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Step-by-Step Guide: How to Become a School Principal

Majors Overview January 28, 2013

Strong leadership skills and passion for higher education are the characteristics associated with a school principal. Principals provide leadership and supervision at schools. While managing and assisting all staff including teachers, they perform various functions such as interacting with the public on behalf of the school, and overseeing matters relating to student discipline, the school budget and the professional development of staff.

Majority of school principals began their career as teachers and completed graduate degrees majoring in education administration to advance into an administrative role. Prospective principals usually complete an undergraduate degree program and acquire state teacher certification before they pursue continued education to advance to a principal position. The table below provides key requirements for those interested in a career as a school principal:

Common Requirements

Degree Level

Requirements – Master Degree

Degree Field

Educational administration or educational leadership

Certification and/or Licensure

Principal certification and teacher certification required


Employers could require previous work experience as a teacher, student teaching internship mandatory

Key Skills

Leadership, communication, decision-making, and critical thinking

Computer Skills

Microsoft Office (Excel, Access, and Word), School Administration Software (Blackbaud’s The Education Edge)

Technical Skills

2-way radios and school fire and alarm systems

Stage One: Earning an Undergraduate Degree

School principals starts out as teachers once they have completed an undergraduate degree in education or a specific concentration area such as math or English. Degree programs in special, secondary and elementary education are offered at several universities and colleges; these usually take four to five years to complete. The structure of coursework is completed in accordance with the subjects and grade level that the prospective teacher plans to teach. Usually, a majority of degree courses involve working with students from diverse backgrounds, and require candidates to attend classes in classroom management and educational philosophy. During the program, they can participate in a teaching internship that will help get state certification. Taking employment as substitute teachers during the course of their bachelor degree program will benefit aspiring teachers. In some states, prospective teachers are allowed to pursue substitute teaching jobs while their college program is underway. Those interested in such employment should seek special licenses or permits from their state board of education. They can use such substitute teaching opportunities to garner classroom experience and hone in on the skills they need to follow a successful career path as a teacher; these skills include classroom management and effective communication. They also get to interact with seasoned professionals and gain valuable knowledge from them.

Stage Two: Satisfying Certification Norms

Public school teachers are required by all states to obtain licensure before they can embark on a teaching career. Licensing requirements differ from state to state, but in most states teachers are required to hold undergraduate degrees and participate in a supervised internship with classroom teaching included. Candidates are often required to take a state licensing exam in which subject knowledge, methods and general teaching skills are tested. Other licensure requirements could also be required to be satisfied in some states.

Stage Three: Gaining Work Experience

Before they advance into administrative positions, many principals hone their communication, leadership and motivational skills while working as teachers. During such work experience, aspiring principals gain an in-depth understanding of the teaching field including classroom practice and the job responsibilities of a teacher. Typically states also expect teachers to have two years of teaching experience to satisfy licensure norms as a principal. Years of experience required may vary in different states and aspiring principals can find out the norm by checking with the state in which they plan to work.

Stage Four: Completing a Master Degree Program

Teachers must complete a master or doctoral degree program in educational administration or education leadership before advancing to become school principals. Graduate degree programs in education administration usually span two years and students may be required to hold teaching licenses before seeking admission. Coursework could include subject areas such as school finance, school law, administrative leadership, curriculum development and instruction supervision. Students may have to participate in capstone projects and complete internships before they graduate.

Stage Five: Obtaining Licensure

Most states require school principals to obtain school administrator licensure (source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics). Eligibility for licensure in most states includes completion of master degree programs apart from passing the state licensing exam. Additionally, aspiring principals may also have to meet mentoring experience and work experience norms before they are granted licenses. There are location-wise variations in specifications; however, a principal endorsement can be added to a current teaching license in many states.

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