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14 Steps Required To Be A School Principal

The role of a school principal dominates education administration. Among their many responsibilities is to oversee the operations of elementary, middle, and high schools under their jurisdiction. 

To provide the most effective learning environment for students, principals manage classroom instruction, budgets, and grant applications and work with parents, teachers, and community leaders. Whilst good Student Information System software can help with this, they must also assist teachers in becoming better educators and mentoring students, so there’s a lot to do.

However, becoming a principal is not limited to starting as a teacher; there are other paths too. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to get there.

Graduate with a bachelor’s degree

Aspiring to become a school principal begins with a bachelor’s degree. The most common degree people receive to become educators, principals, or administrators is a bachelor’s degree in education. Alternatively, you may pursue a degree in English, math, or another subject that interests you.

It is common for people to spend a few years teaching before moving on to administrative roles. Some states require candidates to have at least two years of teaching experience. 

However, the path to becoming a principal does not necessarily involve teaching. Educators who work in school counseling and similar positions can also learn the necessary skills. Choosing an undergraduate degree program should be based on your abilities and employment goals.

Pursue a master’s degree in education

Principals and administrators in most schools in the U.S. hold graduate degrees or strongly prefer to do so because it prepares them for the role. A master’s degree in education teaches:

  • Instructing others and assessing their skills
  • Improving classroom instruction for educators
  • School leadership and management
  • Taking care of legal matters
  • Budget management and funding opportunities
  • Managing and hiring teachers and staff
  • Cross-cultural skills in diverse environments

The length of a master’s program depends on the program and how fast each student progresses. Online masters in education programsallow students to expand their teaching experience and learn to become principals while continuing to work in their current positions. 

Your classroom instruction will be in-person or online, depending on your degree requirements. As part of many programs, you will also complete an internship, during which you will work alongside administrators to learn about the responsibilities of a principal.

Earn your teaching certificate

All states require public school teachers to hold a certificate, sometimes called a license, but the specific requirements vary from state to state. Consider applying for jobs first, then completing any licensing requirements in the state where you’ll be hired. 

If you plan on teaching in multiple states, remember that transferring certificates between states is not possible in most cases. Some states sometimes allow reciprocity in teacher certification, but it is not necessarily the case that certification from one state is valid in another; most often, you must meet additional requirements to become a teacher in another state. 

Educator certification reciprocity information links to state licensing commissions, and answers to licensing questions are available from the Education Commission of the States.

Gain professional experience in educational settings

Principals are not legally required to have teaching experience in all states, but it is still a good idea, regardless. 

Substitute teaching is a common way to earn extra experience before entering the teaching profession. You can do that in many states during your undergraduate program. 

Graduates cannot find teaching jobs right after graduation, so substituting is a good idea. You can build your skills in classroom management, communication, and organization by substituting for a teacher after you graduate. 

Teach as many ages, areas, and subjects as possible

More teaching experience will give you more context for the administrative side of things. The more experience you gain teaching, the better you can communicate with various age groups, parents, and administrators. This will enable you to specify your areas, ages, or subjects of interest.

Diversify your skills and experience

As a principal, teaching experience is helpful, but it isn’t the only requirement. There are many diverse roles that principals play at a school, so they need to develop skills such as:

  • Student-centered approach
  • Keeping up with current education trends
  • An interest in lifelong learning
  • Interpersonal communication
  • Problem-solving, leadership, and organizational skills

If you would like to gain practical experience in these areas as a teacher, consider joining committees or taking on leadership roles. You can even create a principal entry plan with Better Leaders Better Schools to showcase your skills and knowledge as a principal. 

Demonstrate your leadership skills

Experience in an administration role isn’t always possible without completing a few requirements. However, you can develop communication, interpersonal, leadership, and critical-thinking skills by participating in school and community activities. 

You can:

  • Become a committee member, participate in school activities, or plan school groups to expand your organizational knowledge.
  • Assist in organizing blood drives, fundraisers, and school dances.

Choose an age group and type of educational institution

Principals may have the same certification requirements depending on their career path, but their roles often require many different skill sets

You will need letters of recommendation, cover letters, and interviews based on the type of institution you plan on applying to. This could be elementary, high school, or a private institution.

  • If you have experience teaching various ages and subjects, see what might be best for you.
  • If you can achieve your long-term goals through administrative jobs, you can also achieve your short-term goals.

Understand your state’s requirements

Principals need teaching licensure and certification to be hired, and some states require them to maintain those licenses while serving as principals.

If you are applying for a job, be sure that your licenses and certifications are up to date by checking the state guidelines.

Research your district’s principal qualifications

The requirements for potential principals differ from district to district, as well as from state to state. You can determine the particular requirements for the open position by consulting the state’s board of education and the district’s board.

You can view job postings, application requirements, and applicant recommendations on many districts’ websites. Principals are also required to pass exams or complete training in many districts. If you are uncertain of the requirements in your district, contact the school board.

Look for advancement opportunities

Consider working as a vice principal instead of becoming a principal if you aren’t ready yet. It serves as a doorway to administrative positions. The post of assistant or vice principal can often progress to head principal and possibly as high as superintendent.

If you are considering applying to a school, speak with your district’s school board and the school itself to determine available opportunities.

Secure letters of recommendation

As with most other job applications, letters of recommendation play an instrumental role in securing a school administrator position. 

It will be helpful for you to verify your potential and experience by contacting previous administrators, principals, and professors from schools where you taught. If you’re interested in applications, districts, or states to consider, you may want to consult past administrators or professors.

Let others write your letters of recommendation for at least a few weeks before you submit them.

Apply for a position

Upon completing your master’s degree and having the right experience, apply for principalships and highlight your qualifications. In 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated there would be 283,200 top jobs in the U.S., with an average salary of $96,400. Since it is a relatively small industry compared to others, education and experience can make you stand out.

Prepare for an interview

Getting hired as a school administrator or principal may depend on how well you do in the interview. Ensure that you review your application materials and the specific requirements for the position before the interview. Finding out the school district’s concerns and how you can help solve them can help you secure the position. 


Principals can enjoy long and rewarding careers, whether they love teaching, enjoy administrative work, or want to make a difference in people’s lives. Since there are many paths to choose from, you must carefully plan a path and follow certain steps and processes to become a principal. When you’re on your way to becoming a school principal, knowing what requirements you’ll need is crucial before you begin the process.

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