A school principal plays a significant role in shaping the vision and facilitating the success of a school and its student and faculty population. Here, you can learn more about the job responsibilities of a school principal, as well as how to become a principal of a school, public or private.
In This Article:
- What Is a School Principal?
- Where Does a School Principal Work?
- What Do Principals Do?
- Reasons for Becoming a School Principal
- How To Become a Principal of a School
What Is a School Principal?
A school principal leads the whole school community, including students, teachers, staff, parents and community partners. They are the liaison between the school and the district leadership. School principals manage the administration of all work related to students, teachers and staff.
School principals are often former classroom teachers who have decided to advance their careers by taking on this leadership position. They may have worked their way up from classroom teacher to curriculum specialist to assistant or vice principal.
The role of the school principal cannot be overstated. They are at the center of all progress made by a school. In fact, a survey cited by the Wallace Foundation found that principal leadership was considered the most pressing matter of public school education, behind quality of teachers.1
The major responsibilities of a school principal vary depending on where the school is located, how many students it serves and what kind of funding it receives from the state and federal governments. Most of a school principal’s duties can be summed up in the following titles:
- Leader: Principals are school leaders. They set academic goals and guide curriculum development. Principals evaluate teachers and other staff on campus.
- Administrator: Principals are charged with overseeing school budgets. They also ensure compliance with district, state and federal regulations and policies. A school principal oversees safety and security at the school level and manages the school’s overall operations.
- Advocate: School principals advocate for their students. They assist teachers in making the best decisions to meet student needs, and work with parents to create student success plans. Principals also help manage relationships between students and staff.
- Representative: Principals represent and advocate for their schools at the district level by sharing successes and requesting the resources students and teachers need. Principals also work with the community at school board meetings and act as the face of the school to the public.
Where Does a School Principal Work?
School principals work in every type of school. Public and private schools have principals, as do charter schools and magnet schools.
Not all school leaders will be called a principal. Instead they may be called a head teacher or head of school. These leaders still perform the same general role as a school principal.
You can find school principals leading:
- Elementary schools
- Middle schools
- High schools
The responsibilities of a principal will vary from school to school depending on several factors such as school location, population size, demographics of the community, budget and teacher population. In some schools, principals may work primarily from their office, where they will have an administrative assistant and multiple vice or assistant principals working with them. In other schools, principals may teach classes or run clubs or special projects.
What Do Principals Do?
The job of a school principal can be hectic. Principals are in charge of overseeing every aspect of a school, from teacher evaluations to student achievement, and from yearly budgets to community engagement. The amount of responsibility is high but a diligent school principal will know how to prioritize and delegate tasks.
As heads of school, principals play key roles in the following areas:
School principals oversee all aspects of academics within the school. They hire, mentor and evaluate teachers. They conduct classroom observations to assess teachers and to evaluate students. They make decisions related to the curriculum, such as leading textbook adoptions or deciding on new instructional programs or techniques.
School principals arrange for learning opportunities for teachers, such as professional development, training and conference attendance. They also arrange opportunities for students, such as inviting guest speakers, and arranging assemblies and pep rallies.
School principals lead and attend evening programs like science fairs or sports events. They also make connections within the community that foster academic success, such as facilitating tutoring programs, apprenticeships and service-learning opportunities.
All strategic planning activities at a school are led and approved by the principal. This includes planning the academic calendar for the following year, and approving new programs and curricular resources. Principals also lead human resources processes, such as teacher hiring.
Student recruitment, admission and retention also fall under a principal’s responsibilities. They may work with the district on these efforts, but the principal is responsible for reporting on actual numbers and data and yearly growth. Principals must also stay current on district, state and federally mandated laws that impact their schools.
In addition to academic strategic planning, a principal oversees all aspects of running the school building and all programs within it. They oversee the cafeteria managers, who order and serve food; work with maintenance technicians to service the building infrastructure; ensure monitors are available to supervise students during lunch and recess; and coordinate volunteer programs to engage parents and the community.
Schools do not exist without the support of outside entities. A school principal must be an active and engaged member of all stakeholder groups that support the school. They must attend PTA and school board meetings to ask and answer questions that are important for the school community.
They must communicate with parents on a regular basis about how to best support student success and to be transparent about what is happening at school. Principals must also stay connected with other school leaders in order to create successful district outcomes.
Some schools partner with educational companies that support resource or technology implementation. A school principal must be the liaison between these companies and the staff and students.
Supporting All Students
School principals should know the students that attend their schools. They should develop programs that support all types of learners, from students who need special services to English language learners to students who need advanced academic opportunities.
Principals should expect to be involved in students’ lives, especially when they might come from unstable family situations or homes without a lot of parental involvement. Principals have a duty to ensure that safety and academic success are accessible to all students.
The school principal oversees maintaining the school’s budget. They must understand expenditures and find ways to secure funding for any needs that go beyond the approved budget.
This means that principals, especially those of private and independent schools, must consider payroll and benefits costs every year. They want to pay their teachers and staff fairly, so they must find other places in the budget to make cuts when necessary.
Traits of Effective School Principals
To fulfill all of the job roles listed above, school principals have to be highly dedicated people with traits that make them well-suited to a career in school leadership. To make an impact as the head of a school, principals must demonstrate the following characteristics.
Principals must be visible leaders at a school. They should have frequent interactions with students, parents, teachers and staff. They should arrange and participate in school events. School principals must be willing to make difficult decisions to lead the school toward its vision of success.
Great leaders must also be great communicators. Not only should school principals be able to share their ideas about the school, but they should listen actively to all stakeholders. They must be present in their conversations despite being responsible for so many things.
Leading a school requires a great deal of problem-solving. School principals should be able to use creative thinking to fix long-term problems.
School principals know personal information about students, parents, teachers and staff members. They must be able to keep information confidential when necessary.
In addition, school principals should also be approachable. Students and teachers want to see the school leader as someone they can go to with concerns.
School principals should be focused on fairness, and on setting policies that respect and empower students and teachers. This includes ensuring fair discipline policies and being consistent with consequences.
A school principal empowers others by encouraging them to be successful. The principal should celebrate student achievements and honor the work teachers do in the classroom. With enthusiasm, they will gladly talk about the school’s accomplishments with anyone who will listen.
An effective leader helps other leaders grow. A school principal should spend time mentoring and guiding teachers into leadership roles. They should set the vision for the school and help all students and teachers work together to reach common goals.
With so much going on at a school, a principal must be willing to adapt as needed. They should keep tabs on the needs of students and staff and be willing to pivot to support their stakeholders. An effective school principal will stay current with educational research and will try new techniques to tackle old problems.
Reasons for Becoming a School Principal
There are many reasons why someone might consider becoming a school principal. In fact, some people go into teaching with the goal of eventually becoming a principal; they already know that the role would suit them. Here are some other reasons people choose to become school principals:
- The job is satisfying. One study shows that about 95% of school principals who responded to a survey are satisfied with their job.2
- They can have a wider impact. Teachers who move into a principal role can help even more students than just those in their classroom.
- It is a job that grows new skills. Someone who wants to experience all aspects of education, from the academics to the financials, might enjoy a school leader role.
- There is an opportunity to set and achieve big goals. School principals set a vision for the entire school and everyone in it. Then they get to lead the entire community toward reaching those goals.
- The pay is good. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage is $98,420 for elementary, middle and high school principals in May 2021.3
As a school principal, you would exert significant influence on the culture of the school. You would have the ability to affect positive change in areas such as academic achievement, college acceptance, extracurricular and sports participation, bullying reduction and school safety. By leading with empathy, integrity and a genuine respect for the student body, you would set a positive example for others to emulate.
How To Become a Principal of a School
There is no single, universal pathway toward becoming a principal. If you’re already working as a teacher, for example, the next steps to take (e.g. earn a master’s degree) are quite different than if you are a current high school student. However, you can use the following information as a general guideline as you’re planning your next move.
1. Earn a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in Education
If you’re still in high school, you should begin planning to pursue your bachelor’s degree. The vast majority of school principals become teachers, and then move on to become education administrators. (Although it is possible to become a principal without first acquiring teaching experience, principals without teaching experience are few and far between.) Look for a teaching program in a subject area you’re passionate about, and ensure that the program will lead to initial teaching licensure if you do not currently hold a license.
Next, you may want to plan on earning a master’s in educational administration. Not every school principal holds a master’s degree, although it is quite common and strongly recommended. There may be fewer opportunities available to aspiring principals without a master’s.
2. Teaching Experience
Plan on acquiring a handful of years of teaching experience. You could focus on one grade level exclusively, although it would be to your advantage to move around. By teaching a variety of grade levels, you would acquire invaluable experience working with students of a range of ages. You’ll also be better equipped to truly understand the needs of teachers at various grade levels.
Most states require that principals in public schools have a school administration credential or license, above and beyond their teaching license. Private schools may not require the same certification process. Many future principals can combine their master’s degree and principal licensure into the same program.
4. Educational Leadership Experience
Some school principal roles require that the person has school leadership experience. This means that many school principals start out as vice or assistant principals. Leading a department or being a school board representative are also good avenues for school leadership experience.
However, it may not be necessary to wait until this point to gain leadership experience. While you’re still working as a teacher, you can begin exploring leadership opportunities.
You could support other teachers by becoming a grade-level or department-level chair. You could also work with other teachers at other grade levels to ensure vertical curriculum alignment.
Still another way to gain school leadership experience is to look for entry-level principal jobs. For example, you might consider serving as principal at a large school, with an extended reach into the community, or at a small school, where you may work with students one on one.
Teachers who wish to become principals should discuss their goals with their school’s principal and start networking with leaders at local schools. They may be able to shadow a principal to see what the work is really like. This experience and getting to know people in the field can help their application process.
Those who are passionate about educating the next generation will find a supportive learning community at Grand Canyon University (GCU). In addition to the undergraduate teaching programs available from our College of Education, GCU is pleased to offer master’s degree options to aspiring administrators. These include the Master of Education in Educational Administration (Advanced Program for Principal Licensure). Click on Request Info above to begin your academic journey at GCU.
1The Wallace Foundation, An Overview The School Principal as Leader, in November 2021
2Peabody College at Vanderbilt University, Trends in Principal Job Satisfaction, in November 2021
3The earnings referenced were reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (“BLS”), Elementary, Middle and High School Principals as of May 2021. Due to COVID-19, data from 2021 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may also impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the BLS. BLS calculates the median using salaries of workers from across the country with varying levels of education and experience and does not reflect the earnings of GCU graduates as as elementary, middle and high school principals. It does not reflect earnings of workers in one city or region of the country. It also does not reflect a typical entry-level salary. Median income is the statistical midpoint for the range of salaries in a specific occupation. It represents what you would earn if you were paid more money than half the workers in an occupation, and less than half the workers in an occupation. It may give you a basis to estimate what you might earn at some point if you enter this career. You may also wish to compare median salaries if you are considering more than one career path.
Approved by the assistant dean of the College of Education on Feb. 22, 2023.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.