What Does a School Principal Do?

A male school principal standing outside with students

Teachers hoping to advance their careers may ask themselves, “what does a school principal do?” They see their school leaders dispense academic guidance, enforce school rules, and interact with parents, but often don’t know all of the duties of the school principal. It is important to understand the breadth of work a school principal undertakes before deciding if it is the best career path for you.

What Is a 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

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: 

  • Preschools 
  • 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 every aspect of a school, from teacher evaluations to student achievement, and from yearly budgets to community engagement. This amount of responsibility can be stressful, but a dedicated school principal will focus on the areas that need attention, when they need it.

Principals are the heads of the school. This means they must fulfill the following job duties:

Academic Leadership

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.

Strategic Planning

All strategic, planning-related 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 like 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.

Building 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.

Financial Stewardship

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 duties listed above, school principals have to be special people with traits that make them uniquely suited to a career in school leadership. To make an impact as the head of a school, principals must demonstrate the following characteristics.

Leadership

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.

Communication

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.

Innovation

Leading a school requires a great deal of problem-solving. School principals should be able to use creative thinking to fix long-term problems.

Trustworthiness

School principals know personal information about students, parents, teachers, and staff members. They must be able to keep information confidential when necessary. School principals should also be approachable. Students and teachers want to see the school leader as someone they can go to with concerns.

Fairness

School principals should be focused on fairness and setting policies that respect and empower students and teachers. This includes ensuring fair discipline policies and being consistent with consequences.

Enthusiasm

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.

Motivational

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.

Flexible

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.

Why Become a School Principal?

There are many reasons why someone might consider becoming a school principal. Teachers who want to further their careers are a common group that consider the job. Other 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 news skills: Someone who wants to experience all aspects of education, from the academics to the financial, 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: There is a median annual wage of $98,490 for elementary, middle and high school principals.3

How to Become a School Principal?

To begin your career as a school principal, there are a few steps you should take.

1. Formal Education

You need at least a bachelor’s degree to become a school principal. Many future principals go on to earn a master’s degree after earning their initial education degree. School principals who have gone through an education degree program will also have teaching experience. Some programs exist to bring non-teachers into school leadership roles. These career-changers still need at least a bachelor’s degree.

2. Teaching Experience

Most school principals start as teachers and move into the role after five or more years in the classroom. Having a good amount of teaching experience across grades and subjects can help school principals better understand the needs of the students and teachers they lead.

3. Certification

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. 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.

5. Networking

Teachers who wish to become principals should let their school principal know 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 in the future.

If you aspire to become a school principal, start by earning your teaching degree. Grand Canyon University's College of Education has a variety of degree program options to help you reach your career goals. Click on Request Info at the top of your page to start your academic journey at GCU today.

 

Retrieved from:

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 2020. Due to COVID-19, data from 2020 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 psychologists. 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.

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.

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