How to Become a School Principal

Deciding to become a school principal is a lot like deciding to become a superhero, only with more steps involved.

Becoming a superhero is simple. Find the radioactive bug, get bit, and presto! You’re off to save the day. As we’ll see, the life and role of a school principal often involves a lot of day saving, but before you become an academic wonder woman there’s a few ducks you have to put in a row. It can be quite the process, and it’s not for the faint of heart, but then again, most things that make an impact aren’t. So if you’re feeling up to this call, let’s take a look at how you become a school principal.

What do school principals do?

Those of you already knee deep into the instructional and academic world likely already have some sort of idea as to the myriad of things that occupy a principal’s time. For others, maybe you just tremble in fear a bit remembering your own principal as a menacing revolving door for misbehaving kids, angry parents, and faltering teachers. Regardless of what images come to mind, before we can venture any further down the path of how to be a principal, we’ve got to clear the air as to what exactly a principal does.

The short answer is: everything! Some would even say they do too much. But in all reality, to be a principal means to wear many hats. No matter how you frame it, it’s no secret that the daily grind of a principal, be it a high school principal, elementary school principal, or anything in between is very, very full. Granted, the formal requirements as stated in a job description may vary from district to district, but the following are 10 requirements you’ll likely encounter should you choose to become a school principal.

1) Hiring – To become a principal is to become the gateway to your school. One of the primary responsibilities a principal has is to equip the school with the best quality of instructors they can. A school of top-notch teachers not only reflects well on a principal, but can exponentially reduce the burden of some of the other responsibilities a principal will encounter.

2) Budget – The money issues a principal has to deal with are often considered among the least favorite responsibilities a principal has to manage. Schools are often underfunded, and it falls onto your shoulders as a principal to stretch the budget if you are to realize the goal of empowering your students and teachers. Unfortunately, such a task will also mean making the hard call of cutting funding in certain areas when necessary.

3) Community Relations – one of the requirements to be a school principal that is often overlooked is your responsibility to the greater community you find yourself in. You don’t just become a school principal, you become a recognized leader in the community. As such, you’ll now get to network with other local leaders, organizations, parents, and residents about engaging in the academic well-being of the community.

4) Curriculum Development – Curriculum and program development is perhaps the crux of your responsibility as a principal. The National Association of Elementary School Principals notes that among the most important tasks of a principal is ensuring that all students are provided a quality instructional program. In other words, a principal gets to make sure that students learn and learn well!

5) Parent Issues – Few principals love it, but to become a school principal means you will inevitably be spending a lot of time with parents, some being awesome, others not so much. Some principals do as many as 10 parent meetings a week, and, beyond just those meetings, you must still be willing and ready to give a listening ear to parent complaints. In addition, principals play a crucial role in keeping parents informed on school operations, as well as figure out how to address learning complications stemming from a student’s home experience.

6) Discipline – Perhaps the most notorious of job responsibilities you will face as a principal is dealing with discipline issues. Every administrator has their methods, and no two cases or students are exactly alike, which is perhaps why so many principals actually enjoy this part of the role. It’s here that you get to connect with the students of your school, give them a listening ear, and make efforts to address behavior in a way that encourages learning and transformation on a personal level.

7) Facility Management – Many people wanting to become principals overlook this aspect of the job, but looking after and maintaining a vision for the physical direction of the school facilities is another crucial responsibility. Principals have to evaluate and anticipate how their facilities could be improved to better house a great learning atmosphere. This could include everything for updating the library to pushing for better plumbing!

8) Program Evaluation – At the end of the day as a principal, you are the driving force behind the mission and methods used in a school to ensure learning. This is more than just formulating a vision and going for it. It also requires constant evaluation to ensure it’s being fulfilled and making adjustments to the program when necessary.

9) Student Assessment – In conjunction with evaluating the success of initiatives and programs, a good principal must also be aware of the progress of their students. Great principals can engage this on a mass scale by assessing test scores and the general performance of the student population as a whole. But additionally, a principal gets to approach this responsibility through connecting with students on individual levels to assess their progress and offer guidance accordingly.

10) Teacher Evaluation – Finally, and perhaps one of the most crucial roles you’ll engage in should you become a school principal is your responsibility to evaluating, coaching, and mentoring teachers. This can be a very delicate task mainly in part because, as other principals have remarked, it’s not a one size fits all method. It requires actually knowing your teachers, playing to their strengths, being the encouragement when needed, and the strong rebuke when necessary as well.

If you’re the type that dreads the monotonous, and fears doing the same exact thing every single day, then becoming a principal is actually a pretty good move for you. The variation and chaos among your job responsibilities can be the source of a good deal of stress, but it is also one of the most rewarding and growing elements as well.

What are important principal skills?

Judging by the amount of responsibilities we just listed that you will be expected to fulfill any given day of the week as a principal, it goes without saying that your skill set will also have to be pretty broad and flexible. To simplify things, let’s divide the skills you’ll need into two categories: hard skills and soft skills. Hard skills are those tangible, concrete skills that will make your work as a principal organized, efficient, and effective on the surface level. On the other hand, soft skills are those things others tend to perceive or feel in us, yet are still just as crucial to your success as a principal.

Your daily success will live or die by your hard skills, and this skill set includes a variety of things like: organizational management, budgeting, the ability to teach, familiarity with hiring/firing procedures, and effective communication.

Organizational management

At the end of the day, a school is an organization. A principal must know how to budget the time, schedule, and resources of the institution.


We already referred to this one above under responsibilities. Schools don’t run for free, and a principal must know how to organize, raise, and allot funds appropriately.


Believe it or not, becoming a principal doesn’t completely do away with an administrator’s instructional past. Principals must be able to practically mentor, train, and coach other instructors.

Hiring/firing procedures

We know principals make staffing decisions. This also means doing so within the proper legal and institutional procedures. A principal must be aware of protocol and follow it accordingly.

Effective communication

A skill that will undoubtedly be expected of you should you become a principal is effective communication. That means being able to convey plans, expectations, vision, goals, discipline, and encouragement in a way that can be clearly received. Sounds simple, but your ability to do this could easily make or break your career.

Soft skills add the extra pizzazz to your hard skills and are often the thing that differentiate a functional principal who does an okay job from an amazing principal who does their job in a way that transforms, engages, and motivates those around them. Some of the skills that fall into this set include: individual attunement, mentoring, confidence, and de-escalation.

Individual attunement

This skill is what we would call that ability to slow down and see a person as an individual, as opposed to just a cog in your machine. Whether it is a kid acting out, a struggling teacher, or a disgruntled parent, this skill allows the principal to see them not as problems but as people to listen to, and only then respond appropriately.


A principal must be able to mentor. This could be anything from providing wisdom and procedural assistance to new teachers to encouraging or offering a fresh vision to seasoned instructors. Regardless, as a principal you have to see the best potential in a teacher, and do everything you can to bring that out.


This is perhaps one of the most essential soft skills of a principal. Confidence, for a principal, means you are cool under fire. When the budget isn’t sufficing, the school board is upset, and the facilities are crumbling, a principal needs to be able to make decisions in a way that is firm, resolute, and not easily swayed by unhelpful pressure or a desire to simply please everyone.


Finally, schools are often a place of problem and conflict. A principal must master the art of de-escalating tough situations, calming people down, and then moving forward with a solution once everyone can think more clearly.

These far from exhaust the skills you may find yourself needing, developing, and growing in as a principal, but they’re definitely some of the most prevalent. Some can be learned in the classroom, and some can’t. But that’s what our next subject covers, what should you learn in order to become a principal?

Educational pathway & requirements to becoming a school principal

One of the first things you’re probably asking yourself if you find yourself interested in the pathway to becoming a principal is, what exactly is this going to take? Maybe you’ve got plenty of organizational skills and are a pro at de-escalating conflicts, but at the end of the day there are certain nuts and bolts in the form of education and credentials you must have on your resume should you wish to become a principal. In general, the road to becoming a principal goes something as followed:

1) Get a B.A. – The first thing you must have as a principal as a Bachelor of Arts degree from an accredited university. This doesn’t necessarily always have to be in education, though that’s not to say it wouldn’t be helpful. Regardless, this first step is crucial for setting a strong academic foundation to your future career, and going a non-education route for your undergrad and opting for alternative certification afterwards would not be unheard of.

2) Get Certified/Licensed – Next on your list of things to do is to get certified as a teacher. The process and requirements for this step vary from state to state, so you’ll want to get a firm understanding of the exact certification needed for the state you want to be a principal in. In general, the certification process includes a certain number of hours of student teaching, passing a basic skills test as well as a subject matter test, and then finally applying for the official certification or license.

3) Teach! – This next step can be a bit controversial, but sources tend to indicate that having a solid foundation and experience in the classroom is incredibly crucial to your long term success as a principal. For those already panicking and wondering if aa school counselor become a principal or if you have to be a teacher to be a principal, relax. The short answer is no, you don’t have to, but, in terms of the easiest path and long term success, it is incredibly beneficial.

4) Lead – In addition to gaining experience in the classroom, gain as much experience in instructional and educational leadership as possible. It’s useful to head up different committees and organizations within an academic setting. These types of experiences look great on a resume and offer you a great chance to develop some of those hard and soft skills we mentioned earlier.

5) Get a Master’s Degree – Obtaining a master’s degree is essential in terms of principal education requirements. Granted, the type of master’s degree you get can sometimes be flexible, though the most obvious route is to do your master’s in an education or administration field. Look at this asone of the more trying steps in the journey, but keeping your eye focused on the prize even when it comes to having to do your own homework while working a full time job will see you through it.

6) Get Licensed, Again – If you thought you were done with licensing and certifications after becoming a teacher, sorry! However, the process may seem vaguely familiar. For instance, in Texas all that is required is taking a principal preparation program and then passing the required exam. Most school administrator education requirements fall along similar lines with varying specifications pertaining to teaching and experience requirements.

7) Land the Job – The final, and perhaps most exciting step in the process is to just go do it! You’ve gotten the degrees, experience, and plenty of certifications, now it’s time to apply for interviews and launch yourself into the competition. The going can get tough in this phase, but don’t forget how hard you worked for it.

Once you’ve aced an interview and gotten the job, it’s time to get to work. Just remember, the educational pathway might be over, but the learning never ends.

A word on school principal licensure

The certification and licensure procedures can often be some of the more confusing and cumbersome requirements to becoming a principal. However, it basically boils down to enrolling in a program and passing the necessary exam at the end of it. Doing so will land you the necessary certification first to teach, and then to be a school administrator.

The nuts and bolts of each certification differ between states and can require other licenses and certifications within them. To use Virginia as an example, if you’re pursuing teaching licensure, after completing your program you’ll first take the Communication and Literacy Assessment that tests your general academic skills. After that is an exam measuring your knowledge of the specific subject you wish to teach. And finally, if you are teaching elementary or special ed you’ll need an additional test to prove you can teach others to read.

In conjunction with these requirements, in order to get a teaching license, as well as an ensuing principal license, you’ll also be expected to have training in first aid, CPR, and AED certification.

Where school principals work

Becoming a principal opens up world of potential exciting work places that serve as another alluring answer to the question of why become a principal. Sure, on the surface level you may think you’re left simply with the choice of elementary, middle, or high school principal, but the world of education is actually much more varied and exciting than that. For instance, there are bilingual Arabic schools in Texas, boarding schools in Massachusetts, and technological institutes in Florida, all needing quality administrators and principals! The environments open to you by becoming a principal are vast, and differ on many fronts, including funding and curriculum. Here are a few of the choices open to you, just to begin broadening your horizons.

Public school principals

Public schools are obviously the more popular and widely attended option you’ll find in America, and even within this broader category, there are still further options as to the type of public school you could work in, namely local, charter, and magnet schools. All of these variations are funded by taxes, thus making them public, with local public schools being attended by 88 percent of American students.

Local public schools are the backbone of the American school system and receive their funding from a combination of federal, state, and local taxes. The key to local public schools is that so much of their funding depends on revenue from local property taxes. With this being the case, there’s often a lot of variation between local public schools based on their geographical location and districts.

In terms of being a principal in a local public school, be aware the budgeting will likely be difficult depending on the area, but this is also the avenue with the most available placements based on sheer number alone.

Charter schools, while still technically considered public, differ slightly from local public schools. For starters, the funding for a charter school is still public, but its management and vision is often privately driven via sponsoring organizations. Various nonprofits, companies, or institutions can essentially open a school, establish a vision and criteria to establish the school’s existence around, and then the community of teachers, parents, and administrators around the school sign off on the vision thus granting its charter. Should the school fail the expectation of these sponsors, the charter could be revoked and the school closed.

(Check This Out: Are Charter Schools Public Schools? An Expert Answers.) When it comes to becoming a principal at a charter school, the driven vision and focus of the school can be quite exciting, especially when you combine this with the fact that charter schools are growing in demand and popularity! However, it would do well to keep in mind this likewise comes with an added element of accountability and pressure to perform.

Magnet schools, on the other hand, usually focus on a certain subject in addition to the core curriculum, like science, technology, or languages. These are some of the newest styles of schools to pop up in the U.S., and their ability to tailor towards certain subjects provides quite the unique academic experience. They still have to answer to public school boards and expectations; however, admission is often more regulated by exams, interviews, or auditions.

Similar to charter schools, magnet schools can be an exciting to be a principal at, especially if the school aligns with one of your own passions. Balancing a proper admissions ratio and the extra requirements of that process in the magnet context could also be a bit of a burden.

Private school principals

The most obvious difference between a public and a private school is their funding. Instead of drawing funds from local taxes, a private school is often externally funded via donors, organizations, interest groups, and other sources. They can be an exciting environment to lead in, but you’ll find they also come with their fair share of pressures and stipulations. Regardless, there’s still a lot of flexibility and options to choose from should you want to be a principal in a private school. For instance, the types of private schools alone include religious, preparatory, and boarding schools.

Religious schools are usually some of the first to come in mind when you think of stereotypical private schools. A religious private school is associated with, and funded by, a specific religious affiliation or group, and generally requires tuition as well. The affiliation of religious schools can be quite broad ranging between Catholic, Jewish, or anything in between. Some would require you and their students to adhere to their religious affiliation in order to gain admission; however, there are still many who do not require this and tend to include different degrees of religious and secular curriculum.

Being a principal at a religious school could likely be a pretty sweet gig if you align with the core beliefs of the institution, just bear in mind there may be some extracurricular hurdles to jump in the long run.

Preparatory schools, commonly referred to as prep schools, receive their funding from philanthropic organizations, and are probably among the more prestigious and rigorous schools you could work for in America. They are generally geared towards preparing students for college, but can also place emphasis on holistic development which gives liberty for them to stress things like athletics as opposed to strictly academics.

Prep schools excel because of their emphasis on high level, quality teachers. This is something that would inevitably come into play should you become a principal at such a school, so expect some pressure and high standards when it comes to your ability to spot talent and hire great instructors.

Boarding schools are one of our last examples of private schools you may find yourself working in as a principal (though this hardly exhausts the list). Boarding schools are funded by donations and tuition fees, and often are incredibly competitive to get into. These schools are distinguished by the fact that all, or a majority, of the students live at the school during the school year. They can often have specific focuses, such as military boarding schools, and tend to feature a more communal based approach to education.

This community component can be a huge draw for many principals at a boarding school, but comes with an extra set of facility and management considerations you should be aware of before deciding if being a principal at a boarding school is right for you.

School Principal: what’s in it for you?

It should be clear by now that the requirements to be a principal are quite strenuous and time consuming, so it begs the question: Is it worth it? We’ll let you be the judge of that, but just know there are no shortage of benefits with the job, especially in terms of roles and salary.

First off, deciding to become a principal, following the educational path, and meeting all of the listed principal requirements offers you more opportunities than simply being a principal at a school. It opens up a wider world of school administration roles you could fit into, be it vice principal, superintendent, or anything in between.

Of course, salary is likely another big question you have before embarking upon such a costly journey in terms of time and financial investment in higher education. In general, the outlook on principal salaries is quite positive.

Specifically, Glass Door lists the average base pay of a principal at $100,400 a year! However, given the variation you see with funding between states, a school principal could expect to make even more should you find yourself in the right spot. For instance, some of the higher salaries occur in the north east in states like New York and Connecticut, while lower salaries generally occur in the south in places like Texas or Louisiana.

Finally, the road to becoming a principal is paved with hard work, commitment, and a desire to have an impact on students by providing them an excellent education. While it can be easy to focus solely on the end goal of becoming a school principal, don’t forget that there are tons of rich experiences to be gained in the process as you teach, learn, grow, and develop. Whether you are bound for a local public school as an elementary school principal, or keen to become the principal of a prestigious Catholic private school, you’ve decided to make an impact on students that they will quite literally be influenced by for the entirety of their lives. It is said that a mind is a terrible thing to waste, and education is the first step in ensuring that such a precious thing is never wasted. In reading this, you are not just looking at how to obtain a new job. Instead, you’re equipping yourself to answer an incredible call to enrich and engage the next generation while influencing and leading their educators.

Works Cited

Nedda Gilbert

Ms. Gilbert is a certified social worker and 30 year educational consultant with an interest in helping college-bound and graduate school students manage the process and stress of admissions effectively. She is one of the senior founding managers of the Princeton Review Test Preparation Company, and the author of The Princeton Review Guide to the Best Business Schools and another book, Business School Essays that Made a Difference (Random House). She is a guest contributor to Forbes Magazine on college and college life. Ms. Gilbert is also certified as a collaborative family law professional in New Jersey. She received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and MS from Columbia University.