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How to become a school principal: Your step-by-step guide toward educational leadership

January 23, 2019 by Brandman University


As a teacher, you’ve had a tremendous impact on students. Sure, you’ve helped them learn in the classroom, but that’s just the beginning. You’ve also provided an enriching, safe environment where they can collaborate with other students, take initiative and work toward their goals.

And because you’re a good teacher who enjoys working with students, you may be considering how you can take your career to the next level. Becoming a school principal could be the perfect opportunity. As a principal, you could use the skills and experience you gained in the classroom to influence and improve schools as a whole. You could make a difference on a larger scale.

Before you make a career-changing decision, you’ll need to gather a little more information about the role—and the steps you’ll need to take to become a principal. Let’s start with a quick overview of some typical duties.

What does a principal do?

Though you’ve probably interacted with the principal in your school, you may not understand exactly what the job entails. As you know, a principal is the educational leader of a school, reporting to the superintendent who oversees school districts. A principal’s daily responsibilities will vary depending upon the size of the school and its resources.

In general, the principal fulfills a few key functions:

  • Teacher leader: Guiding academic goal setting and curriculum development as well as teacher evaluation.
  • School leader: Managing operations, overseeing budget needs, organizing district-level policy and coordinating security and safety.
  • Student advocate: Assessing student needs, addressing parent concerns, managing student relations and handling disciplinary actions.
  • Public representative: Advocating for school needs, justifying funding to legislators and addressing community concerns.

How to become a school principal

You likely already have the most common—and required—qualification for becoming a principal: being a licensed, experienced teacher with at least a bachelor’s-level degree. But hiring managers won’t stop there. They’ll be looking for the experience, credentials and attributes that show you will be an effective education leader.

Here are a few steps you can take to help you build those must-have qualifications:

1. Diversify your teaching experience

Most schools require several years of teaching experience for principal positions—and that’s just a minimum. Once in the position, you’ll have to understand the needs of a variety of student segments.

Taking steps to make sure your experience includes a range of educational settings can be beneficial. But as a busy teacher who has limited opportunities to vary your experience in your day-to-day work, it can be difficult to pinpoint ways you can diversify.

Patricia White, associate dean of the School of Education at Brandman University, suggests discussing these aspirations with your current school leadership. “Talk with your principal about your interest in preparing for that type of position. Ask if you can shadow him or her,” she advises. “Volunteer to take on some of the tasks the principal does like duty schedules, budget monitoring, student discipline, chairing school committees, working with the PTA on fundraisers and parent education.”

Other options include working with children in extra-curricular activities or programs for kids with specific abilities, and even getting involved with local youth clubs that operate outside of your specific school district. Diverse experiences can better prepare you to support all types of students and teachers.

2. Develop relationships in your school and community

Leadership is critical for principals. One way to develop leadership skills is to volunteer in your community and organize groups within and outside of your school.

You may choose to plan fundraising opportunities for much-needed school supplies. You might advocate for teachers who need extra support in challenging classrooms. You could even organize opportunities for students to give back to their community and build skills in the process. You can show you are a leader and cultivate important relationships by serving your community—all while building your resume.

3. Build expertise in public safety and security

In today’s world, school principals must be aware of safety and security issues from a wide range of perspectives. They may need to address bullying, harassment, emergency procedures and even violence. Parents, students, faculty and staff all want to foster a school environment that protects their rights and safety.

How can you build this expertise? Attend trainings or conferences about school safety to learn how you can address these concerns in your school district. By learning about policies in your school and others, you can better develop, implement and improve safety policies when you become a principal.

4. Research and network with school districts that have opportunities for growth

Like it or not, networking is an important part of getting a job. Start to research what types of schools you might want to work in as early as possible. Consider your own professional goals, how you want to impact students and where you’ll find the kind of career opportunities you want.

You may find you’d prefer a smaller school that allows you to work one-on-one with students. Or perhaps you want to work in a larger, more complex environment. By expressing your interest and curiosity in these areas or attending conferences where you can meet peers, you’ll be better connected with those who can impact your future professional life.

5. Explore “stepping stone” roles

Not all teachers can easily make the leap from faculty member to principal. And not all schools are set up for that direct transition. Depending upon the size of the school and its resources, the principal may or may not have support staff who assist in school administration and management.

Start looking for job postings like “vice principal,” “assistant principal” or “instructional coordinator.” Roles like these provide opportunities to prove your skills and become familiar with the challenges of school leadership. You’ll be able to point to specific initiatives you’ve completed and show you have what it takes to tackle the challenges of being a school principal.

6. Research and pursue required licensing in your state

On the path to building experience, don’t forget to look at your state’s requirements for school principals. Most states require public school principals to be licensed as school administrators. Private schools, however, typically do not. Do note that requirements vary from state-to-state, so you’ll want to make sure to do your research.

California, for example, boasts a two-tiered credentialing process. The first is a Preliminary Administrative Services credential, which is good for five years. The second is a Clear Administrative Services credential, which can qualify you to be a school administrator in the state indefinitely. Those coming from out-of-state to teach in California will need to ensure their qualifications are aligned with the state’s regulations.

7. Pursue an advanced degree

The minimum requirement for elementary, middle and high school principals is a bachelor’s degree. But the typical entry-level education is a master’s degree or higher. Why? Because school districts look for education leadership skills and knowledge that are distinct from classroom teaching.

A master’s degree focused on education administration can help you prepare to manage staff, develop budgets, evaluate and develop curriculum and handle education policy issues. Pursuing a relevant advanced degree in education is one of the most important steps you can take in becoming a principal. And, since earning your degree can take time, it’s wise to start exploring your options early.

Keys to success when you become a school principal

You may have all the qualifications to become a school principal, but what will help you succeed when you get there? Success in this role requires soft skills, according to Kathy Theuer, professor and associate dean of Brandman University’s School of Education. Things like collaboration, communication and active listening are must-haves. You’ll also need to be comfortable with public speaking and be willing to act as a mentor to both staff and students.

The role can be challenging, but Theuer maintains that the challenges are worth it. Being a principal will provide you the opportunity to lead transformational change that improves schools and school systems. And it gives you the chance to empower others and nurture their talents. This position allows you to make a difference in the lives of students, teachers, staff and your community.

Prepare for a career in education leadership

Even the most effective teacher relies on strong school guidance. If you think a leadership role could suit your personality, career goals and desire to positively impact students, it may be time to pursue a new role.

Now that you know a little more about how to become a principal, you might want to think about your next steps. Education is obviously an important component. Brandman University can help put your career goals within reach by offering flexible online and on-campus opportunities across the country. Consider earning your Master of Arts in Educational Leadership and Administration at Brandman University.



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