Principal Career Guide

A school principal has many roles and responsibilities. As principal, one must assume complete responsibility for the school and its performance. A principal is the supervisor of all employees, including teachers, maintenance workers, administrative staffers, and any other employee of the school. Given the responsibilities held by principals, there are several general skills and traits that are necessary to be an effective principal of a school. This guide provides further information on what principals do, how to become one, and the occupation’s salary and job outlook.

Principal Job Description

Principals manage the operations of their school, usually in elementary schools, middle schools, or high schools. School principals might work in a public, private, or charter school. They are responsible for ensuring their school runs smoothly; adheres to local, state, and/or federal requirements; remains safe; and provides an excellent learning environment for its students. Each staff member and each teacher employed by a school ultimately reports to that school’s principal, so this position is typically well-respected and highly regarded. On the other hand, it can also be a stressful position, since the principal is the primary and public-facing representative for the school.

Principal Requirements and Common Tasks

Principals usually need at least a master’s degree in education, often in education leadership or education administration. Some prospective school principals may seek a higher degree in education administration, such as an Educational Specialist (EdS) degree, a Doctor of Education (EdD), or a PhD in Education. Depending on the school district, additional training in areas such as administering teacher evaluations and school resource management may be required. Principals generally must also have experience in both the classroom and school administration before reaching the position of principal. More experience in administrative roles is commonly regarded as stronger preparation for the position. Besides education and job history, there are several skills and traits necessary to be a school principal. First, prospective principals must be comfortable in a position of authority and be able to effectively command a school. A principal must also be an excellent communicator as a common task is facilitating communication between employees, students, parents, the community, and both local and state governments.

The day-to-day tasks of a principal can be, but are not always, straightforward. Principals ensure schools are run properly by analyzing curricula and interpreting standardized test scores and then taking the proper steps to improve a school’s performance. Also, they will analyze a school’s budget and make executive decisions on how to allocate funds. Principals also hold responsibility for managing the safety of their schools. In addition to planning and managing drills and emergency plans in response to potential risks to student safety, principals must coordinate with school boards and other stakeholders to design or renovate school buildings to address safety concerns with a focus on the physical security of students and staff. These tasks also involve developing relationships and safety plans in partnership with local law enforcement, fire departments, and school security officers. Finally, principals are responsible for creating a positive environment by enforcing discipline to maintain safety as well as improve morale.

How to Become a Principal

Most schools require principal candidates to have prior teaching experience; in fact, many master’s programs designed for school administrators require applicants to already have two to five years of teaching experience. Though certification requirements vary by state, most public school principals are required to be state-licensed school administrators (referred to in some states as certification or endorsement), most often with a graduate degree in education administration or a related field. In these states, the qualifying degree program must be approved by the state board of education for the preparation of school administrators in order to qualify graduates for a license. The common steps to becoming a school principal are:

  1. Complete a bachelor’s degree in education or a related subject that includes a teacher preparation program.
  2. Complete a student teaching internship.
  3. Pass your state’s tests for teacher licensing.
  4. Apply for your teaching license.
  5. Obtain a classroom teaching position and gain three to five years of experience as a teacher (note years of teaching experience required may vary).
  6. Earn a master’s, specialist, or doctoral degree in education administration or a related subject, which in most states must include an administrative internship in order to qualify for licensure.
  7. Pass your state’s tests for school administrator licensing.
  8. Apply for your school administrator’s license.
  9. Begin applying to administrative positions.

While holding a school administrator license is typically sufficient licensure for the principal role, many schools prefer that candidates start out in a vice principal or other high-ranking administrative support role to gain additional experience. Principals at private schools may have different education and certification requirements, but private schools are increasingly showing a preference for candidates who have a state-issued school administrator’s license.

Principal Salary and Job Outlook

On average, principals earn the highest salaries in the school system besides superintendents. The average annual salary reflects the vast responsibility and expectations of the position. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2021, the median annual wage of principals in elementary, middle, and high schools was $98,420.1 The related occupation of education administrators, which includes principals as well as superintendents and other district-level administrators, saw a median salary of $101,320 in 2022.2 The lowest-earning 10% of administrators in this group made less than $64,690, and the top-earning 10% made more than $158,770.2

The overall job outlook for school principals is similar to that of teachers; through 2031, the job growth rate for school principals is projected at 5%.1 If school enrollment numbers increase, the need for school principals should remain strong; however, if enrollment numbers decrease, the demand may be reduced.1 With many teachers in the baby boomer generation reaching retirement age, there may be good opportunities for new prospective school principals to fill those positions.1

Helpful Skills and Experience

School principals should be confident since they are the public face of the school they represent. Similar to teachers, principals should also have excellent organizational, communication, presentation, and decision-making skills. They should also be fair, patient, and understanding since they are supervisors of teachers and faculty and authority figures to students. A master’s degree in education administration or a similar field, as well as experience as a teacher or in school administration, will also help a prospective school principal be more competitive for the position.

Possible Job Titles for This Career

  • Elementary School Principal
  • High School Principal
  • Middle School Principal
  • School Principal

Additional Resources

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: Do school principals get summers off?

Answer: Unlike teachers, principals often work year-round and do not get their summers off. They usually use summer as a time to plan, budget, and hire teachers for the academic year ahead.

Question: What types of courses do I take to become a principal?

Answer: The courses required will vary depending on the school and state guidelines, but most prospective principals will complete coursework in education administration or leadership, which might include classes in school law and public policy, educational technology, and instructional leadership. According to O*NET OnLine, 37% of respondents reported that administrators at the kindergarten through secondary levels should hold a master’s degree, while 44% reported that a post-master’s certificate is needed, suggesting that those pursuing this career track should complete graduate and post-graduate education.3

Question: How much do principals make?

Answer: The salary of a principal depends on many factors, including the school, the geographic location, the education level, and the years of teaching experience that the principal holds. In general, the BLS reports that principals at the kindergarten through high school levels across the United States earn a median of $98,420 per year.1

Question: Can I become a principal without becoming a teacher?

Answer: While it is possible to become a school principal without teaching experience, it is more common for leadership roles such as principal to be filled by former teachers. Some schools may require teaching experience to become a principal, and it is common for master’s programs to require applicants to have teaching experience as well. In addition, it is advantageous for those in leadership positions to understand the daily activities of teachers on a personal level. However, you should check with local schools for job requirements.

1. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Elementary, Middle, and High School Principals: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/elementary-middle-and-high-school-principals.htm
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2022 Occupational Employment and Wages, Education Administrators, Kindergarten through Secondary: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes119032.htm
3. O*NET OnLine, Education Administrators, Kindergarten through Secondary: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/11-9032.00