How to Become a Principal

How to Become a Principal: Career Path Guide

The most common path for becoming a teacher is to gain experience as a teacher and earn a master’s degree in education, educational leadership, or educational administration. 


But before you do any of that, you would need to figure out if the duties of the job will be appealing to you, and if you’ve got the right set of qualities to bring to it.


Being a principal would involve evaluating lesson plans and teachers, setting school performance goals and objectives, and generally ensuring students and staff are accountable for academic performance and behaviour.


Carrying out these duties requires strong values and ethics, the ability to handle a large workload, and a willingness to be accountable for the success of the school. In return, you would be offered very good pay, plenty of opportunities for career advancement, and diversity in your work week, with no two days being the same.


So, if becoming a school principal sounds like it might suit you, then read on below; we’ll tell you what you'll need to make it in this field!



Education Needed to Become a Principal

To become a school principal, you usually need a master’s degree in education administration or education leadership. In some provinces, states or territories, an honour’s degree or in education or specialist certificates are acceptable in place of a master’s degree.


The specific requirements however, are determined at the discretion of the school division or employment authority.




Experience You'll Need

Many provincial and state licensing boards for school administrators also require that you have worked as a teacher for a set number of years in order to work as a licensed principal. In instances wherein this is not a licensing requirement, the employer may still choose to make it a requirement at their discretion. 


Some licensing bodies and employers may also require that you first have experience in education administration by first becoming an assistant principal or by pursing a department head or curriculum specialist position.




Most provinces/states would require that you hold a school administrator license or certificate. Licensing/certification requirements vary by region, but most require that you meet the education and experience requirements outlined above, in addition to passing a test. Continuing education is also often required to keep an administrator’s license.


Success Tip: Since licensing/certification requirements can vary from region to region, contact your provincial or state teacher’s association to see what the formal requirements are to work as principal in your area. They will be able to give you the most accurate and up-to-date information.



Skills & Competencies Needed to Become Successful 

To be successful as a school principal, you need certain skills… but these skills don’t come overnight. While you’re working in teaching or administrative roles of lesser responsibility, or you’re in school, try to hone the following crucial skills:


• A deep understanding of curriculum, instruction, and assessment

• Excellence in teaching and school leadership

• Awareness of how to improve student achievement through improvement initiatives

• Knowledge of how to advocate for the school in the community 

• The ability to lead, support and motivate teachers and other staff and faculty members

• The ability to build relationships with students, parents and educators



Who Creates Jobs for Principals?

As a school principal, you could potentially be employed by any of the following types of organizations and institutions:


• Public elementary, middle or high schools

• Private elementary, middle or high schools

• School boards and districts 

• Government departments, such as Corrections 



Restrictions on Becoming a Teacher

It's important to note that teaching certification may be denied to applicants who are not citizens in the country in which they want to teach, who are not proficient in the primary (and in some instances secondary) language of their region, or who cannot pass a criminal record check.



Is This Career Right for You?

You should have the following attributes if you wish to become an elementary, middle or high school principal:


• Effective interpersonal skills, negotiating skills and assertiveness

• The ability to delegate tasks and supervise others

• Willingness to take responsibility for the overall success of the school

• Dependability, strong values and ethics

• Very well organized, and able to competently handle a large workload

• Able to pass a criminal record check and child abuse registry check



Career Advancement Possibilities

If you approach your work with dedication and you display competence, diverse career advancement opportunities will open up to you. For example, you could become a:



District-wide school administration specialist that works with subject-area programs such as English, music, vocational education, special education or math to set curriculum and evaluate teaching techniques.


School superintendent that provides recommendations to the local School Board regarding the activities related to the operation and administration of schools within the district.


Department director that works broadly across all of the schools in a district to set common standards and provide departmental support.


Specialist in education law, finance and budgeting, curriculum development and evaluation, research design, data analysis, community relations and politics in education. Some of these specialized roles will require a doctorate in education. 






Details of this Career: General Job Description

As a school principal, you would be responsible for managing a school’s policies, regulations and procedures to ensure that all students are supervised in a safe environment that meets the approved curricula of the school. 


Your main responsibilities would be overseeing scheduling, curriculum development, extracurricular activities, personnel management, and facility operations. Being a school principal would also involve working collaboratively with the school staff and board of directors to communicate effectively with parents. 



Typical Job Duties

Although your specific duties could vary from job to job, you could expect to be responsible for the following functions in any school principal role:


• Establishing and promoting high standards and expectations for students and staff regarding academic performance and accountability for behaviour

• Supervising the instructional programs of the school, evaluating lesson plans and occasionally observing classes

• Establishing procedures for the evaluation and selection of instructional materials and equipment

• Displaying the highest ethical and professional behaviour and standards when working with students, parents and school personnel

• Ensuring a safe and orderly environment that encourages students to take accountability for their actions

• Establishing procedures that create and maintain clean, attractive, organized and functional facilities

• Maintaining a master schedule to be posted for all teachers and personnel

• Establishing and maintaining an effective inventory system for all school supplies and materials

• Communicating effectively with staff and seeking ideas relating to improving any policies or procedures

• Advising the school board of employees who are not meeting their contractual obligations



Salary for Principals

The salary level you could earn as a school principal can vary, typically depending on the following factors:


• Your professional qualifications (your level of relevant education, experience, etc.)

• The size and budget of your employer

• The region in which you work

• The scope of your job duties and functions


Salary in Canada: According to Service Canada, the average salary level of Canadians working in the School Principals and Administrators - Elementary and Secondary occupational group is $81,100 per year.


Salary in the United States: According to the United States Government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean salary level of Americans in the Education Administrators, Elementary and Secondary School occupational group is $92,940 per year.



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Typical Work Environment 

Working Hours: As a school principal, you could expect to work normal, weekday working hours. However, because of the heavy workload, overtime would often be required, which could involve going in early, on weekends, or staying late. 


Working Conditions: Working as a principal would be ideal if you like diversity in your work, a fast pace, large and demanding workloads, and you can work through continuous interruptions. As you would be in a position of great responsibility, much of your day would involve communicating with teachers, students, parents, school district staff, community members and other stakeholders.



Careers Similar to ‘Principal’

Listed below are occupations in our database that have similar responsibilities, and/or require similar skills, or are in the same sector of industry, as Principal:


• Elementary School Teacher

• High School Teacher

• Operations Manager

• School Administrator

• School Counselor 

• Superintendent 

• University President



References for this Career Guide

The following resources were drawn from in the preparation of this How to Become a School Administrator career guide:


Wages & Salaries in Alberta:School principals and administrators of elementary and secondary education.” (March 30, 2017). ALIS website - Alberta Learning Information Service. Retrieved January 8, 2020.

Occupational Employment and Wages:Education Administrators, Elementary and Secondary School.” (March 29, 2019). ALIS website - Alberta Learning Information Service. Retrieved January 8, 2020.

Teachers: “I Want to Be a Principal.” (n.d.). Teachers. Ontario Ministry of Education; accessed January 8, 2020.

Education: “What Makes a Great Principal - And Why Few Want the Job.” Feb. 25, 2014. Caroline Alphonso & James Bradshaw. The Globe & Mail; accessed January 8, 2020.



Scholarships for Becoming a Principal 

The Applicable Majors section below shows fields of study relevant to a career as a principal. You can search for scholarships matched to that/those fields of study on the following pages:


Education Scholarships

Management Scholarships

Organizational Leadership Scholarships


Success Tip: Be sure to apply for any scholarships that you even barely qualify for, as there are millions of dollars of scholarships that go unused every year due to a lack of applicants!



Becoming a Principal: Applicable Majors

Studying one of the college/university majors listed below can be helpful (or necessary) for becoming a principal. Click on the links to find out what else you can do with these majors!


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