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How to Become a School Principal: Career Advancement for Educators

June 21, 2019

A career as a school principal provides a perfect opportunity for college graduates and educators of all stripes to make a significant impact in elementary and secondary education. As the head of school operations, principals are crucial pieces in the education machine.

What Does a Principal Do?

School principals carry out a wide variety of functions. At their core, they are responsible for developing the school culture, managing the staff, and ensuring that each student is receiving a quality learning experience. While principals may not set the exact curriculum, they ensure that teachers have the resources they need to teach effectively. They also work with coaches and other staff members, making sure the school is functioning properly to allow them to do what they do best. Finally, they serve the school district and the state’s overall mission, seeing to it that the school follows district and state standards.

Because the school principal acts as the primary point of contact for the school community, the daily life of a principal is generally a whirlwind of activity. In addition to maintaining regular communication with parents, PTO/PTA groups, the local school board, staff, and faculty, they also must interact with the student community. Often this happens by maintaining a presence in the halls, popping in on classes, and leading school assemblies.

How to Become a Principal

While there is no one set path to a career as principal of an elementary, middle, or high school, there are a few key steps that any suitable candidate needs to take.

Establish a Background in Education

Most principals arrive at the position only after establishing themselves as strong educators. Typically, they have several years of experience in the classroom, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). To support this experience, they likely will have earned their state teaching certificate as well as an undergraduate degree in education or a field related to their area of expertise, such as English, science, or mathematics. It is this work within the education system that helps aspiring school principals understand the needs of their students and the institution as a whole.

Earn an Advanced Degree in Education

In most states, those interested in a principal position will need to obtain at least a master’s degree. Often, this degree is in a field such as educational leadership or educational administration, according to the BLS. Many states require internships during graduate work, while some require that candidates maintain a certain GPA.

Beyond a master’s degree, a Doctorate in Education (EdD) will provide those seeking a principal position with the leadership skills they need to implement organizational change, manage a diverse staff, and guide students to success. This terminal degree often builds on ample real-life experience to help students gain the confidence to become a force for positive impact in the educational arena.

Gain an Education Administration License

Each state in the U.S. has its own procedures to get licensed as a school principal. For example, in Pennsylvania, candidates need to have three years of professional experience and a 3.0 GPA in a graduate-level degree program that includes an internship, and they must take and pass an aptitude test administered by the state. In Nebraska, administrative professionals need two years of administrative work experience on top of their master’s degree, which must include 60 graduate hours of specified coursework in an approved program, plus further special training and aptitude tests.

If you’re looking into how to become a school principal, make sure you’re aware of the individual requirements for your state and that the advanced degree you receive fits those standards.

Salaries of a Principal

According to the BLS, the median salary for elementary, middle, and high school principals within the public school system was $96,760 in May 2018. That was just about $5,000 more than the median salary for other management occupations and about triple the median salary for all occupations ($38,640). Principals earning salaries in the top 10 percent of the range made over $144,000 annually, while those earning salaries in the bottom 10 percent still made over $60,000 per year. Private school principals, by comparison, had a median salary of $84,990 per year.

Salaries may vary based on geographical region and school type. For example, a private school may offer a different salary range than a charter school or a public school. In addition, school principals may increase their salary as they gain experience.

Future Growth Principals

The BLS projects that between 2016 and 2026, the U.S. economy will add 19,800 school principal jobs to the workforce, which is an 8 percent growth rate. That increase in job opportunities is on par with other management occupations and a percentage point higher than the national average for all occupations. As expected, the job growth of principals is directly tied to the opening of new schools; the more schools that open in any given year, the more opportunities will exist.

Learn More

There’s no doubt that it takes years of hard work and study to become a school principal, but the result can be extremely rewarding. An award-winning program like American University’s Doctorate of Education can help you impact thousands of young lives as an elementary, middle, or high school principal.