How to Become a School Principal

how to become a principal

Your younger self might be cringing at the fact you are even considering this.

But here you are, on the brink of taking the next step in becoming that thing you never imagined you would become. The voice of authority. The person whose office no one ever wants to be sent to. The object of amusement at any school assembly.

The Principal.

Fortunately, you’ve matured a lot since those days. Probably you’ve put in your time on the other side of the educational system already, working as a teacher or instructional administrator.

You’ve seen the real work that goes on in those school offices, the things that happen at teacher’s meetings, the care and attention after hours that principals spend on things like mentoring new teachers, checking on student’s home situations, or even making sure kid’s get food when they need it.

That’s all stuff that is making a big difference in a lot of lives. It isn’t flashy or dramatic. But when you see how the consequences of those little actions echo into a new generation of enabled, enthusiastic, and extraordinary kids… well, how could you not want to be that person?

So now you know. Being a principal is actually pretty cool.

Becoming a Principal Puts You Into One of the Most Challenging Jobs in Education Today

don't worry studentA school principal is a bit like a ship’s captain. Although you’ll have your marching orders from the admiralty (the high and mighty district offices) and are equipped with policies, resources, and standards, most of the day-to-day decisions that are made in your building will be yours alone.

Considering how unpredictable students and society can be these days, that can put a wide range of responsibilities on your plate. Many of those won’t even be on your radar when you get up in the morning. It’s a fast-paced role where you’ll think on your feet from morning until night.

You’re going to be the first person responsible for handling everything from overnight plumbing leaks, to cheating scandals, to parental conniptions over homework, to serious questions of harassment and neglect.

This keeps the job interesting as well as challenging, though. If you thrive on controlled chaos, then a principalship is just the job for you.

The Many Skills Required to Become a Principal and Serve Your School Community

principal outside with studentsYou need to be able to manage and overcome that chaos—that’s what the job is all about. To do so, you’ll have to bring to bear a host of important skills.

Principals are not mere administrators. They are leaders. That means cultivating the ability to inspire, motivate, and strategize. And you’ll have to be able to do that on multiple levels—parents, district officials, teachers, and, not least, with the kids themselves. You’ll have to do it all while keeping the ship afloat and steaming full ahead into the future.

And you will find that voyage requires many specific skills to safely complete.


Perhaps above all, a principal must be diplomatic. You will be the focal point of dozens of competing interests in your community and school—answering to senior administrators, teachers, parents, coaches, kids, and those random people that show up at every PTA meeting.

You may want to consult one of your math teachers to verify this equation, but some back of the envelope calculations reveal that there is approximately a zero percent chance that you will make everyone happy all at once. But strong diplomatic skills will at least let them know they have been recognized and heard.

Training and Development

As the leader in your school, you’ll give teachers their own marching orders and objectives. But you’ll also be responsible for giving them the kind of guidance and tools they need to achieve those objectives.

That means mentorship and training. These are classical leadership skills, drawing on areas such as:

Principals also get a big say in hiring and firing decisions, so you’ll have to learn how to evaluate people and to build a team designed to create the sort of school environment you are striving for. You’re also the one who assesses and reviews both teachers and staff, so the success or failure of your mentorship will be clear as day.


Speaking of communications, you’ll be the mouthpiece for your team in all kinds of different venues. You are the voice of your school at the district level. You’re the voice of the district in the teacher’s lounge. You may be asked to speak up at city council meetings or other public gatherings. You’ll probably put in an appearance at school sporting events, and say a few words in support of the team. And you’ll definitely play a major role in school assemblies, speaking directly to the student body and staff.

So you will have to master both written and verbal communications. Principals need to be able to compose masterful memos and can speak extemporaneously in front of a crowd. These days, you may also need to master new social media formats like TikTok if you want to meet your kids where they live… and more stodgy sites like LinkedIn to find your staff.

Logistics and Planning

In addition to being a leader, you are going to have to fill the position of manager and administrator at your school as well. From assigning rotating recess duty so teachers don’t revolt, to overseeing supply orders so every lunch for a month isn’t hot dogs and mac and cheese, you are the one making the trains run on time.

It requires a mastery of logistical and scheduling skills that would make any project manager jealous. Throw in snow days, flu outbreaks, and unexpected supply shortages, and you will give any major corporate logistics manager a run for their money in your ability to think on your feet.

Facilities Management

principal and custodian in hallwayAs principal, you’re not just the leader of staff and student body. You’re also the proprietor of desks, lockers, and leaky plumbing—the school building and facilities themselves. In fact, some state licenses even call principal licensing a “building level administrator.”

So you will need to understand cleaning, maintenance, health and safety requirements and all the details of keeping the heat and lights on. Although most schools have a school or district maintenance team to count on, it’s the rare principal who doesn’t end up changing a few lightbulbs and unclogging the occasional toilet over the course of their career.

Budgeting and Finance

Principals are also responsible for school finances at some level. While there are definitely going to be accounting specialists on the case at both the school and district level to help out, you’ll have to develop a high-level command of basic principles of accounting and budgeting.

You may be responsible for drawing up annual budgets covering all your various needs, from paper towels to textbooks. And you will certainly be responsible for monitoring the actual spending the occurs on your watch, everything from salaries to crepe paper for the Homecoming dance.

How To Become a School Principal in Six Big Steps

young female college studentYour younger self would probably also be shocked at the level of qualifications required from anyone seeking to become a principal. All 50 states have set out leadership standards in the form of licensure or endorsement for educational administrators in their legal code. Meeting those standards is no picnic.

You don’t just show up with no training or knowledge and step into principal positions, like some kind of academic Ted Lasso. Every state has their own set of requirements and qualifications, but they are all aimed at ensuring you have the right blend of skills and knowledge to trust the fate of the education of hundreds of kids.

To both acquire and prove you have mastered all the various skills and requirements of the job, there are a series of steps you will have to go through to become a principal in every state.

While the specific requirements will vary from state to state, pretty much all of them follow the same basic pattern. You’ll go through each step in roughly the same order, checking off the boxes along the way.

How To Become a Principal in a Private School Isn’t Much Different

private school principalYou may be wondering if you still need to go through this process if you are planning to become a principal in a private or charter school. The answer is probably yes, but not necessarily for the reasons you might think.

First off, just as with teachers, the rules for licensure in private schools vary from state to state. Just as some states require private school teachers to become licensed or certified, they may also require principals to hold licensure. However, a state that requires teacher licensing may not require principal licensing, and vice versa!

But in most states, even private school principals bear some legal responsibilities that are in-line with requirements of public school principals. So an equivalent level of knowledge of state rules, regulations, educational standards, and so on will be required.

There’s also the fact that private schools are elite institutions that hold themselves to higher standards than public schools in the same area. So you can bet that anyone hiring for the principal position at those institutions isn’t going to settle for candidates with lower qualifications than are outlined here.

1. Become Licensed as a Teacher and Work in the Field

group of elementary students with their principalIn no state can you graduate directly from high school, or even from a four-year college, and proceed directly to becoming a school principal. First, you need to accumulate some kind of sufficient and respected real-world experience in the education field.

For the most part, this means becoming a teacher. To most people, if you ask what the next step up from teaching is, principal is the answer. That’s too simplistic for the real world, but it’s true that someone who will be spending the balance of their career overseeing teachers probably ought to put in a few years mastering that job first.

How To Become a Principal Without Being a Teacher First

principal firstIt’s unusual and you may have to jump through a few extra hoops, but in many states there’s no real requirement that you work as a teacher before taking up a position as a school principal.

According to the Education Commission of the States, at least 39 states plus the District of Columbia offer alternative paths to initial school leadership certification.

But that doesn’t make these paths a cakewalk. Both experience and education still play a role—and because you are sneaking in the side door, it’s often a more significant role than if you had obtained teacher certification first.

At least a master’s degree in educational leadership, with the required certification coursework for your state, is front and center for this option.

Experience is the more difficult box to check. Depending on the state, you may be able to get the required administrative experience through work as a school counselor, curriculum designer, specialist, or even as an assistant or vice principal in cases where those are unlicensed roles.

Every state is unique, and some are more flexible than others. It’s best to check with the licensing authorities in your area to map out a path to becoming a principal without first being a teacher if that is your goal.

States, too, generally treat this as the natural progression. In most cases, your eligibility to apply for principal licensure requires holding a current instructional endorsement as well as anywhere from two to four years of teaching experience.

The process of becoming a teacher is a whole separate journey that is too detailed to explore here, but along the way, you will, at a minimum:

That’s all important when it comes to eventually becoming a principal, as well.

There isn’t typically any requirement that you have a teaching license in the same state where you plan to become a principal, as long as your out-of-state credentials have comparable requirements and that you meet the experience levels.

2. Earn an Advanced Degree in Educational Administration

graduating grandfatherYou had to go to college to become a teacher. You’re going to have to go back to college to become a principal.

For starters, you will need to earn at least a master’s degree.

In all of these cases, you can expect this to take a couple of years of full-time study, or longer if you are working on it only part-time. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, your average annual cost will be $12,410 per year at a public university, or $26,597 per year at a private school as you pursue a graduate program.

Legally, many states only require that you have a bachelor’s degree to qualify for principal licensing—but they still require graduate-level coursework for preparation. So in practice, you will be earning credits toward an advanced degree anyway.

Doctoral programs are just fine, too. And so is the post-master’s Educational Specialist (EdS). If you have been teaching for a long time, there’s a good chance you already hold a master’s degree as part of fulfilling your continuing education requirements. If that’s the case, an EdS or doctorate may be the next natural step for you. You’ll find plenty of EdS, EdD (Doctor of Education), and PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) programs offering principal preparation tracks that offer both practical and required coursework.

What To Look For in Advanced Degrees That Can Prepare You To Become a School Principal

student on laptop in coffee shopSome states may specify the type of master’s program that you should earn, whether in educational administration, administration and supervision, or educational leadership. But in general, the most important part is meeting the school principal preparation coursework specified by the state. Just like the ITP requirements for teachers, this subset of your training is standardized and specified to ensure that all principal applicants have the same core knowledge and skills.

You’ll mostly be looking at degrees such as:

  • Master of Arts in Educational Leadership
  • Master of Education in Educational Leadership
  • Master Education in Special Education Administration
  • Master of Arts in Education with a Major in Administration and Supervision
  • Educational Specialist (EdS) in Education Administration and Leadership
  • Doctor of Education (EdD) in Leadership in Educational Administration

You can often tell which degree programs come with approved principal preparation tracks – referred to in some states as Administrator Preparation Programs (APP), or Educator Preparation Programs (EPP) – just by looking at the title: Master of Arts in Educational Administration – Supervisor of Instruction P-12 or a Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership – K-12 Administration. That focus tells you exactly what sort of APP component that degree fulfills.

Also like ITP, these APP courses are not strictly required to be part of your degree. You can find certificate programs that will fulfill these specific requirements in most states, for individuals who have already earned a relevant master’s degree but without that coursework. The required coursework can vary from 20 to 30 credit hours, with subjects specified by each state licensing board.

And you’re probably not going to be surprised to hear that many of these programs are available almost entirely online in this day and age. While online studies were already becoming more popular pre-COVID, the pandemic really normalized online degrees. With the sort of flexibility that comes from streaming classes on your own clock and at any location, they are becoming a favorite for future principals seeking degrees in educational administration.

Classes You’ll Have To Sit Through To Become a Master of the Classroom

A master’s program in educational leadership or administration is designed to fill in the blanks in both your administrative and management abilities, and to help instill some basic leadership skills along the way. So you will find that most of them come with courses such as:

You’ll also get at least a solid taste of many of the other kinds of educational fields the modern principal needs to master. This can include coursework in areas like:

It’s a broad base of knowledge and understanding to give you the foundations you will need to function as a principal and leader in today’s education system.

Choosing Concentrations and Elective Options To Shape Your Training

There are a wide range of different types of schools out there, and principals need to develop different kinds of skills depending on the challenges they face in specific roles. So many graduate programs give you a selection of different concentration areas you can focus on, including:

At some schools, your concentration will be your licensing focus for APP coursework, particularly where the state may have different license tracks. In other cases, you can stack a concentration on top of your APP focus.

Even without a concentration, master’s in education administration programs usually have a healthy complement of elective courses available. Everything from classes in literacy instruction to classroom behavior modification can round out your existing skills, or introduce new ones that will be valuable in your new role.

Make Sure Your Preparation Program Makes the Grade in Your State With Specialty Accreditation

student reading in library stacksJust like when you went through your ITP program, the degree you earn to qualify to become a principal will need to hold a specialty accreditation from CAEP, the Council for the Accreditation of Education Preparation.

This accreditation is important for the same reason, too—state license laws typically specify some level of standard recognition of quality in degrees they will accept for licensure. CAEP accreditation will always fit the bill. You’ll find that some schools still hold accreditation from NCATE (the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education) or TEAC (the Teacher Education Accreditation Council) till the end of their renewal periods, though the organizations merged to form CAEP in 2014. You’ll find those NCATE and TEAC programs rolling over to CAEP-accreditation as they re-certify in the coming years.

3. Gain Practical Field Experience in Educational Administration

Even though you’re probably coming from a background that includes years of real-world education experience, you also know that it’s the kind of experience that really matters. You sat through plenty of hours in class as a kid, but did that really give you the kind of valuable classroom experience you needed to become an effective teacher? Probably not.

Although you may have spent years in school as a teacher already, it’s not quite the same thing as stepping through those doors carrying the weight of administrative responsibility.

Most states recognize the value of getting supervised field experience under your belt as a principal trainee. You’ll find licensing requirements virtually always demand a certain number of hours of that experience before you’re allowed to operate independently.

In most cases, as long as you enroll in a degree program that includes the required APP coursework for your state, this will be taken care of through practicum classes. These put together instructional time with a professor and on-the-ground in-school experience under an experienced principal to help you integrate your formal training with the demands of real-world leadership.

In other cases, you may have an internship, either coordinated through your degree program or that you line up independently to get the required hours in.

Practicum or internship placements can be in public or private schools, but most programs will work to get you into an environment that is similar to the kind of job you are aiming for.

The actual work you do in these positions is a bit free-wheeling, determined by your supervisor and advisors, along with the practical needs of the school itself. In some cases, you will effectively end up working as a vice or assistant principal under close supervision. In others, you may be assigned to or be asked to propose specific administrative projects to take on during your fieldwork.

What you can be sure of is that you will be getting real-world exposure to school culture, discipline, planning, evaluation, and the tough calls that every principal has to make every single day.

In recognition of all those years of prior service, though, practicum requirements tend to be a fairly minor part of your preparation. In many states, you’ll only have to go through about 300 clock hours of supervised field experience.

4. Pass a Required Exam in Leadership and Education Administration Topics

smiling female principalIt turns out that standardized testing isn’t just for kids. The same fine folks who brought you the GRE, Praxis exams, and TOEFL/TOEIC, Educational Testing Service (ETS), would like to introduce you prospective principals to another set of exams: the School Leadership Series, or SLS.

Many, but not all, states require that you pass an examination for initial principal licensure. Of those that do require a test, there are a mix of those who have their own exam and those that use an off-the-shelf solution. SLLA, the School Leaders Licensure Assessment exam from ETS is one of the most common, and is a good example of this category of examination overall.

The SLS also includes an exam for superintendents if you decide to move further up the educational leadership ladder later in your career, so get used to it!

SLLA is administered via computer, usually at a testing center, but optionally in some states at home with a proctor monitoring by video.

You have four hours to complete the test, split into two sections: a 165-minute multiple-choice section and a 75-minute written response section.

Overall, the test has seven different categories covered over 124 questions. The categories are in all the same subjects you studied when you were earning your degree in education administration:

All questions are developed in alignment with the Professional Standards for Educational Leaders outlined by the National Policy Board for Educational Administration. Each state, however, determines their own requirement for a passing score.

States that have their own versions of a school leadership licensing test don’t usually stray too far from this basic formula. Others have instead adopted another ETS test, the Praxis II Educational Leadership: Administration and Supervision test, as their standard.

ETS publishes extensive resources to help prepare you for their exam, and most states with their own exams offer study guides to help you through as well. Although the material is only testing the type of things you will have learned in your degree program and on-the-ground experiential training, it’s still a good idea to beef up your test-taking skills before you sit down for it.

You May Have To Keep Testing for a While To Meet Licensure Requirements

If you thought acing the SLLA was the end of your test-taking steps on the path to becoming a school principal, you might want to think again. That’s because many states have additional testing hoops you need to jump through.

Granted, these are usually less intensive than the SLLA and its kin, but they are no less important. Typically, they focus on ethical or legal standards that are specific to that state. It may cover reporting requirements for abuse cases, or specific instructional and administrative practices used in that state. These ensure you are familiar with the specific details of being a responsible principal in that state, in addition to fulfilling the more general tasks.

An alternative to these additional tests that you may encounter in some states will be additional coursework requirements outside of your principal preparation program. These often cover areas like:

5. Apply for and Receive a State License To Act as Principal

principal talking to classroomThere are all different kinds of systems for licensure and certification for principals, vice principals, or assistant administrators of various sorts. Some of these roles aren’t licensed at all in some states. Other states may refer to the same type of position with different titles, while others offer a single credential to cover multiple roles.

The actual titles for these certificates, endorsements, or licenses vary considerably from state to state. Here are just a few of the different credentials you will run across in different states:

Adding even more complexity, these may have different levels. In Connecticut, for example, you can proceed through initial, provisional, and finally professional certificates in administration and supervision.

In some states, like Delaware, you’ll pursue the same license and take the same test whether you are becoming a principal or assistant principal. In other states, separate licenses are offered for different jobs, like Arkansas, where a Building Level Administrator has a separate license from a Curriculum/Program Administrator.

And just like they have various different names and tests, each state has their own process for confirming your experience, applying, and going through the approval process.

You will probably have to check off a few other boxes here, too, covering things like:

The good news is that principal licenses are administered by the same state agencies that handle teacher licensing. So you should already be familiar with the formalities of filing your paperwork and submitting verification materials.

6. Begin Working as a Principal at the School of Your Dreams

proud principalAt the end of the day, all this education, testing, form-filling, and application-filing is designed to do one thing: get you hired as a principal.

But, needless to say, there are still some big differences between being a principal at, say, a rural community high school covering four small towns and hundreds of square miles, versus a big city elementary school that is one of dozens and serves a very specific neighborhood in a great metropolis. And both are likely to have very different challenges and needs than an affluent suburban middle school environment.

Clearly you’ll have some idea of which sort of school you would prefer to take the helm at. Through strategic use of electives and concentration options in your degree program, you should have already polished up the specific skills needed in those environments.

In all but the smallest schools, you’re also very likely to be hired as an assistant principal before anyone offers you the top job. In most states, the licensing process and qualifications are no different, but every employer is going to want candidates with plenty of real-world experience under their belt.

How To Become an Assistant Principal / How To Become a Vice Principal

become assistant principalAlthough the last station on this journey is becoming a full-fledged principal with a school of your own to support and steer, realistically you’re probably going to spend some time in the lower ranks of school administration first: as a vice-principal or assistant principal.

Both of those names describe the same role: an assistant to the principal who takes on delegated responsibilities from that role. Often, that role is discipline, but the job can either be more general or fall into other specialties, like academic affairs.

Because all of these are basically handling the work of the principal, in many states there’s no separate licensing process for vice-principals. You have to go through all the same steps we’ve listed here and meet all the same qualifications, even if you’re not applying for the top job right away.

In other states, there’s either a two-stage licensing process for principals, or no license is required to become a vice-principal. For example, in North Carolina, you can obtain a provisional principal’s license to work as an assistant principal for up to three years before becoming fully licensed. In Texas, you can get a waiver to serve as an assistant principal as long as you are pursuing an EPP program, even if you haven’t completed it yet.

How To Become a School Principal and Serve the Grade Levels You’d Like to Work With

principal working with middle school studentsSince you have already fulfilled step one by becoming licensed and working as a teacher for some period of time, we don’t have to tell you that there are considerable differences between primary and secondary schools.

The same is true of working as a principal in those environments.

Although you have the same basic responsibilities and duties as a principal anywhere in the school system, the specific challenges and day-to-day experiences you go through are just going to be hugely different when you are dealing with teenagers versus first-graders.

But there are plenty of things that remain consistent at all levels, just adapted to different age ranges. At every level, you’ll find principals giving time and attention to instructional leadership and social shaping, curriculum design and delivery, and mentoring teachers.

How One Man Became the Icon of Every Urban High School Principal

bat, baseball, and successThere are few images in the public perspective of high school principals that are more iconic than Joe Clark. Walking tall down the halls of Eastside High School in Paterson, New Jersey with a bullhorn and a baseball bat, Clark was the embodiment of tough love, expelling more than 300 students for disciplinary issues in his first week on the job.

A background as an Army drill instructor put Clark in a very different kind of educational track for his job than the high-concept educational leadership programs required today. His tenure was equally polarizing, drawing fire from some and praise from others. While math scores improved under his watch, as did college admissions among graduates, reading scores stayed flat and drop-out rates increased.

Yet Clark hit on a reality that secondary school principals today still face: discipline is a necessary condition for learning. And former students, including those among the 300 he initially expelled, continue to sing his praises for instilling that discipline, pride, and enthusiasm for learning that carried them into the future.

In that sense, Clark made the most of his opportunity to make a difference and achieved something that every principal hopes for: a legacy among those students he helped educate.

Elementary schools also tend to be smaller, so you have opportunities to develop more personal relationships with both students and staff. Your staff will be smaller, too, so you may take on more principal responsibilities directly versus delegating them.

At the secondary level, principals are more likely to have assistant principals to hand off some parts of the job too. Though curriculum, instruction, and assessment are just as important at this level, you will also face serious issues within the student body and in interactions with the community. This could include dealing with problems like substance abuse, truancy, and skyrocketing libidos.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that secondary school principal roles aren’t fun, though. You are also putting the final polish on kids that are about to graduate into productive members of society. Interactions at this level can be some of the most rewarding you will have in your career. And, due to the challenges, secondary school administrators also tend to receive higher compensation rates than elementary school principals, just like in the teaching world. The primary difference in salaries at this level comes as a result of supervising school activities outside of school instruction hours, as well as the increased number of students attending high schools.

So How Long Does It Take To Become a Principal, Anyway?

selfie with principal Six steps doesn’t sound like a lot, but each of those steps can take a long time to complete! In practice, most people serve as teachers for decades before they even consider aiming for a position as principal. Throw in a couple years for graduate school, a couple more as an assistant principal, and pretty soon you are talking about a really big commitment to the career path.

But it’s all time well spent. Every moment you are in class, every time you confront a situation with a student or fellow faculty member that requires leadership and communication, every observation you make of skilled and dedicated principals that you are working for, you’re building your own capabilities.

The only real answer, for everyone, is that it takes exactly the right amount of time to become a principal. You need every minute leading up to that first moment you step into the office to polish your abilities to deliver the best possible support and inspiration to your staff and students.

With the right education and experience behind you, you’ll be the kind of principal that even your younger self would have been proud to learn from.

How to Become a Principal in Your State

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