The school principal is an indelible, distant, powerful figure in the American education system. They are the source of all direction and motivation within their school, the ultimate judge in matters of discipline, the court of final appeal in decisions large and small that affect teachers, students, and parents.
That makes it an important job, and it’s one that the American public takes very seriously: you need a license to become a school principal in every state and Washington D.C.
But it’s also a very misunderstood job, with those same teachers, students, and parents not always able to grasp what the requirements and limitations are.
Those are all factors that are important to understand if you plan to become a principal. So before you start off on the long and difficult path to become a school principal, take a closer look at what the job might mean to you.
What Do School Principals Do?
Like the blind men and the elephant, the perceptions of a school principal’s responsibilities vary depending on who you ask.
Some teachers might think school principals are out-of-touch with classroom realities and too demanding of their time. They think principals make decisions without consultation or consideration.
Some superintendents might think school principals are too cozy with their teachers and don’t push hard enough to improve school metrics and test scores. They think principals are too focused on their own school and not enough on the larger mission.
Some students might think school principals don’t know who they are, and don’t care about them at all—unless they do something wrong. The principal is seen as a rigid disciplinarian and imposer of arbitrary rules.
Some parents think school principals are one-stop shopping for ways to improve their child’s academic performance or social standing in the school. They have the principal on speed-dial to complain about teachers or grades… unless their kid is a disciplinary problem, in which case the principal will never hear from them.
The custom of describing school leaders as principals comes from the era before schools had a dedicated leader. At the time, the role was performed by the principal teacher, first among equals.
In fact, a school principal job description includes some elements from each of those perceptions… and a lot more. But it all comes down to one core function: to create a safe environment for growth and learning.
School Principal Duties Include Everything Required To Offer a Complete Education to Their Student Body
There are many, many factors that go into building that educational environment, and the reality is that principals don’t directly control them all. But even things outside their control are things they need to account for. School funding, abusive parents, community unrest, and viral pandemics aren’t anything that a principal can fix on their own. Still, they certainly create situations that the principal is forced to deal with.
That makes the job description of a school principal exceptionally broad in the modern world. While specialization is increasingly common in the world of education, a principal doesn’t have that luxury. Invasive weeds taking over the football field? It’s the principal’s problem. Someone vandalized the second floor bathroom? The principal must be on it. Divorced parents change their custody agreement and change after-school arrangements? The principal is going to be reviewing the paperwork.
And that’s all just the random stuff that comes up during the day, stacked on top of the formal job description:
And it all overlays on some more important, but less commonly stated, expectations:
Principals are master and commander of their school. They aren’t just responsible for the nuts and bolts of the building and the daily functions of learning that happen there. They are also the key to morale and team-building, among both faculty and the student body. They are the linchpin that holds the entire operation together, in the face of sometimes enormous stresses and contradictions laid out by society.
School Principal Requirements Change With the Grade Levels of the School
Of course, the day-to-day tasks and challenges of being a principal vary a lot depending on the age of the students involved. Although not all the stereotypes are true, it’s indisputable that elementary school principals are going to have a vastly different kind of day than high school principals, even in the same district.
So it’s also worth considering the unique character of the principal’s job through the prism of the type of school they run.
Elementary School Principal Jobs
Running a school with K-5/6 gives principals the opportunity to have the greatest impact on a child’s educational career. These are the years during which kids are most impressionable and least resistant to teaching.
Elementary school principals are typically older and more directly engaged in the instructional process than at other levels. Part of that is simply a function of time—the way most American school districts are set up; elementary schools are the smallest in terms of the number of students. That leaves more opportunity for individual interaction.
It’s also a world before the most significant disciplinary problems exist that can absorb a principal’s time. And it’s often where the least experienced teachers start out. That makes mentorship and instructional leadership a key part of the elementary principal’s job.
Middle School Principal Jobs
Middle school principals have a tough transitional period to oversee. Not only are students moving into a school environment that allows for more individualism and choice, but they are also developing a stronger sense of individual identity while also going through significant social, psychological, and physiological changes.
The upshot of this is that middle school principals start encountering less compliant student bodies and more disciplinary issues that take up their time. It’s a rough point for the kids, too, and empathy and equitable guidance by principals at this stage can form impressions that last for life.
Middle schoolers may look like high schoolers sometimes, but they can still act like elementary schoolers, too.
This also means more interaction with parents is likely. Middle school is also often where organized sports and other activities start to take up a principal’s time and attention.
High School Principal Jobs
There’s no beating around the bush: high school principals have the most demanding of all principal jobs.
These are the largest schools, with the most, and the most serious, disciplinary problems. Violence is real; so are cases of serious drug abuse, bullying, and vandalism.
High schools really ramp up the extracurricular events, too, which a principal is often key in supervising or organizing.
Long days for any principal are made longer when you go to a basketball game that night.
This is also the stage where students are getting ready to launch their independent lives out into the larger community. So it’s more important for high school principals to develop good community relationships. You’ll want to have exactly the right local business to send a kid to for a class project, or to line up a mentor for a student with unique goals or challenges.
The cherry on top of the high school principal role is a big one, though: graduation. You’re present at the moment when each of the kids under your care finally take flight. You’ve taken them from awkward freshmen to the cusp of adulthood, with all the promise and possibility that entails. And that’s an incredible moment you don’t get at any other level of school.
Special Education Leadership Jobs and Early Childhood Education Leadership Jobs for Principals
Although most public school systems divide up principal jobs by grade level, there are other ways to look at students and educational leadership roles. This usually comes in terms of scholastic ability or specialization… schools or centers for special education, or magnet schools. But in some districts, you’ll also find principal roles for early childhood education, working with pre-kindergarten schooling.
Magnet Schools Can Offer Principal Positions Unlike Any Other
In a part of the country where waters were once and still highways, where the 5th busiest sea container port in the country brings in more than $66 billion (about $200 per person in the US) worth of trade goods each year, and where shipyards still lay down the keels for vessels that will fish, haul cargo, and patrol waters around the world, salt water is never far from school grounds.
For new Seattle-area Maritime High School, salt water is the school grounds.
It takes a special kind of principal to oversee the blend of conventional education, environmental, marine science, and vessel operations curriculum taught at the cooperative venture between Highline Public Schools, the Port of Seattle, the Duwamish River Community Coalition, and the Northwest Maritime Center. Fortunately, Highline had just such an individual in the form of Tremain Holloway.
Although Holloway’s background is landlocked, so are those of many of his students—the school draws students from all around the Puget Sound, with immigrants from across the country and around the world. And he had one other key advantage: he was previously principal of the district’s Aviation High School, another magnet school.
With that under his belt, Holloway already had expertise in pulling together industry partners and involving mentors from the local maritime industry with his students. Today, that industry is 78 percent white and 74 percent male. But with core values of equity, excellence, and entrepreneurship, Holloway is well on his way to creating a crop of new graduates ready to change the face of that industry and take it into the future.
The overarching job description is usually the same as any other principal dealing with students in the same grade range, but with an emphasis on the elements that make the school special.
For example, principals in a special education center may spend more time overseeing medical and psychological needs, coordinating with outside service providers, or even dealing with student transportation between home and school. Certainly they will spend more time dealing with IEPs (Individual Education Programs) and providing updates to parents.
Private School Principal Jobs
Private schools are another kind of category that you can lump principals into. They also come at both elementary and secondary levels, but they may have unique experiences and different obligations at each of those levels than those in the public sector.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), roughly three quarters of elementary and secondary school principals are public employees, with not quite 20 percent working for private schools.
Sometimes called headmasters or academy directors, the rules that govern private school principals vary from state to state. Like teachers, some states may require them to get the same licenses as are held by public school principals. And in many cases, they are responsible for following the same laws and regulations.
Naturally, the core of the job remains the same: ensuring students at their school get the best possible education.
But the nature of the work is definitely different. With parents paying a hefty price for their child’s attendance, there are different expectations around discipline and grading. The pressure to hold high academic standards and send graduates on to elite schools can be intense.
On the other hand, the fact that private schools are privately funded often means that the financial pressures are far lower.
Are There Such Thing as Online School Principal Jobs?
It’s not a job that you would ever have even thought of as recently as a decade ago. Although remote studies have been a thing for a long time, having an entirely remote school wasn’t something that most school districts would even consider.
During the pandemic, though, pretty much every principal became an online school principal. And suddenly, that opened everyone’s eyes to both the challenges and the potential of entirely virtual schools.
Not all virtual schools are that new, though. They sometimes aren’t even entirely online. Instead, they offer a flexible format for students who are challenged by traditional learning environments.
According to a National Education Policy Center study from 2021, there were 477 full-time virtual schools in the U.S. with more than 330,000 regularly enrolled students. With those numbers steadily ticking up since 2017, there’s clearly a demand for online school principals who know their way around a virtual environment.
The responsibilities are the same, but the job is definitely different—there are no worries about fights in the hallways, but on the other hand, hackers can present a mortal danger.
As virtual schooling gets more traction, getting into an online principal job can get you in on the ground floor of a new area of expertise in the education field. And on top of shaping the future through your students, you may also get to change the future of education with your ideas and policies.
What Are the Skills and Qualifications Required for Principal Jobs?
There is no question that all the duties expected of principals in any role, are significant. And it requires a substantial amount of training to master all the different skills that are needed to discharge them.
It’s true that principals take on diverse types of daily tasks themselves, directly—everything from unclogging toilets to making sure new students get on the right bus at the end of the day.
But primarily, being a principal is being a leader. No one expects the principal to accomplish the school’s mission alone. Instead, they are the planner, the motivator, the driving force behind the team that gets it all done.
So it’s unsurprising that the skills required to be a good principal map right onto those needed by organizational leaders in general. In fact, the most unique pieces of a school principal’s training will be ways to apply conventional leadership principles in a scholastic setting.
Mastering Leadership Skills is What Makes Good Principals Great
Leadership skills are similar across disciplinary boundaries. That doesn’t make them easy! Although it’s not hard to outline the skills needed to be an effective principal, it can take decades of both formal training and on-the-ground experience to master them.
Strong interpersonal relations and communication skills
Many of the functions of a principal are exercised most directly through meetings. The typical principal has dozens of meetings each day, with parents, teachers, students, and other administrators. Communicating clearly and making a connection with every single one of them is critical.
According to a survey in Education Week, the average principal works almost 60 hours per week.
Good written and strategic communication skills
Not all tasks or assignments can be taken care of in meetings. Principals must be able to clearly articulate their goals and ideas in writing, and in ways that are effective in reaching their target audience.
Effective training, development, and mentoring
The better your team is, the more effective your school will be in accomplishing its core mission. So having the ability to train and cultivate expertise within your teachers and staff is a key skill.
Solid understanding of psychology and social and developmental behavior
Any principal can go down the rabbit hole of all the weird and wonderful ways that kids think, but it turns out there is actual science to social and developmental psychology that impacts their interactions. The same is true of teachers and staff! Understanding how those minds work can make all your plans and interactions much smoother.
Planning and coordination skills
Speaking of plans, principals must have the basics of project management and organization down pat. Everything from scheduling to supply orders are under the principal’s control. Keeping the trains running on time is an essential part of school management.
The basics of educational finance and accounting
Part of the nuts and bolts of school management is budgeting and accounting for the money it takes to run the place. So some understanding of educational budgeting and finance is also required for principals.
Principal Jobs Require High Standards of Education and Licensure
That set of skills and qualifications doesn’t just come down to the district superintendent glancing at your resume and slapping a gold star on it. In every state, you must prove your qualifications by earning certification.
Each state has a different set of requirements for principal certification, but they typically boil down to the same general steps:
In most states, the same steps are required for either principal or assistant principal positions. In addition to having slightly different requirements at each step, however, different states offer various kinds of licensure under different titles. In some states, you might receive a Building Administrator license, while in others it could be an Educational Leadership certification.
There are also sometimes distinct levels of licensure a principal can achieve, such as initial, provisional, and finally professional certification. In some cases these are obtained part way through the process, such as when going through a probationary period or during the experiential learning part of a degree program.
Educational Leadership Degrees Are the Standard for Principal Job Training
The degree you need for principal certification are the most important part of the qualifications you need to meet. In some states, you may technically only need a bachelor’s degree to qualify. But even in those cases, additional specific graduate-level coursework is part of the requirements.
So as a practical matter, principals will usually hold a master’s degree or higher.
According to NCES data from 2019, most school principals hold a master’s degree, although the share who have an educational specialist (EdS) degree are increasing.
The degree major itself isn’t usually specified, but, again, as a practical matter most principals will study something like a Master of Arts in Educational Leadership, a Master of Education in Educational Administration, or a Doctor of Education in Leadership in Educational Administration. These are the types of programs that most commonly include the state-specific Educator Preparation Program (EPP) coursework.
There are also more specific degrees for some principal roles, such as a Master of Education in Special Education Administration that lines up more directly with special education principal positions.
On top of the required EPP coursework, these programs will develop educational leadership skills through classes such as:
And they offer enough range of electives to fine-tune the training in areas such as:
Principals come out the other side with a strong overall understanding of pedagogical theory and instructional systems at the leadership level. They have the knowledge and training that allow them to effectively take objectives and goals from superintendents and school boards and turn them into actions at the school level.
Living the Life of a Dedicated School Principal
Once you’re in the big office, there’s a lot of work to do. Teachers, kids, parents, the district administrator, the school board… they’re all counting on the principal to dig in and take care of the details of making a school tick.
On top of long hours, principals, too, are expected to keep current in the latest education trends and policies through continuing education. States each have different requirements for CPE (Continuing Professional Education) for principal licensure, but it often mirrors requirements for teachers in the same state.
It’s not an easy job to get or to keep. But it does come with some real compensation in terms of both salary and benefits.
Principal Salaries Offer Good Compensation For a Challenging Job
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for principals in the United States for 2021 was $98,420 per year.
Unfortunately, BLS doesn’t break down the differences between the various levels of school that principals work in. But due to the increasing challenges of middle school and high school principals, you can generally assume that within a typical school district, they will make more than their elementary counterparts.
So it’s worth looking at the salary steps within the educational administration field. Those in the top 25 percent made an average of $125,520, while those at the top, in the upper 10 percent, made $153,520.
Of course, elementary school principals don’t magically get started at the median—instead, they may run more toward the lower 25 percent, making $77,450 per year. That’s still a big bump above the average teacher’s salary, which hovers around $61,500 per year.
Where You Work Will Have a Lot To Say About How You Are Paid as a Principal
Naturally, there are significant variations from district to district. Much of that rests on the specific funding mechanisms that different states use for public education, so you can get some idea of relative salary levels by looking at different areas of the country.
Of course, even within states, there can be an enormous difference between urban, suburban, and rural areas. For example, you can see above that the average Illinois principal just tops six figures; if you zoom in to the Chicago metro area, though, the average is $105,660. And in the Southern Illinois non-metropolitan area, it’s only $80,260.
Unlike most other kinds of jobs in education, principals aren’t typically unionized, which puts salary negotiations directly in the districts hands. If you’ve been working as a teacher for a long time, you’ll have to get used to negotiating your own compensation.
But like teachers, and other public employees, the benefits can be excellent in principal positions. Good healthcare, vacation, and retirement packages typically come with the territory.
With the right training and expertise, a principal can bring everything together to make a school where wonder and information and learning happen, where the toilets flush and there are no fights at the Homecoming Dance and teachers inspire students and students come into their own.
Some of those same kids will go on to invent incredible new technologies, shift society to better and more equitable places, and improve the world in thousands of ways, large and small. Or maybe they’ll just live fulfilling, perfectly normal lives, enjoying the fruits of a traditional American education. Either way, it’s a kind of long-term benefit that may be the best payment you ever get for being a principal.
2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Elementary, Middle, and High School Principals reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed March 2023.