How to Become a School Principal: Step-by-Step Guide

Learn how to become a school principal. Research the job description and the education and licensing requirements and find out how to start a career as a school principal.

Do I Want to Be a School Principal?

Becoming a school principal requires passion for higher education and strong leadership skills. Principals serve as the leaders and supervisors of schools. They manage and assist teachers and all other staff. They also oversee the staff's professional development, the school budget, student disciplinary matters and interact with the public as a representative of their school. Evening work is often required, and principals work year-round, as compared to teachers, who often have several months of vacation in the summers.

Job Requirements

Most school principals start out as teachers and complete master's degree programs in education administration before pursuing advancement into school administration. Aspiring principals typically hold a bachelor's degree and teacher certification for the state where they'll be working prior to seeking further education to become a principal in a public school. The following table provides the key requirements for working as a school principal:

Common Requirements
Degree Level Master's degree required*
Degree Field Educational leadership or educational administration*
Licensure and/or Certification Teacher certification and principal certification required*
Experience Student teaching internship required; some employers may prefer prior work as a teacher*
Key Skills Decision-making, critical thinking, communication, leadership*
Computer Skills Microsoft Word; Access and Excel; school administration software, such as Blackbaud's The Education Edge**
Technical Skills School fire and alarm systems, 2-way radios**

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **O*NET OnLine.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

School principals usually begin their careers serving as teachers, which generally requires a bachelor's degree in education or a specific subject field, such as English or math. Many colleges and universities offer degree programs in elementary, secondary and special education, which typically take 4-5 years to complete. Coursework is structured according to the grade levels and subjects that one is planning to teach. Most degree programs feature classes in educational philosophy, classroom management and working with diverse students. In order to become certified, education majors are also commonly expected to fulfill a student teaching internship during the course of their bachelor's degree program.

Success Tip:

  • Take employment as a substitute teacher during college. Some states let aspiring teachers work as substitutes while still attending college. Those interested in becoming substitutes should get in touch with their state board of education; special permits or licenses may be available. Working as a substitute teacher offers the chance to gain experience in the classroom and improve the skills required to be successful as a teacher, such as effective communication and classroom management. Additionally, working as a substitute teacher permits future teachers to obtain knowledge from seasoned professionals.

Step 2: Get a Teaching Certificate

All states require public school teachers to be licensed before they can start teaching. Licensing requirements vary by state, but most licensing boards require candidates to complete a bachelor's degree and a supervised internship that includes classroom teaching. Candidates must also frequently pass a state licensing exam that tests general teaching skills, methods and subject knowledge. Aside from a bachelor's degree and a student teaching internship, certification requirements for teacher differ by state.

Step 3: Gain Work Experience

Before advancing into school administration positions, many principals gain motivational, leadership and communication skills as teachers. Acquiring work experience in the education field supplies aspiring principals with the basis to comprehend the teaching field, the teacher's responsibilities and classroom practice. Additionally, it's typical for states to expect a couple of years of teaching experience to acquire licensure as a principal. The years of experience required varies by state, so individuals should check with the state to find out exact requirements.

Step 4: Complete a Graduate Degree

Teachers prepare for advancement into school principal positions by earning a master's or doctoral degree in education leadership or educational administration. Master's degree programs in education administration typically take two years to complete and may require students to hold a teaching license prior to enrollment. Courses may include instruction supervision, curriculum development, administrative leadership, school law and school finance. Students may be required to complete internships and capstone projects in order to graduate.

Step 5: Obtain a Specialist License

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the majority of states require school principals to have a school administrator license. To be eligible for licensure, most states require applicants to hold graduate degrees along with sitting for a state licensing exam. Work experience and mentoring experience may also be necessary to meet school administrator licensing eligibility. Specifications vary by location, but many states permit an individual to add a principal endorsement to a current teaching license.

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