How to Become a Principal

February 22, 2022

Nadira Jack

Adjunct Faculty, Doctoral Leadership and Administration

Photo of a Black woman sitting at a table, in the middle of a discussion with a Black male coworker

Being a school leader is about exhibiting passion and purpose, exuding inspiration and having the enthusiasm to act and effectuate change in society. If this kind of work excites you, you may have the dedication and passion it takes to be a school principal.

Quality leadership evolves with each challenge and experience you face. Our thoughts, words and actions greatly impact others and generate a sense of integrity and truth. Being a principal is far from an easy process. But with the right professional experience, education and a willingness to serve others with humility and gratitude, it can be an extremely rewarding career.

What is a School Principal?

In this day and age, the role of school principal has evolved from previous norms, especially in a post-pandemic era. While traditionally considered to be managerial leaders with an eye towards enforcing procedures and rules, today’s principal reflects a more multi-faceted approach to education that emphasizes instructional leadership, community awareness and collaborative efforts.

Principals need to have a deep understanding of equitable, innovative instructional practices and assessment modalities, along with a strong knowledge and foundation in the academic standards relevant to your specific state. More importantly, principals are at the forefront of building and sustaining positive relationships with community members and stakeholders, including but not limited to caregivers, teachers/staff and students. The best principals intentionally carve out time to listen to their concerns, ideas and thoughts in order to remain connected to their overall needs. They serve others through a lens of collaboration and innovation to compel and project change in society. These important bonds and relationships will exemplify the core of your work and your purpose as a leader.

Path to Principalship

Serving as a school principal is one of the most rewarding career paths, bringing both a sense of fulfillment and joy. The path towards becoming a principal is an exciting experience that’s unique to each individual.

Most principals transition into this role of leadership after years of effective and successful instructional or supervisory experience. In some cases, individuals may serve as an assistant principal prior to assuming the role of principal. However, having assistant principal experience is not a universal requirement. For example, I moved into a principal role from my experience as a literacy coach. So wherever you are in education, don’t be afraid to explore this leadership path.

Education Requirements

While specific requirements for principalship may differ by state, the general rule of thumb is to first obtain a bachelor’s in the field of education and teaching. Your specific area of expertise can focus on elementary, middle or high school, or with specialized groups of students such as ESL/ELL or special education. You will then need to obtain teaching experience in your area of study and certification.

“Principals are at the forefront of building and sustaining positive relationships with community members and stakeholders, including but not limited to caregivers, teachers/staff and students.”

Each state has its own minimum required years of teaching experience before you can obtain a school principal license. I personally recommend five years before transitioning into a leadership role. Use your time in the classroom as an opportunity to learn invaluable lessons about your leadership style and your core values. These things will guide your administrative career.

After having established yourself as a successful teacher, you should then work towards obtaining a master’s degree in education, which can be in areas like leadership or school administration and supervision. You’ll also want to start looking into the requirements that go into obtaining your state’s principal license. Make sure you invest time in researching the qualifications and procedures ahead of time so you can efficiently plan, minimize delays or resolve misconceptions early on. Reach out to your state department of education, specifically the office of licensure, induction and certification, if you have questions about the certification process.

Once you have successfully completed your master’s degree, you’ll need to pass a related educational leadership, administration and supervision assessment to determine your competencies as a school principal. Then, you may be eligible to apply for school principal certification.

Qualities of a School Principal

The most important quality a school principal should have is the ability to build relationships grounded in integrity, honesty, mutual respect and trust. Without an open willingness to listen and understand others, it becomes difficult to lead a team through continuous cycles of improvement. Collaboration among staff members is key, so it’s integral to ensure that the voices of staff members are appreciated and valued for what they bring to the table.

Another essential skill is the ability to create and sustain a positive school culture and climate. Culture and climate are the heart and soul of a school, often established from its norms and values. They’re defined through an amalgamation of many dynamic areas including, but not limited to, leadership style, expectation level, overall quality of teaching, collaborative relationships amongst staff members, parents and students, and the safety and security of the general school environment. In managing all these different factors, principals heavily influence the morale and spirit of a school.

“Provide high quality and engaging professional development opportunities for teachers. Allow them to be creative and empower them to color outside the lines.”

Principals should promote a culture of academic excellence and high expectations for all members of the organization so there’s a solid foundation for quality instruction. Provide high quality and engaging professional development opportunities for teachers. Allow them to be creative and empower them to color outside the lines. Trust that your teachers genuinely want to make a difference and provide a nurturing atmosphere that helps them both mitigate stress and ignite sparks for creating innovative learning experiences. This, coupled with high quality assessments, can lead to better student outcomes and heightened levels of engagement.

A successful school principal understands how to remain adaptable and flexible, and how to lead with calmness during moments of chaos. However, also recognize that mistakes are bound to happen and experience comes with time, trial and error. Don’t beat yourself up about being the “perfect principal” or the “perfect leader” to everyone. Give yourself grace, remember that you are human and be transparent with your staff about your own areas of growth.

A Typical Day as School Principal

A “typical day” almost doesn’t exist when you serve as school leader. There is structure and familiarity, but working with students and teachers means laughter, tears, success and challenge can all happen on any given day, without warning. Each day can be as fascinating as you allow it to be!

A normal day for a principal includes overseeing all aspects of school operations, including the implementation of curriculum, instruction and assessment models, monitoring student achievement, evaluating staff members and coordinating professional development. Principals also often attend many meetings with caregivers and community members, along with any necessary local or state district meetings.

Yet, the most important role associated with principals is to provide clarity, direction and leadership in setting high expectations for staff, with the goal of ensuring positive outcomes for students. Every moment counts when you are responsible for impacting others, whether student or teacher.

What is a School Principal’s Salary?

Principals are usually employed on an annual basis. Most contracts will be for 11 or 12 months and will include opportunities for continued learning or memberships to leadership programs that can help you enhance your abilities and skills.

“Every moment counts when you are responsible for impacting others, whether student or teacher.”

According to, a typical school principal salary can range from $98,306 to $125,203 and up, depending upon the state and the years of experience you have. The lowest ten percent averaged at $86,476 while the top ten percent made about $137,861. This annual salary is usually accompanied with healthcare and retirement benefits. However, it is important to note that contracts are negotiable.

In Conclusion

Serving as a school principal has been one of the most remarkable and rewarding parts of my career and leadership journey. I can still remember the feeling of hope and wonder that I experienced on my very first day as I walked around an empty school building waiting for staff to arrive. There’s something about the invaluable opportunity to lead and serve a future community of leaders that still to this day ignites my passion for education reform.

Continued learning to improve your competencies, knowledge base and skillset is the best investment to make in yourself if you want to be a principal. Begin laying the foundation to your future leadership and success with American College of Education.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of American College of Education.
Nadira Jack
Nadira Jack, Adjunct Faculty, Doctoral Leadership and Administration

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