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How to Become a School Administrator

Exploring the process of becoming a principal

I'd been teaching middle school for more than ten years when I started to wonder if I should explore how to become a school administrator. Being a principal had never been a goal of mine, and I still liked being in the classroom, but I was beginning to worry that I had plateaued as a teacher.

My first couple of years in the classroom were pretty challenging as I learned how to do the job. But after a decade, I had developed classroom management skills that made the curriculum effective, interesting, and (dare I say) fun for my students. I mentored new teachers and was seen as a faculty leader.

My yearly classroom evaluations were just as excellent—no big needs for improvement—although this was more a function of my principal's routine approach to supervision than flawless teaching.

But I stopped growing. I liked the job, sure, but would I still like it next year? In five years? I wasn't certain. Maybe, I thought, I should learn how to become a school administrator so I'd have some options. As they say, how hard could it be?

Learning to Be an Administrator

First, I checked my state's education department website to find out what was required for administrative certification: I would need an additional 24 hours of graduate coursework, plus an internship. A nearby college offered an administrative program, but tuition would really stretch my family's budget and the program required almost two years of night classes. After a long discussion with my family—who supported my idea wholeheartedly—I applied for the college program, took out a loan, and started the process.

The first night, I found that my administrative cohort of thirty teachers was almost equally divided between men and women. Our professors told us that the number of women in the administrative program continued to grow each year. I knew 75 percent of teachers are women, but I was surprised to learn that more than 50 percent of public school principals are women, according to the US Dept. of Education. I'd worked for female principals, some of whom I considered role models, so the idea of being one myself didn't seem unusual.

After the first semester, I came to love the classes. Many of them were taught by actual administrators, and I loved working with other aspiring administrators in my cohort. The whole experience gave me back the excitement I felt I was missing in my daily teaching.

Taking classes in the summer allowed me to finish the coursework within a year and a half. I was lucky to find a paid internship that turned into an entry-level assistant principal job. It wasn't long before I had the answer to my question, "How hard could it be?" Harder than I thought.

Authority vs. Camaraderie

Despite my careful planning to learn how to become an administrator, there were some challenges in the transition that I hadn't expected. I knew the job would require a new set of skills, but I hadn't counted on the change in my social life. When I first announced to a teacher colleague that I was considering a career in administration, he said, "So you're going over to the dark side." Not everyone felt that way, but there was a noticeable end to the camaraderie that came so easy as a teacher.

My social network shrank. As a teacher, I had a built-in group of friends. We played softball together. We did Relay for Life together. We ate lunch together. We partied together. Now that I was an assistant principal, I was outside that social circle and began to learn an age-old truth: you can't as readily socialize with the people you supervise. Now, when I walked into the teachers' lunchroom, conversation stopped as people waited to see what I wanted. Eventually I made other friends in administration, but I had to get used to the new dynamic.

As an assistant principal, I spent a lot more time on student management than I ever did as a teacher. I often supervised the cafeteria, talking to kids and monitoring their behavior during this period. I sometimes ate lunch in my office with kids who earned lunch detention for something I'd like to think they learned from later. I had more contact with these "reluctant scholars" than I had before, but I also interacted more with kids who had various behavioral issues. These disciplinary issues can admittedly be a stressful part of your day in administration, but as I became more competent at the job, my principal entrusted me with other projects: working on the new English/Language Arts curriculum, overseeing and analyzing standardized testing, and chairing the parent advisory group.

It was true that my salary increased, but if I calculated the additional evening responsibilities and summer work, my hourly rate of pay remained about the same. My salary improved over time, though, and I ended up making more than I would have had I stayed in the classroom.

Is Administration a Good Move?

The move to school administration was good for me. Some of my friends in my administrative program eventually decided to remain in the classroom after discovering that the job just wasn't for them. But I liked the added responsibility and unpredictability of each day. I also enjoyed working with kids outside of the classroom, and loved having a direct influence on the culture of the school as a whole.

Eventually, I became a principal and moved up through the academic ranks. Each new position brought its own challenges, but none was greater than the transition from teaching to administration.