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School Principal Career Guide

How to Become a Principal

Elementary, middle, and high school principals, which report to the district’s superintendent, are responsible for directing the overall operation of their school. This involves various daily tasks such as maintaining leadership, handling problems and other issues as they occur, and maximizing staff and student success.

The job outlook for school principals is expected to grow at average rates over the next decade, based on factors like increased student enrollment, higher state and local budgets, and the retirement of existing teachers.

If you are an organized, motivated individual who’s passionate about helping students learn while supporting teachers in their success, a career as a school principal might be rewarding for you.


Retro Grunge Principal Office

What Does a Principal Do?

School principals perform a wide variety of tasks, which on any given day include the following:

  • Direct school operations. Includes managing staff, teachers, and other personnel.
  • Scheduling and development. Establishing class schedules and activities while developing and maintaining curriculum standards.
  • Disciplinary actions. Includes dealing with teacher conflicts, counseling students, and taking disciplinary actions when needed.
  • Security. Implementing policies and procedures that keep students, staff, and visitors safe and secure.
  • Managing a school’s academic performance. Letting staff know what the school’s goals are and making sure they’re achieved on time.
  • Overseeing hiring decisions. While teachers typically have a summer break, school principals typically work throughout the year, during which time they usually make hiring decisions.
  • Evaluating teacher performance: Principals observe teachers in their classrooms and assess their performance.
  • Meeting with parents and teachers: During these meetings, principals discuss how students are progressing with their coursework, as well as their overall behavior.
  • Reporting: Includes state-mandated test scores (for public schools) and other student achievements.
  • Budgetary concerns: A school only has so much money to go around, and principals are responsible for managing its budget, including maintenance and school supplies.

With these details in mind, there are some crucial distinctions between a principal’s duties depending on whether they work in an elementary, junior high, or high school scenario, which primarily relates to academic and student age differences. 

What Education Does a Principal Need?

In most instances, school principals hold master’s degrees in education administration or educational leadership. However, some principals hold only bachelor’s degrees but have significant experience as elementary, junior high, or high school teachers, or as upper-level administrators.

School principals also need different experience and certifications, which can vary by state, city, and district. Some standard requirements include:

  • Classroom teaching certificate: Educators receive this certificate upon completion of an educator preparation program.
  • Teaching experience: Most schools require that principals have a certain amount of experience (e.g., two years) teaching students in the classroom.
  • Principal educator preparation program: After completing the program and passing the required exam, individuals will be prepared for a successful career as a school administrator.

Best Degree for Principals

Educational Leadership – M.S.

An online master's degree for current teachers looking to move...

An online master's degree for current teachers...

An online master's degree for current teachers looking to move into a school or district leadership position, like principal, vice principal, or administrator.

  • Time: 73% of grads earned this degree within 24 months.
  • Tuition and fees: $3,665 per 6-month term.

Coursework in this program includes:

  • Process management
  • Strategic planning
  • Performance excellence
  • Governance, finance, law, and leadership
  • Measurement, analysis, and knowledge management
  • Workforce focus
  • Other courses, including a capstone project and a series of performance tasks to take place under the leadership of a practicing state licensed school principal or assistant principal in a practicum school site (K–12). 

Put your leadership skills to good use—in the service of America's children—with this education master's degree. 

States that do not accept this program: Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, and Minnesota.

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What Skills Does a Principal Need?

  • Management: Principals must juggle many different aspects of a school, including looking after its operations, focusing on students’ needs, supporting staff, disciplining students, and modeling behaviors that the other staff should follow. This includes managing time, energy, and staffing, deciding where their time is best spent, and where they can delegate responsibilities to other school employees.
  • Communication: With so many responsibilities, principals need to effectively communicate with students, teachers, and parents about what’s going on and what remains to be done.
  • Critical thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making: Principals are responsible for making decisions that significantly impact their school’s operation, so they need to be able to weigh the pros and cons of any decisions they’re considering. This involves using past information to gauge how their choices will impact the school’s future.
  • Patience and active listening: Principals must be able to patiently listen to other people’s perspectives, whether involving a student, teacher, or parent. This is one of the top skills a school principal must possess.
  • Interpersonal: Principals must deal with a wide variety of issues between students, parents, and staff. Regardless of who they’re talking with, strong interpersonal skills are a must to ensure everyone feels heard.
  • Leadership: Parents, students, and other teachers look to their principal for leadership when it comes to the daily operation of an elementary, junior high, or high school. Without this, they will have a difficult time following their principal and looking at them as an effective leader.
  • Risk management: Every decision a principal makes can positively or negatively impact teachers, students, and parents. Therefore, they need to assess the pros and cons of different scenarios before they commit to a decision.

How Much Does a Principal Make?


According to, school principals earn a median salary of $109,471. Variables that can impact how much a principal makes include the level of education, relevant certifications, the number of years they’ve worked in the profession, other related skills, and location.

What Is the Projected Job Growth?


According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the need for school principals is expected to increase by 4% between 2019 and 2029, which is about as fast as average. This translates into about 20,000 elementary, middle, and high school principal positions each year over the 10-year timespan.

Factors that impact this growth include increased student enrollment, state and local budgets, and existing teacher retirement.

Where Do Principals Work?


Principals are needed in all types of different schools, including:

Private schools

Public schools

Elementary schools

Middle schools

High schools

Charter schools

Interested in Becoming a School Principal?

Learn more about degree programs that can prepare you for this meaningful career.

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