capable of giving sound, unbiased advice is something that can be very advantageous. At the principal level, bouncing ideas off of fellow administrators in the same district is typical. At the superintendent level, many issues may need the advice of higher-level administrators from neighboring school districts or other mentors familiar with district-level decision making. Stress from this pressure, among other things, can be tasking which makes personal health something to keep in check more so than in the principalship.

Requirements to Become a Superintendent 

Typically, the requirements for attaining a superintendent position has multiple layers. A potential candidate must first acquire a teaching license. An administrative endorsement is the next step and can be obtained by teaching for at least two years and earning a master’s degree in education administration. Working as a building-level administrator for two years and further coursework to attain a specialist degree in education is a requirement as well.

Some choose to go further and complete a doctorate degree or chief school business official endorsement. Doing so would qualify them for other positions in education as well. Aside from the coursework and licenses, don’t underestimate character, integrity, and experience. These are things that help land the job, and the ability to develop fulfilling relationships will make the job easier.

Transitioning from Principal to Superintendent

School administration is a challenging, yet rewarding career path. Middle-level management professionals thinking about moving to higher-level leadership may have some things to think about before doing so. If being a principal is overwhelming, taking on a superintendent position is not likely to help matters. The day-to-day stressors may be a little more manageable in the role, but the pressure of the job can be demanding. Dealing with bigger decisions, district-level concerns, and bigger budgets should not go underestimated.

There is also a distance from students and teachers that some superintendents don’t enjoy. After all, superintendents are former teachers and much of the reason teachers go into the education profession is to be around kids and make an impact on them. Often, it is difficult for a superintendent to see the direct effects of district-level decisions on students on a daily basis. Thus, these are things to seriously consider before pursuing becoming a superintendent.

Some considerations to make the transition from principal to superintendent easier might include shadowing your current superintendent and being inquisitive of what the major pros and cons of the job are. Some degree programs require an internship, which would be quite beneficial for learning the job. Speaking with board members and learning their expectations of the superintendent role would also be beneficial. Filling the role of interim superintendent or assistant superintendent may disclose the most information about the job.

Despite the enormous responsibilities and challenges, there are rewards. Having the ability to make high-level decisions and working with people in various industries keeps the job interesting. Being looked upon as an influential voice in the field and for the next generation carries with it a feeling of appreciation. There are also financial rewards. Even though most people don’t get into education for the money, most district-level administrators earn a respectable salary. Even though administrators typically work quite a few more hours than teachers, it is still a worthwhile venture.

There aren’t an abundance of superintendent jobs available, but there is also not a large pool of applicants due to the qualification requirements. This makes demand relatively high. Carefully considering factors that support the upward move and finding cohorts with experience in the profession will be invaluable in the transition.

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