How to Become a School Principal

Many educators choose their field because of a desire to make a difference in the lives of young people. While making the jump from teacher to principal means that you’ll no longer be in the classroom working directly with kids, it doesn’t mean that you can’t have a profound effect on their development while also enjoying a significant pay raise. 

In fact, research shows that when it comes to affecting student learning, strong leadership is second only to classroom instruction.1

But how do you become a principal? There’s obviously a certain level of required education and you must have experience, but it may not be as complicated as you think. 

What Does a School Principal Do?

Contrary to what you often see in the media, the responsibilities of a school principal extend far beyond disciplining wayward students. While that is a key aspect of the position, a school’s top administrator is also tasked with the following duties:

  • Supervision of all students, staff, and faculty
  • Designing school policy
  • Creating a line of communication between teachers and parents
  • Maintaining school funding
  • Managing the school budget, payroll, and maintenance costs
  • Hiring staff and faculty members
  • Creating academic calendars
  • Coordinating academic, athletic, and extracurricular activities
  • Maintaining standards for curriculum and academic performance

Of course, the roles of a principal also vary within the field. For instance, an elementary school principal is expected to work in a closer and more personal capacity than a principal in a far larger high school. Conversely, a high school principal is expected to handle a more complex network of school operations than a principal in a small elementary school. 

While duties occasionally differ, the general expectations for every school principal remain the same. 

School Principal Salary and Career Outlook 

Making the jump from teacher to principal comes with a significant jump in pay. According to the BLS, the median salary for a high school teacher in 2019 was $61,660, with a slight decrease to $59,420 for elementary and middle school teachers.2

However, the median salary for principals in elementary, middle, and high schools in 2019 was $96,400.3

It’s important to note that there are a number of variables that determine the salary of each individual school principal, including their level of experience, the location of their school, and their level of education.

With a projected job growth of about 4% between 2019 and 2029, the job outlook of a school principal is on par with the average occupation and slightly better than other management occupations. 

Keep in mind, employment growth is dependent on many different factors including student enrollment, the number of schools overseen, and state and local budgets. Projections do not guarantee job growth. 

How to Know if You Would Enjoy a Job as a School Principal

Before you learn how to become a school principal, you may want to ask yourself if it’s the right job for you. As with any career, being a school principal is not necessarily for everyone. You might enjoy a job as a school principal if you:

  • Feel comfortable in a leadership role
  • Are good at multitasking
  • Have strong organizational skills
  • Are a strong communicator
  • Find fulfillment in providing guidance

On the other hand, being a school principal may not be for you if you:

  • Dislike confrontation
  • Can’t handle a heavy workload
  • Have trouble connecting with children
  • Are averse to criticism
  • Don’t work well under pressure

There’s a reason why you’ll likely get a significant pay raise when you move from teacher to principal. The workload is greater, the pressure is higher, and the stress can be too much for some people. 

That being said, as a school principal, you have a greater opportunity to affect change in your community and a greater means to provide for your family.

Steps to Becoming a School Principal

How do you become a high school principal? Well, you can’t just apply for the job. In almost any case, you’re going to need to follow these steps: 

Step One: Earn a Degree

Most school principals earn experience as a teacher before moving to an administrative position. This requires a bachelor’s degree, preferably in secondary education. You must also earn your teaching certificate through a student teacher program. This process typically takes between 4-5 years.  

Step Two: Earn Additional Experience

Acquiring experience in the classroom is almost always the next step toward becoming a school principal. At a minimum, 1-5 years of teaching experience is needed before you can be considered for an administrative position. More often than not, people that make the transition from teacher to principal have significantly more experience than that.  

Step Three: Complete a Graduate Degree

A master’s degree is also a typical prerequisite for becoming a school principal. The graduate programs required generally focus on leadership and administration within the field of education. You can earn your master’s degree in 2-4 years, but it could take longer if you need to gain experience as a teacher.    

Step Four: Become Certified/Licensed

Many states require school principals to earn their license in school administration, which involves passing a licensure exam. In general, you’re only permitted to take a licensure exam if you have a certain amount of teaching experience under your belt and you hold a graduate degree. Note that specific requirements vary from state to state.

How Long Does it Take to Become a School Principal?

How do you become a principal quickly? You don’t…because you can’t. The role of a school’s top administrator is too important and requires too much hands-on experience to be easily attained. 

If you’re interested in this career path, then you need to be willing to commit a number of years to it. The precise number of years required depends on a number of factors, from how fast you earn your degrees to how much experience the school is looking for. You also need to keep in mind the specific licensing and certification requirements in your state.

School Principal Requirements

Earning Your Bachelor’s Degree 

You can earn your bachelor’s degree and go through a student teaching program in about 4-5 years, but it’s also possible to fast-track your degree if you’re willing to become a more-than-full-time student. 

Teaching Experience 

Teaching experience plays an important role in becoming a principal. There is no fast-tracking the classroom experience required to become a school principal, which is often five years or more. In fact, the average amount of teaching experience for a school principal is about 10.5 years. Most principals average around 5.5 years of previous administrative experience.  

Earning Your Graduate Degree

Earning your master’s degree tacks on another 2-4 years, unless you choose to earn it while working as a teacher. If you need at least five years in the classroom, then you can stretch those 2-4 years of graduate school out over that time, which can help to reduce your workload.

In total, you can expect a minimum of about 10-12 years of schooling and work experience combined to become a school principal. 

Do I Need to Be a Teacher to Become a School Principal?

If you’re wondering how to become a principal without first being a teacher, then you may be disappointed to find out that you most likely cannot. In almost every case, you must have teaching experience in order to become any sort of administrator, let alone the top administrator of the school.

These requirements are generally dictated not only by the school but also state law. So, if you’re truly committed to figuring out how to become a principal without becoming a teacher, you must first find the states in which these laws do not exist. 

Best Degrees to Have to Become a School Principal

The type of college-level education that you should seek out when you’re looking to become a school principal depends on the type of school you’d like to work in. For instance, if you’re interested in working in an elementary school, then a degree in early childhood development or elementary education are both worthwhile options. 

But how do you become a high school principal? Well, the best place to begin that journey is with an undergrad in secondary education. While you can get a job as a teacher with a non-education degree (provided your degree is in a teachable subject), you’re likely to be a better candidate with a degree in education if you’re interested in an administrative position.

For your master’s degree, your two main options are a master of education in educational leadership or a master of education in educational administration. Either one of these degrees not only leads to the necessary credentials to become a school principal, but they also provide you with the knowledge necessary to expand your understanding of the world of education beyond the classroom.   

Top Schools for School Principals from 

Many schools offer master’s degrees in educational administration, but some are more highly regarded than others. To help you sort through them and find the cream of the crop, here are the top 10 schools in the country as ranked by 

Harvard University

Harvard’s name speaks for itself. If you’re able to gain admission into one of their seven educational administration programs, finding a job as a school principal should be no problem. 

Vanderbilt University 

Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tennessee, is another prestigious private university that offers six different programs in educational administration. 

University of Pennsylvania 

This school is the oldest in all of America and was established in 1740. They offer three programs for school administration, including a master’s in higher education. 

Duke University 

Duke University, located in Durham, North Carolina, offers one master’s program in educational leadership.     

Northwestern University 

If you prefer your graduate school experience to be in a smaller city, Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, offers two master’s programs in school administration. 

Boston College

Boston College offers a wide array of school administration degrees. With nine different programs to choose from, this school gives you more options than any other on this list. 

Washington University in St. Louis 

Washington University in St. Louis offers two different school administration degree programs. 

Johns Hopkins University 

Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University was founded in 1876 and is best known for its medical school. The five school administration degree programs that they offer are some of the best in the country. 

University of Notre Dame

There are a few institutions of higher education that go by the name of Notre Dame, but the one located in South Bend, Indiana, has one of the most highly regarded school administration degree programs. 

University of Southern California

The Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California, located in Los Angeles, has four school administration programs that can help you immensely on your journey to becoming a school principal.   

Where Can I Learn More About Becoming a School Principal? 

Simply searching for “how do you become a principal” online will turn up a ton of useful information for you, but you can also check out the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP).

Any remaining questions you have can likely be answered by NASSP, which offers plenty of useful advice on the Career Development section of their website. 


How Many Years Does It Take to Become a Principal? 

Assuming that you take an average amount of time to complete your undergraduate and graduate degrees, in addition to acquiring a minimum of five years’ teaching experience, it will take at least 11-12 years to become a school principal. 

What Degree Do I Need to Become a Principal? 

You need an undergraduate degree in an education field and a master’s degree in either educational administration or educational leadership to become a principal.   

Is It Hard Being a Principal?

Being a school principal can be a stressful and difficult job, full of various responsibilities. It can be a very hard, but rewarding, job, depending on your personality.   

Do Principals Get Paid?

Yes, the median pay for a school principal in 2019 was $96,400.