Online Degrees Blog How to become a principal—a step-by-step guide

How to become a principal—a step-by-step guide

09 February
Elementary school principal speaks in front of playground

Are you considering the rewarding career of becoming a school principal? This step-by-step guide unveils the essential journey to this crucial role in education administration and explores the necessary educational background, professional experience, and skills that can help make you an effective principal.

In this blog, you’ll learn how to stand out in the competitive field of educational leadership and discover answers to questions including 'How do I become a principal?' and 'What is the life of a principal?, 'How is a school principal chosen?, and is a school administrator the same as a principal?

Principals in action: A brief overview

A school’s principal is one of the most important positions in education administration. Principals are responsible for overseeing the operations for elementary, middle, and high schools. This includes classroom instruction, budget management, grant applications, and working with parents, teachers, and community leaders to provide the best education for students. They also play an integral role in helping teachers to become better educators and in mentoring students.

Although most school principals begin as teachers before moving into administrative positions, that’s not the only path you can take. Here is a step-by-step guide to getting you there.

1. Graduate with a bachelor’s degree.

The first step toward becoming a school principal is to complete your bachelor’s degree.1 A bachelor’s in education is the most common degree people earn in preparing for careers as teachers and, eventually, school principals or administrators. Alternatively, you might earn your degree in English, math, or another subject you're interested in teaching.

Most people spend a few years teaching, and some states require that candidates have a minimum amount of teaching experience, before moving on to administrative roles. Teaching, however, isn’t the only way to gain the necessary experience to become a principal. School counseling and other similar roles in educational settings can also equip you with the needed skills. The key is to choose an undergraduate degree program suited to your abilities and the position you hope to attain after graduating.

2. Earn your teaching certificate.

All states mandate that each public school teacher holds a certificate, sometimes called a license, but the specific requirements vary by state.2 If you plan to apply for teaching positions in multiple states, it might be best to apply for jobs first, then complete any requirements to get your license in the state where you’re hired. Most certificates will not transfer to other states.

Some states offer teacher certification reciprocity—a term that can be misleading because it doesn’t mean that certification from one state will automatically be valid in another state; most often, you must meet additional requirements in order to gain certification in a new state. The Education Commission of the States has information on teacher certification reciprocity, as well as links to each state commission and answers to questions on state licensing.3

3. Gain professional experience in educational settings.

Not every state requires teaching experience in order to become a principal, but even in the states where it’s not required, it might still be a good idea. Many states allow you to work as a substitute teacher during your undergraduate program to gain additional experience before entering a teaching career. If you cannot find a teaching job right after you graduate, substitute teaching can provide post-graduate experience and build your skills in areas such as classroom management, communication, and organization.

4. Pursue a master’s degree in education.

Most public and private schools in the U.S. require or strongly prefer that each principal and administrator holds a graduate degree. A master’s degree in education builds skills in:

  • Assessing the skills of other instructors
  • Helping educators improve their classroom instruction
  • Leading and managing a school
  • Communicating with students and parents
  • Dealing with legal issues
  • Managing a budget and pursuing funding opportunities
  • Hiring and managing staff and teachers
  • Developing cross-cultural skills to teach in diverse settings

Master’s programs can take two to three years, depending on the program and how quickly each student advances through it. Online master's programs allow students to expand their teaching experience and learn to become principals while continuing in their current professional roles. As part of your degree requirements, you’ll complete classroom instruction in person or online. Many programs also require completion of an internship, during which you’ll work alongside administrators to learn about the areas of a principal’s responsibility.

5. Diversify your skills and experience.

Teaching experience can help you succeed as a principal, but it’s certainly not the only thing you need. Principals fill many diverse roles at a school, so it’s essential to find ways to develop:

  • A student-centric outlook
  • Knowledge of current and projected future trends in education
  • A desire for lifelong learning
  • Interpersonal communication
  • Skill at problem-solving, leadership, and organization

To gain real-world experience in these areas, join committees or take on leadership roles during your time as a teacher. If you’re not ready to become a principal yet, consider applying for work as a vice principal. To broaden your knowledge and experience, find courses and events through state and national school administrator organizations, including:

  • The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP)
  • The National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP)
  • The American Association of School Superintendents (AASA)

6. Understand your state’s requirements.

To be hired as a principal, you need current teaching licensure and certification, and some states require that principals maintain up-to-date teaching licenses throughout their principalships. Check the state guidelines to ensure that all of your licensing and certifications are current before you begin submitting applications.4

7. Apply for a position.

Once you complete your master's degree and have the right experience, apply for principalships and showcase your qualifications. Late in 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics identified 283,200 jobs for elementary, middle, and high school principals in the U.S., with an average salary of $96,400 a year.5 It's a relatively small job field compared to most, which means that education and experience can set you apart from other applicants.

Schools need visionary leaders. This is your time.

Prepare for your successful leadership career—as principal, dean, department head, instructional coach, athletic director, or in other positions of guidance and governance—in the online master’s programs of KU’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. Cultivate your skills, deepen your academic expertise and earn the qualifications you need in this fully online program, all while continuing in your current educational role.