Interested in becoming a school principal? It’s a rewarding, challenging, and worthwhile career. Good school principals make an incredible difference in the lives of their students, teachers, and community. Here are the steps you’ll need to follow to become a great school principal.
Note: Climbing the educator career ladder is a great way to increase your income and accelerate your path to financial independence.
Table of contents
- Become Qualified
- Get a School Principal Job
- Start Out Right
Yes, in order to become a school principal you should first be a great teacher.
There are ways to become a school principal without teaching first. Don’t even think about it. Seriously, don’t.
A good school principal is an instructional leader driven by supporting effective teaching and learning. It is impossible to do that if you’re not first an effective teacher.
Some states require teaching to receive an administrative license, others don’t. If you are interested in being a school principal, first become a skilled teacher. Regardless of licensure requirements, some ineffective teachers become school principals. It doesn’t go well.
Students deserve to have their school led by someone who prioritizes teaching and learning. Teachers are more effective when supported by someone who understands the demands of their job, effective professional development practices, and the ability to provide useful feedback. All of those require teaching experience.
Get your teaching license, then work as a teacher until you are highly effective in the classroom.
How many years does that take? I am not a fan of hard and fast rules. I can’t imagine achieving a solid understanding of teaching in fewer than three years – it will likely take more. I personally taught for 8 years before I became a principal.
If you are seriously considering the principalship, then you should immediately review the licensure requirements in the state where you are likely to work.
Requirements vary by state and licensing agencies can be needlessly complex so make sure you do your research on the front end. It will save you pain and anxiety later if you happen to see the perfect job but can’t attain your licensure.
Here is what will be required just to be eligible for the job:
Go Back To School Yourself (Administrator Certification)
Yes, you will need to do more college coursework to become a principal. Most states require additional degrees – either a certification or an actual Master’s degree in education leadership. Again – check your state-specific requirements.
Doing the coursework will help you know if you want to continue down the path. You’ll start to get a picture of the theory and practice for the principalship.
Tip: Look for a program that intentionally connects you with other aspiring school leaders. Those connections will be valuable throughout your career.
Demonstrate Competence with Standards
Any good program will be built around professional standards. Most state licensing agencies require it. Since you are considering becoming a school principal, take a moment to review the standards and get an idea of what will be required.
The most commonly used standards are the Professional Standards for Education Leaders. Some states may use different standards, but they will generally be in alignment with the PSEL standards.
Get your Administrative License
As with teaching, you’ll need to apply for your license through your state licensing agency. Make a checklist of all the pieces you need to submit and do it. Most states now have online portals for this – log in and confirm you’ve completed everything.
This may seem like a no brainer, but I’ve seen people apply for jobs, receive an offer, and then find out they don’t yet qualify for the license. Don’t be that person.
Also, if it comes down to a choice between two candidates, districts will generally select the one who can demonstrate they’ve completed licensure application.
Get a School Principal Job
You’ve completed your preparation and are ready to work as a school principal. Congratulations! Now you need to get a job.
You need to decide where YOU want to work. While it may be tempting to just take any job starting out, this can be a career killer. If you don’t land in a spot where you are prepared to give your all, and where you will be supported, you will not show your best.
Decide what level you are prepared to work at. Some people are passionate about all levels of education, while others know that elementary, middle, or high school are their niche. You will probably be most successful in your first job at the level you taught.
Many people think they want to be a principal in the school in which they taught. I don’t advise this – it is harder to move from peer to supervisor than you think.
Do your research. Look at job postings. When you see one that appeals to you, research the district. A quick look at the district and school website will tell you a lot. What is their stated mission? How is their performance? Do their district priorities align with you and the work you want to do?
There are plenty of principal jobs out there. We desperately need good school leaders. Compile your list and start applying.
Of course, submitting an application is pretty straightforward. If you’re applying to be a principal, you’ve successfully applied for other jobs and multiple college programs. A few things to emphasize:
Do Your Research
It is incredibly important that throughout the process you demonstrate knowledge of the school context and needs. Start showing that in your application on the written portions. Reference strategic documents, visions, and student performance data in your responses when possible.
Letters of Reference Matter
Application reviewers pay attention to these letters more than you might think. Letters from your immediate supervisor (you are an effective teacher, right?) are the most effective.
Letters of recommendation from district leaders and an active parent are also useful. Letters from other teachers are less useful – as one hiring manager said to me, “How hard is it to get a friend to recommend you?”
Speaking of – only submit the number of letters requested. If it says three, don’t submit twelve. It doesn’t help.
A principal interview is, and should be, a rigorous process. If you’re hired solely on the basis of a single interview with district-level administrators, I’d be wary of the job.
Instead, the interview will typically consist of interviews with teachers at the school, community stakeholders, and other district administrators. These may be in separate sessions, or in a whole group session. I’ve personally interviewed before panels of up to 20 people.
You may also be asked to complete a work task. This could include analyzing or preparing a budget, student achievement data analysis, or creating an improvement plan.
Good school principal interviews include a lesson observation and feedback session with a teacher. If you’ve been a good teacher, and worked on your feedback during admin prep – this is your time to shine!
A rigorous interview will help a school find the right candidate, it will also signal to you that the district takes your future job seriously and believes you are prepared. Don’t shy away from it, be prepared for it.
Two resources you can use:
Start Out Right
Now that you’ve successfully worked through it – you are a school principal! It is an absolutely critical job. You need to do it well. While this is a post about becoming a school principal, I also want you to be effective at it. A few quick tips:
When you first start the job, you may be tempted to assert your authority and pretend you know it all. Don’t do it. Instead, listen to your colleagues (other successful principals), your staff, your community, and your students.
You’ll learn who you can trust, who is effective for students, and which problems you need to tackle. Trust me, taking the time to do this will build credibility and make you more effective.
If you haven’t read it yet, check out Sinek’s Leaders Eat Last.
A good leader listens more than they talk.
Find a Mentor
Speaking of listening to successful colleagues, it’s important that you find a mentor. Ask during the hiring process if the district provides one. If they do not, and you still want the job, make sure you build a mentor relationship yourself.
The principal job can be lonely and isolating. You will need someone to talk to and help you think through problems. This cannot be someone you supervise.
A mentor is critical.
Focus on Students
Don’t play politics. Don’t get in power struggles. Don’t let yourself be drawn into adult drama or solve problems for adult needs.
Focus on students in all decisions. Be clear with stakeholders about this from the start, and do it consistently. It won’t be easy, but it will be right.
The job will be consuming. I have yet to find a way to not pour myself into it. Find a way to balance out the intensity and importance of the work. Be intentional about this, or you’ll burn out before you achieve your full potential.
Finally – don’t forget to check out my Money Things Every New Principal Should Know to help you start out strong financially.
If you have questions about how to become a school principal – feel free to email me. Supporting educators, especially new school leaders, is my passion and current mission in life.
Caroline at Costa Rica FIRE says
My own kids are grown (youngest just started college) and my focus as a career coach is on experienced professionals, well out of school. But retraining and other adult education is a big market. Another big market is alternative education at all levels — online, charter, etc. Curious what you would recommend for someone starting in education today — aspire to a traditional admin role, like principal, or look into ed tech or some other alternative?
I believe that education has to change fundamentally in the next decade. Of course, I also thought that a decade ago! I think even with the increase in tech assisted learning, there will be a need for good building leaders. We definitely could use more now. I wouldn’t advise anyone to go the charter school route, unless it was really mission driven or an experience builder- they tend to be lower paying with even higher work demands. I’m really interested in potential ed tech development though, and if it’s within ones skillset and interests, it seems like a growth area to me.
Diana E Sung says
Great advice! As someone who spends a lot of time with the people who hire and then support principals at a district level, this advice is SPOT ON.
The only thing in here that I would say about having to teach first is that there are many, many jobs in a school system, and it might not be necessary to have mastered teaching, but you should have spent a lot of time mastering at least one key education position before trying to lead a building. One of the best assistant principals I worked for was a behavior support specialist for years before becoming an educator. She had a harder time building her “cred” as an instructional leader in observations, but her quality decision making and willingness to learn made the difference. I was a teacher and always thought former content teachers (at secondary) were superior to the people who vaulted to the top without caring about other jobs. However, mastering one of the basic student-service jobs in ed (like school secretary, instructional assistant, media specialist, school counselor, etc.) could allow an intelligent, thoughtful person to become a high quality principal, even if they aren’t ever in front of a classroom per se. Furthermore, sometimes teachers are too teacher-focused when they become administrators and don’t know how to work well with custodians, food service workers, secretarial support, etc. Generally, I would advise mastering SOMETHING in education, but approaching leadership with a broad perspective, not trying to “fix” something in your own expertise.
Your advice to keep students first in decision making is the best advice for all school leaders..
Great point. I’ve found principals are most accepted when they’ve been classroom teachers, but I’ve certainly worked with principals who have followed other paths – specialists, psychs, etc. And you’re absolutely right that it’s a mistake to ignore the other critical roles in the building.