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How to Become a Principal: Skills, Salary & Outlook

November 10, 2022

A school principal can inspire an entire community of students, teachers, and parents. At the same time, principals guide schools as institutions, charting their courses in a way that can ensure the best educational experience possible.

A principal’s work can have a profound impact on a school, its students, and the community. Those who follow the steps for how to become a principal will have the opportunity to lead in a way that positively influences others, making this role one of the most satisfying in the educational field.

What Is a Principal?

A principal guides a school’s operations, developing and maintaining an educational environment that allows students to thrive. Ideally, principals work to level the educational playing field, ensuring a positive experience for students regardless of their location or socioeconomic status. Their work can therefore have a substantial impact outside the school, as they can play a key role in helping communities build a reputation for promoting and maintaining educational excellence.

What Does a Principal Do?

A principal oversees a school’s day-to-day operations. It’s a big job, usually requiring early mornings and late evenings. Leading a team of teachers and staff, the principal is responsible for the following:

  • Determining class scheduling and school maintenance
  • Developing and implementing curriculum standards
  • Evaluating teacher performance and providing recommendations for development
  • Assessing test scores and preparing reports for improvement
  • Managing the school budget
  • Enforcing rules and programs set by district, state, and federal regulations
  • Providing disciplinary action for students and parents
  • Contributing to the improvement, growth, and performance of students and teachers

Steps to Becoming a Principal 

Understanding how to become a principal is essential to pursuing the role. It’s a journey made up of several steps.

Education Requirements               

Prospective principals must earn a relevant master’s degree, depending on how they choose to enter the education field. This could mean earning a Master of Education in Education Policy and Leadership, a Master of Arts in Teaching, or a master’s in educational administration. A master’s program can equip future principals with skills in budgeting, leadership through collaboration, working with the community, and equitable practices. Some students may also choose to pursue a doctoral degree in education policy to further hone their expertise. 

An education doctorate prepares educators to become scholarly practitioners and stewards who meet the future challenges of the teaching profession.

Experience Requirements               

All principals begin their careers as teachers, and they must gain several years of experience as a teacher prior to pursuing a role as principal—typically one to five years, depending on the school. As leaders of their classrooms, teachers create a positive atmosphere in which students can learn and build confidence. Teachers must hold a bachelor’s degree in either education or a related field to teach. Beginning teachers can improve their leadership skills and gain administrative experience by volunteering to supervise school programs.

Licensing Requirements               

As a final requirement for working in a public school, a principal must have a state-issued license as a school administrator. The license requirements vary by state, but typically a principal must have a master’s degree and will have to pass an exam and background check prior to working. Principals in private schools may not have to obtain a license, although this can vary by state and school.

Completing these steps can be rewarding in ways that go beyond personal satisfaction. The 2021 median annual salary of elementary, middle, and high school principals was $98,420, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). There is a projected 8 percent job growth for the profession between 2020 and 2030, also per the BLS.

Five Skills for Principals 

While education and licensing requirements provide tangible steps to becoming a principal, there are five key skills that are also necessary for success.

1. Communication               

Developing communication skills is a life-long endeavor. Successful principals know how to keep an open and transparent dialogue with all members of their school community. A principal must listen to the concerns of teachers and parents, and learn how to address those concerns with understanding and empathy.

2. Critical Thinking               

A principal reads test score reports, new procedures, curriculum programs, and much more on an ongoing basis. A principal must learn to be objective in analyzing and applying this abundance of information, and understand how results and processes may impact their school.

3. Problem Solving               

The principal is responsible for setting the operational plan at the beginning of the school year. But, as is always the case, there will be unexpected challenges such as budget constraints, student incidents, and other issues. Using critical thinking and communication, a principal must discover the underlying problem that causes an operational issue and set a plan to correct it, bringing in support if needed.

4. Decision Making               

Principals make decisions based on what is best for their students and staff. Many factors need to be considered and understood when deciding on a course of action. It can be challenging to make the right decision for everyone. It’s a principal’s responsibility to involve the right people and apply the proper information to make a well-supported decision.

5. Leadership               

A strong and vibrant teaching team is usually the result of excellent leadership by the school principal. A principal is not only responsible for overseeing teachers, but also for building a group of leaders. One strategy is to ensure everyone has the right qualifications, skills, and support to succeed.

Pursue a Transformative Role in Education 

When you become a principal, you have the opportunity to guide a school toward consistent academic excellence. More importantly, you will have an impact on students that can last a lifetime. As a principal, your work can turn the children of today into thoughtful and prepared adults who can shape our future, a calling that’s not only satisfying, but crucial.

American University offers three programs to help prepare you for this important role. Our online Master of Arts in Teaching, online Master of Education in Education Policy and Leadership, and online EdD in Education Policy and Leadership programs can help you develop the knowledge and skills you need to thrive in an educational leadership role, such as a principal. Learn how we can help you make a profound impact in the lives of others through education.