The Pathway To A Principal Career

Remember when you were a kid, and you regarded the principal’s office with awe and fear? Well, times have changed. Now, you’re not only not afraid of being sent to the principal’s office, you want to be sent there. In short, you want to become the principal of a school.

It’s going to take some work and planning to achieve that goal, but you’ll get there. You’re a leader. You’ve got a vision for education. You have ambitions to work in school administration. And someday, you’ll be sitting on the other side of that principal’s desk.

The principal of a school

As much as you want to someday be principal, there’s still some mystique that comes with the title. Whether as a student, parent, or educator yourself, you’ve surely encountered the principal of a school in some way or another. But aside from just being there, you may have only a limited or vague idea of what the principal actually does, and how to go about becoming one.

The path to becoming a principal starts, like most important things, with an advance decision. Quite obviously, however, becoming a principal is not as simple as rolling out of bed one day and deciding to become one. So you decide you would like to one day hold a leadership position in a school environment. Where do you go from there?

School principal education requirements

The first question on your journey, then, is the most basic. How do you go from wherever you are now in your life to becoming principal? What qualifies you to become principal? Is there some kind of magical principal degree?

The answer to that question is pretty much yes. In fact, there’s more than one degree needed to be a principal.

Though they vary from state to state, there are some basic, common sense requirements in place before you can hang up your shingle as principal and start principaling.

The first of those principal qualifications is basic. You will, at the very least, need a bachelor's degree, usually in education. A bachelor’s, however, is just the minimum degree to be a principal, a stepping stone on the path.

While not always referred to as such, most states will require you to have a masters degree for principal certification. Rather than being advertised as a school principal degree, the college or university might call their masters program a degree in educational leadership or administration. Whatever they’re calling it, you need it to receive most state principal certifications. Which themselves may be referred to as Education Leader certification or School Administrator certification.

Principal of a school licensure

Whether the licensure you’re chasing is known as some form of the above mentioned titles or something more flamboyant like “Supreme Principal of School Affairs,” merely having a bachelor’s and master’s may still not be enough to get your principal bona-fides. There may be other requirements to licensure that differ from state to state.

For instance, in Wisconsin, according to the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) website, a principal is classified under the category of administrator licenses. Aside from the education requirements, a candidate for licensure must also have a minimum amount of experience working as a school professional. License requirements specify a particular number of hours spent in a classroom. In California, the Administrative Services Credential allows an applicant to take the California Preliminary Administrative Credential Examination (CPACE) as an alternate for certain requirements. The California licensure also includes a two tiered administrative licensure process, similar to the way many states may offer a multi-tiered teacher certification, with levels such as initial educator and master teacher. In order to receive the latter principal licensure equivalent, you must first receive the former.

Most other state certifications will have requirements that are highly similar, but because there are minor differences among them, it is extremely important that you research and familiarize yourself with the particular program requirements of your state. Additionally, just as states may have reciprocity agreements with other states when it comes to other professional licenses, should you ever plan to leave your state, you will need to research whether your state has any reciprocity agreements with your new home state, or what provisions your new home state has to accommodate out of state licensure.

What does a school principal do?

Hopefully your master’s degree program will not only give you a pretty good idea of what the position of principal entails, but prepare you to fulfill the job. However, it’s still a pretty good idea for you learn a little more about what typical principal job duties involve, before you shell out all that money and invest all that time into getting a masters degree.

The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Occupational Outlook Handbook lists some of the more standard duties of the average school principal, whether they administer an elementary, middle, or high school. These responsibilities span both the day to day affairs of the school as well as more bigger picture items. The principal deals with both mundane budgetary decisions, and higher, future oriented goals such as shaping the curriculum programs for the entire school and setting target growth goals for student achievement. The job of principal is different than a regular business administrative or managerial position in that the principal is head not just of facilities and personnel. At the core of the principal’s duties lies the mission to provide a strong education to all students who pass through school doors.

Getting a school principal job

You decided to become a principal. You got the necessary experience, education, and certification to act as principal. Now all you need is the actual principal job. How do you go about getting one?

Some school districts may actually promote from within, or have programs that foster the transformation of teachers into school leaders. If you’re lucky enough to teach at one of those schools or districts, good for you. If you’re not, the usual methods of getting a job will apply. Networking and looking at good old fashioned job postings. Yes, you can find numerous job postings for principal and principal type positions on regular job sites like Indeed and Monster.

National professional organizations, such as the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) or the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) may also have potential job leads. The NAESP offers a principal careers center searchable by state. A quick search today reveals featured job openings in the Queen Creek Unified School District in Arizona and the large Washington D.C. school district system. Both descriptions offer a laundry list of somewhat overlapping duties with some differences to reflect the more nuanced needs of the individual districts. For instance, the Queen Creek District begins with a broad statement about the principal’s role of overseeing the school both administratively and instructively. The D.C. description opens with a more specific call for a leader dedicated to closing that enemy of teachers and students everywhere — the infamous achievement gap. These introductions set the respective tone in both postings, but ultimately both postings list similar responsibilities because they are both looking to fill the same position: that of school principal.

In that respect, both job descriptions advertising positions on opposite sides of the country offer descriptions that, when it comes right down to it, boil down to what is essentially the same as the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ generic overview of a principal’s typical job duties.

Don't overlook private schools when pursuing a principal career. Private schools have a far smaller management structure than their public counterparts. Since public schools are run by the state, there is a long line with administrators making sure each school is meeting the standards of the district. However, private schools are independent and set their own educational standards.

You do your research, find and apply to job openings, and wait.

The school principal job interview

Just like all the other jobs advertising on Indeed and Monster, you will need to undergo the interview process. And just like all those other jobs, a little (or a lot of) preparation for your interview is always a good idea.

One common way of preparing for job interviews is to research standard interview questions and practice responses to them in advance. The thinking is that preparing sample responses and practicing the answers will help you avoid nerves and becoming caught off guard during the actual interview. Regardless of the prestige that goes along with the title, principals and potential principals are people too, and this type of preparation will go a long way. Researching, preparing, and practicing will not only help ensure that you come off as your best during the interview itself, but it will allow you the opportunity to actually reflect on the real answers to the questions that will be thrown at you.

With that idea in mind, here are some of the questions that will inevitably be asked of you, or some variation thereof. Some of the questions may be generic ones that could well be asked at any job interview, which are used to get a feel for who you are as a person. The majority will be tailored to the general office of the principal and the specific school where you will serve. You may not be asked all of these questions, you may be asked some questions that don’t make the standard list, and you may be thrown some real curveballs. Still, contemplating the questions that follow and thinking about how you would potentially answer will give you an edge in the interview process and help you come off smooth and self-assured.

  • What does great teaching look like to you?
  • How will you work to build and maintain a safe school learning community and environment?
  • What methods will you employ to provide your staff with continuous professional development opportunities?
  • What do you feel about the role of parents and community?
  • How would you go about fostering greater parental and community involvement?
  • Give an example of a difficult situation you encountered, how you addressed it, and what you learned going forward.
  • What professional development have you personally engaged in recently?
  • What do you feel is the principal’s role in interacting with students and staff?
  • How will you foster positive and growth-oriented relationships with students, staff, and parents?
  • Give an example of a goal you accomplished in your previous position or, if applicable, administration.
  • How do you handle working with difficult personalities and work to resolve conflicts?
  • What methods will you use to increase student accomplishment and foster teacher growth?
  • What measurement would you use to assess success?
  • Do you have any questions for us?
  • And last, but certainly not least, why do you want to be a principal? This question may be couched in the broader sense or asking primarily about why you want to be principal of that particular school.

The interviewers will not be asking these questions to catch you off guard or trip you up. They will be asking these questions because they really want to know the answers to them. They will be listening and watching carefully to how you respond to them, comparing them with the responses of other applicants, and using them to assess how well you will fit in with the school culture and mission. You know you’re qualified for the position; you’ve worked hard to reach this point. But your answers need to demonstrate that to the interview panel, so they can see for themselves that you’re the best one to fit the job at their school.

Answering the school principal interview questions

The answers you give should not be canned or too practiced. Rather, they should reflect your deeply held beliefs and hard won experience. Of course, there are some key indicators that the interviewers will be looking for, and you should definitely keep them in mind, but at the end of the day, you don’t want your answers to be too typical. You want your unique spin and strengths to shine through. Allow the interviewers to sense your passion and enthusiasm. Paint them a picture so they can get a glimpse of the vision you have for the school, what your priorities will be, and how you plan to go about making those dreams a reality for the staff and students lucky enough to find themselves under your leadership. Don’t just provide glittering generalities, either. Providing grounded and rational plans that are actionable is important. It shows you haven’t just memorized the theory but are prepared to implement it. The interview board will know that you are ready and prepared to hit the ground running.

One caution, however, from an article by college educator William Sterrett, on the website ASCD Edge. In a post called “Interviewing for the Principalship: Nine Possible Questions” he warns that you should resist the urge to pontificate. The people interviewing you will be educational professionals themselves, and they will know what they are looking for. They do not need to be subjected to a dissertation on your beliefs regarding education or a lecture about best practices. All they need to see is a snapshot of your philosophy and beliefs, ideally with some examples that strongly reflect your attitude in action. Above all, they need to know that you have answers to the questions, that you are knowledgeable and well informed. Your answers to the questions asked should therefore be honest and heartfelt but at the same time, short and to the point.

That being said, the most important question is the one listed last. Why do you want to be a principal? This is a question you need to answer not just to the satisfaction of the person interviewing you, but to your own satisfaction.

Why become a school principal?

If you don’t have an answer to this question, that’s a very bad sign. Not having an answer you can articulate means you don’t have any clear goals you can point to, and therefore have no plan of action. You won’t be a visionary leader, you’ll be a reactionary leader. Instead of putting plans in place to succeed, you will constantly be flummoxed by the various situations that present themselves during the course of a busy school day, week, and year. And there will be problems that crop up routinely, because being a principal is not an easy job even at the best of times. Vague idealism and starry eyes are hardly enough. You’ve got to know why you’re there and what you hope to accomplish. You’ve got to know where you’re going in order to get there.

If your answer to this question is the higher salary that generally accompanies a leadership position, that’s even worse. Sure, a raise won’t go amiss, and as a principal, you probably will see a pay increase, but you’ll be earning every penny. There’s a reason the principal gets paid more, and it isn’t for sitting there and looking pretty.

The good news is that if you’ve read this far you’ve probably got a pretty clear idea of why you want to be a principal and what you’ll do when you become one. And by the time you make it to your first interview, you’ll have not only undergone extensive leadership training, but you’ll have extensive classroom experience to inform and serve as a foundation for some of the more esoteric theories.

Which leads back to what a principal actually does all day.

What are the principal job duties?

What does it mean to be a principal? A principal is fundamentally a leader. But unlike the leader of most commercial organizations, the principal is the leader to two extremely different groups of people. Whether or not the principal is extensively involved in student affairs or if the principal has assistants who fulfill that role, the principal is almost always both an authority figure and a figurehead to the student body. You might say the principal is the face of the company to the students the customers.

At the same time, the principal is the leader to the teachers and staff who make the school a school. The principal doesn’t have absolute power, but he or she does set the tone for the school and drives its educational mission. A principal who phones it in or doesn’t have good leadership skills sets a disastrous precedent for the rest of the school. There will be valiant and courageous teachers who try to buck the trend, but they’ll be fighting an uphill battle they shouldn’t have to fight.

Schools with ineffective, unmotivated, or frankly bad principals lead a sinking ship. Good teachers will leave, stymied by the lack of support or unhealthy school climate, and the quality of education provided will decrease. For instance, one English teacher who had taught at the same school for almost her entire twenty-year teaching career left several years into the tenure of a new principal, and she wasn’t the only one. There was just so much she was prepared to deal with, and when the principal made one too many unreasonable demands she left and started over at the bottom with just a few short years left until retirement. Another teacher, at another school, expressed frustration with her principal’s lack of a coherent schoolwide discipline plan. There was a revolving door of behavioral problems because the principal had no support structure in place to address them. Ultimately, it is the students who will pay the price if the principal falls down on the job.

These stories aren’t meant to scare you off, however, but to caution you to take the job seriously and to do everything within your power to be an effective leader. Truthfully, the unreasonable demands made by the principal in the first of the above mentioned stories might not have been the straw that broke the camel’s back if they had been couched in different terms. Maybe the demands, while difficult, were necessary. The main problem was this principal’s antagonistic style and bad leadership skills. Instead of building the teachers in her building she undermined them. Instead of building a cohesive team in the pursuit of a shared goal, she made her teachers feel that they weren’t valued. Instead of leading and approaching problems together, she made harsh demands without explaining her rationale. And in the end, it wasn’t just the teacher in the building who suffered but also the students who lost out on the opportunity to learn from an experienced educator.

There is little likelihood that you will emulate these bad examples consciously, but it helps to be aware of the pitfalls that lie in wait if you are not prepared. Inexperienced principals can fall into bad or unproductive habits without realizing it. Just as having a schoolwide discipline plan for students is important, it’s important that as a principal you have an awareness of positive and appropriate strategies for dealing with the teachers who remain on the frontlines of the education field.

Good school principal leadership practices

You want to run a school where students are learning successfully, and the education they receive will only be as good as the teachers who are providing it. Most teachers under your purview will be talented, skilled, and experienced educators, and it is important that you give them their due. But even the good teachers may have some areas that need improvement, and there will probably be more than one teacher in your school who isn’t quite there yet in their teaching skills. We all have room to grow, some more than others. When, as principal, you see areas where a teacher is not yet at their best, how do you initiate change without putting the teacher’s back up?

On the leadership website The Principal Center, Justin Baeder recounts some of the mistakes he made as a new principal as well as the lessons he learned about how to effectively initiate the change he wanted to see in his school. The key lesson he learned about being a strong leader and principal essentially boils down to this: What the teacher is to the students, a good principal is to the teachers he or she leads.

A driving principle in education these days is that students learn when they can. If students aren’t learning, it isn’t because they want to misbehave or are too lazy to put in the necessary effort. It is simply because there is something preventing them from succeeding. When that issue is addressed, learning will occur.

Well, that same idea can be applied to teachers. Teachers teach well when they can. If there is a problem in the classroom there is also an underlying root to that problem. That’s not to say there aren’t bad or lazy teachers; there are. But in the vast majority of cases, teachers go into teaching for idealistic reasons. They value education and want to help students learn and develop. If they are not succeeding in their classroom practices, or if they are struggling in specific areas, it is because something is standing in their way. That something may be a lack of experience, it may stem from a need for new methodological understanding, or it may be attributed to a systematic deficiency. In any case, in your role as a strong and effective leader, your objective is to identify the problem. If it’s a problem with resources available to the teacher, well, you’re in the perfect place to fix the problem. And if the problem is inexperience, you can introduce the teacher to strategies that work and assist him or her in implementing them.

Students, particularly those of a certain age, often think the teacher is out to get them. They think the teacher’s sole aim in life is to make their own lives miserable through torture devices such as homework and tests. They lack the understanding to realize that everything the teacher does, for the most part, is for the student’s own benefit. You don’t want the teachers in your school, adults though they may be, to fall into the trap of thinking you are out to get them. You want the teachers to appreciate and understand that you’re both on the same side. You both want what’s best for the students. Proper communication and deliberate interaction between you and the teachers you work with is a must if you want to avoid such destructive miscommunications.

The principal to school relationship

Your five year old, twelve year old, and teenage self would be surprised to know all the duties that fall on the principal’s broad shoulders. Even the parent of a school aged child might not be aware of just what it takes to fill the principal’s shoes. And that’s okay. The most important thing is that you as principal know what is expected of you, that you have a plan in place to accomplish those expectations, and that you work hard each day to get it done.

Do you have what it takes to be a school principal?

At this point, you may be ready to throw in the towel. You may be questioning whether this principal business is for you. Do you really have what it takes to be not just a principal, but an effective, successful principal?

Yes. You have got what it takes to be a good principal, in spades. Most people would never dream of tackling the principal’s job. The mere fact that you are thinking about it says a lot about you. And even if you’re not quite there yet, you will be.

Now more than ever the world of education needs strong leaders, people like you who are willing to step up to the plate and get things done. Or, as Mahatma Gandhi apparently didn’t quite say (see the New York Times Article “Falser Words Were Never Spoken”), “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” If you see issues in education that need to be addressed, than you be the one to do what you can to fix them.

And, if you hone your leadership skills properly, you won’t be going at it alone. You’ll have the support of the dedicated teachers who work with you. Teachers who are happy to lend their support because they know that it is heartily reciprocated. And, as everyone knows, happy teachers make happy students. And happy students are more likely to be students who are learning.

Will your job be easy? It’s unlikely. Will your job be worth it? That’s up to you.

Works Cited

Administrator Licenses. (2017, July 11). Retrieved January 22, 2018, from https://dpi.wi.gov/tepdl/licensing/types/administrator

Articles Archives. (n.d.). Retrieved January 22, 2018, from https://www.principalcenter.com/category/articles/

Morton, B. (2011, August 29). Falser Words Were Never Spoken. Retrieved January 22, 2018, from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/30/opinion/falser-words-were-never-spoken.html

National Association of Elementary School Principals. (n.d.). Retrieved January 22, 2018, from https://careers.naesp.org/job/high-school-principal/39040614/

(n.d.). Retrieved January 22, 2018, from https://www.ctc.ca.gov/credentials/req-services

Summary. (n.d.). Retrieved January 22, 2018, from https://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/elementary-middle-and-high-school-principals.htm

William Sterrett. (n.d.). Retrieved January 22, 2018, from http://edge.ascd.org/blogpost/interviewing-for-the-principalship-nine-possible-questions

Summary. (n.d.). Retrieved February 05, 2018, from https://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/elementary-middle-and-high-school-principals.htm#tab-2

Nedda
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.