How to become a Principal

This article provides in-depth information into What is a Principal? What Principals do? Degrees for Principals, Steps to become Principal and much more.

How To Become a Principal — Everything You Need to Know

Whether you’re just starting your career in education or have been teaching for a while, you might be wondering how to become a principal.

A successful school principal is driven by a passion for education and a desire to take on a leadership role within their school. 

Principals truly believe they can make a difference in the lives of the children they serve. They are people who live by their, well, principles.

Aspiring principals will need to gain a series of certifications and a certain amount of teaching experience to achieve their goals. 

This article will provide prospective principals with all the information they need on what principals do and the steps and qualifications necessary to become a principal.

What does a Principal do ?

Principals are responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operations of schools. 

They usually work in elementary schools, middle schools, or high schools. School principals might also work in a public, private, or charter school. 

They are responsible for making sure their school runs smoothly and provides a safe and excellent learning environment for its students. 

Becoming a principal is a way to set standards of performance and establish goals and objectives for students, teachers, and staff. Principals also represent the school to external stakeholders and might attend community events or support social organizations. 

Principals juggle many roles — from being the instructional leader to developing and upholding the school’s mission statement and school board policy.

Some of the tasks of a principal include:

  • Upholding educational policies and integrating the common core government guidelines into each class curriculum.
  • Creating benchmarks for students and teachers and tracking progress toward those goals.
  • Developing programs that improve teacher performance and assisting students in understanding class material better.
  • Providing guidance to the school’s network of student leaders and challenging those leaders to make the school a better place.
  • Responding immediately to concerns from parents and school board administrators.
  • Managing the school’s finances and budget.
  • Making sure facilities are safe and secure.
  • Meeting with teachers and parents as part of measuring progress and monitoring behavior.
  • Supporting teachers in their disciplinary decisions.

Supervising and monitoring all categories of school staff, including teachers, counselors, and media specialists.

Steps for becoming a Principal


Earn A Bachelor’s Degree And Become A Teacher

Most school principals begin a career in education by teaching. Bachelor’s degrees are generally the minimum educational requirement for teachers. States require public school teachers to be licensed, which involves completing a bachelor’s degree and passing a licensing exam.


Gain Teaching Experience

Teaching is an ideal training ground for principals. 

Before advancing into administration positions, most principals begin their careers in education as teachers. During this time, they learn skills such as communication, leadership, and motivation. 

Teachers also learn to develop curriculum according to students’ needs, as well as valuable evaluation skills.


Teach In As Many Levels As Possible In A Short Time

Working with a variety of students, parents, and colleagues will expose you to opportunities to further develop leadership and communication skills. 

Try working in elementary school, middle school, and high school to see which is the best fit for you.
These experiences will serve you well as the principal. Try to move quickly through the ranks when possible while seeking opportunities to advance your skills.


Find Ways To Demonstrate Strong Leadership Skills

Get involved in your school and your community. Volunteering for activities, committees, or planning groups can help you shine. 

When people see your ability to motivate others, complete a group activity, or spearhead a planning committee, they will be more likely to make a positive recommendation when you’re pursuing a principal position.


Research Your District’s Principal Qualifications

Once you know the requirements for becoming a principal in various districts, you can work to meet them. 

For example, you may need to become a licensed school administrator prior to applying for a principal position. 

Perhaps you’ll need a Master of Science degree in educational administration to take the exam. 

If that’s the case, start researching your options for master’s degree programs while you’re teaching and developing essential leadership skills.


Earn A Master’s Degree

In most cases, a master’s degree in educational leadership or educational administration is required for employment as a principal. The graduate degree programs are designed to provide the necessary training for prospective principals to lead faculty and staff, work with budgets, communicate effectively with parents and the community, and set and accomplish goals for the school.

Getting your master’s degree from an accredited university will improve your chances of becoming a successful principal.


Start Working As A Principal

Depending on your level of experience, you might want to start as an assistant principal or vice principal and work your way up. 

If you feel ready to take on the challenge of being a principal, you can try and jump straight into a school leadership role.

Principal Degree Levels


An associate’s degree in education provides the skills and knowledge needed to enter the education field and is a good first step towards a career in teaching. Those who earn an associate degree in education from an accredited school may qualify for paraeducator positions such as teaching assistant, teacher’s aide, or in some states, preschool teacher or substitute teacher.

Early Childhood Education
  • Early Childhood Education Today

  • Foundations for Teaching and Learning

  • Implementing Early Childhood Programs

  • Establish an educational philosophy

  • Demonstrate an awareness of cultural diversity

  • Discuss techniques to guide children

Child Psychology
  • Biological Factors in Child Psychology

  • Schools of Child Psychology

  • Vygotsky’s Theory In-Depth

  • The concept of Childhood

  • Early history and childhood

  • The class difference in perceptions of childhood

Basics of Curriculum
  • Backward Design of Lessons

  • Curriculum and Teaching

  • Lesson Plan Creation

  • Demonstrate knowledge of the relationship between educational theory and practice

  • Examine current curriculum theories

  • Examine curriculum mapping


A principal’s bachelor's degree does not need to be in education as long as the candidate is certified as a teacher in a state. 

However, a bachelor's degree in education can help you work your way up to a career as a principal.

Foundations in Education
  • The Purpose of Schooling

  • The Official Construction of Schools

  • The Social Construction of Race and Racism

  • Explain historical moments of schooling

  • Schooling conditions

  • Current content and pedagogical practices

Effective Teaching Skills & Classroom Management
  • Classroom Management

  • Classroom Organization

  • Behavior Management

  • Plan the organization of a classroom

  • Manage student progress data electronically

  • Establish classroom procedures and expectation

Instructional Technology in Education
  • Media Knowledge and Skills

  • History and Purposes of Technology in Schools

  • Future Trends and Ethical Concerns

  • How to select and evaluate technology in the classroom

  • How to prepare technology-enhanced lessons in the classroom

  • How to keep up-to-date on new and emerging technologies


You'll likely need teaching experience before you are eligible for a master's degree program in this field. Many aspiring principals complete a master's degree in education or educational leadership. 
Most states and schools require principals to have a related master's degree. However, some schools are willing to hire principals with any master's degree. The important thing is that they are certified teachers and school administrators.

Classroom Management
  • Foundations of Classroom Management

  • Behavioral and Assertive Approaches

  • Positive and Cooperative Approaches

  • Identify and evaluate different classroom-management approaches

  • Discuss routine and disruptive events in the classroom

  • Implement effective classroom and behavior management techniques

Advanced Educational Psychology
  • Analysis of current Personal Educational Philosophy

  • Expert Teachers & Learners

  • Cognitive, Learning & Language Skills

  • Extend the knowledge of educational psychology principles

  • Cognitive development

  • Social development

Foundations of Reading and Writing
  • Oral Language

  • Phonological and Phonemic Awareness

  • Alphabetic Principle

  • Explain the developmental processes associated with communication systems

  • Procedures to plan and implement instruction

  • Explain the alphabetic principle


A doctorate in education (Ed.D. or Ph.D.) gives you academic knowledge relating to the practice of education. 

There are several different types of doctoral programs in education, and at various schools, the lines between these programs may be blurred. 

Ed.D. programs focus on projects and practical work. Ph.D. programs tend to be more research-based. 

A doctorate in education may focus on a specific area of education. For example, it could be a special education doctorate degree or an educational leadership doctorate degree.

Learning Theory and the Educational Process
  • Brain-Based Learning

  • Behaviorist Learning Theory

  • Cognitive Learning Theory

  • Create, revise, and use your own personal theory of learning

  • Reflect on how learning theories impact on every aspect of your life

  • Explain the interactions of students, teachers, and materials in classrooms

Educational Philosophy
  • Eastern Philosophy and Education

  • Pragmatism

  • Reconstructionism

  • The relationship between theory, philosophy and educational practice

  • Describe the historical context of the various philosophies

  • Discuss the strengths and limitations of the various philosophies

Principles of Educational Administration
  • Introduction to the American legal system

  • Role of the federal government in education

  • Governance of public schools

  • Outline and explain the organizational structure of public schools

  • Explain the general structure of the federal and state court systems

  • Issues in educational law to develop and administer a safe school environment

Principal Admissions Requirements

Transitioning into education from another field

If you want to switch careers and become a principal, you may already have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in a different field. So what should you do?

If you have a bachelor's degree in a different field

The good news is you don’t have to go back to square one and get a bachelor's degree in education. But you should get a master's degree in either education or education administration.

One of the best ways to do this is to get an online master’s degree in education. This allows you to gain experience while you study. 

If you have a master's degree in a different field

If you have qualifications and experience in a different field, you don’t necessarily have to earn a master's in education or administration. Many schools are happy to hire people with expertise in different areas. 

However, you will need to gain hands-on teaching experience to become an educational leader. 

You’ll also need relevant teaching qualifications. Once you have some experience working in schools, you’ll be able to get certified and start applying for principal jobs.

To become a licensed principal, you’ll have to attend a principal training program. Once you have the relevant education and training, you can get your principal licensure and certifications. 

These vary from state to state, so you’ll need to do some research to find out what qualifications are required in your local area.

How long does it take to become a principal?

The answer is: it depends. 

For an undergraduate student setting out on a career in education, it may take up to six years to gain the necessary qualifications and three to five years of teaching experience after that. In total, it can take ten years or more.

If you’re already a qualified teacher with a few years of experience under your belt, the process will be much shorter. 

If you’re someone transitioning into a career in education leadership from another field, the timeframe may be longer or shorter depending on the qualifications, skills, and experience you have.

School leadership is similar to other types of business leadership. Someone transitioning from a leadership role in another industry might not need as many years of experience in schools to become a principal.

For more on this, check out our guide on how long it takes to become a principal.


So, now you know how to become a principal. It might take a few years, but your dream of a career in education administration and instructional leadership is within your reach.

How long it will take you to become a principal will depend on where you are on your journey. But gaining the necessary certifications, experience, and leadership skills is the best way to fulfill your dream of becoming a school principal in the shortest possible time.
Check out TheCollegeMonk’s Careers section for more resources that will help you set up a successful career as a school principal.