School Principal Career Guide

A school principal assumes ultimate responsibility for their school and its performance. A principal is also the supervisor of the school’s teachers and staff. This guide provides information on what principals do, how to become one, and the occupation’s salary and job outlook.

Table of Contents

How to Become
Job Description
Salary & Job Outlook
Additional Resources
Frequently Asked Questions
Related Pages

How to Become a School Principal

Typically, school principal candidates must have prior teaching experience. In fact, many master’s in school administration programs require applicants to 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 with a state-approved master’s degree in education administration or a related field. 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. 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 a related internship.
  7. Pass your state’s tests for the school administrator license or endorsement.
  8. Apply for your school administrator’s license or endorsement.
  9. Begin applying to school principal positions.

While holding a school administrator license is typically sufficient for the school principal role, many schools prefer candidates start 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 with a state-issued school administrator’s license.

School Principal Job Description

School principals manage the operations of their school, usually an elementary, middle, or high school. 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. All staff members and teachers employed by a school ultimately report to that school’s principal, so this position is typically well-respected and highly regarded. The principal is also the primary and public-facing representative for the school.

Common Tasks

Principals analyze curricula and interpret standardized test scores. They work with other school administrators and teachers to improve the school’s performance. They also analyze the school’s budget and determine how to allocate funds.

Principals manage school safety. 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 These tasks also involve developing relationships and safety plans in partnership with local law enforcement, fire departments, and school security officers.

Helpful Skills and Experience

Principals generally must 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.

School principals should be confident since they are the public face of the school they represent. They should be effective communicators and liaisons between employees, students, parents, the community, and both local and state governments. Prospective school principals must be comfortable in a position of authority. They should also be fair, patient, and understanding leaders.

Possible Job Titles for This Career

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

School Principal Salary and Job Outlook

On average, school principals earn the highest salary in the school system besides superintendents. The relatively high average annual salary reflects the vast responsibility and expectations of the position. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage of school principals in elementary, middle, and high schools was $98,420, though the top 10% earned $158,770.1 The related occupation of education administrators, which includes principals, superintendents, and other district-level administrators, earned a median salary of $101,320 and $158,770 salary at the 90th percentile.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 increases, the need for school principals should remain strong; however, if enrollment decreases, the demand may be reduced.1 With many teachers in the baby boomer generation reaching retirement age, there should be opportunities for new school principals to fill those positions.1

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 school 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: Can I become a school 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