School Principal: Job, Education and Salary Information
Do you have natural leadership abilities and a passion for education? Then you should think about becoming a school principal.
School principals don’t just oversee the day-to-day functions of schools and deal with unruly students. They provide leadership in times of crisis and lay out optimistic visions for the future of the educational institutions they serve.
Becoming a school principal isn’t easy. You’ll have plenty of competition because it’s a well-compensated, prestigious position. But if you’re ambitious and truly believe in the importance of education, it’s a career path you should seriously consider.
Our guide will show what you need to know to become a school principal, including the required education, likely salary, professional outlook, and advantages and disadvantages of pursuing this career. Read all the way through or use these links to jump to a specific destination:
At-a-glance: school principals
|Public school principal||Private school principal
|Estimated annual income||$90,410 (BLS)
$57,500 (National Center for Education Statistics)
School principal job description
As the principal, you are the face of the school. You’ll lead teachers and staff, set goals and ensure students meet their learning objectives. Overseeing your school’s day-to-day operations means handling disciplinary matters, managing a budget and hiring teachers and other personnel.
Logistics, schedules, teacher and staff evaluations, and public relations fall under the purview of school principals. And you have to take the lead in planning Back to School Night and college admissions/jobs fairs. You will probably have the help of one or more assistant principals and/or auxiliary clerical workers.
As principal, you’ll typically work out of an office in your school’s main building. But you’re not confined to an office — principals often sit in on classes, host school assemblies, attend off-site meetings and represent their school at conferences and local or regional events.
Principals also frequently travel to the school district’s administrative offices to report to the superintendent. The district superintendent is your immediate superior, and you will need to present reports, documents and other findings related to the management and success of your school on a regular basis.
Principals must ensure their school follows regulations set by local, state and federal authorities. Every person who works for a school, from teachers to academic advisors to custodial workers, ultimately reports to a school principal.
Who makes a good school principal?
Someone who is:
- Comfortable taking on a leadership role
- Able to see the big picture
- Service oriented
- Good at planning and organizing
- Empathetic and sociable
- Highly diplomatic
- Skilled in identifying problems and brainstorming potential solutions
- Excellent at written and oral communication as well as presentation
- Passionate about connecting with teachers and students
- Qualified with a master’s degree (typically in an education or leadership/management related subject)
Interested in becoming a school principal?
Check out this video to get a better sense of what you’ll encounter if you become a principal.
Different kinds of school principals
Let’s take a look at the varieties of school principals in more detail so you can start to think about which type of school you hope to lead.
Public school principals
Public school principals lead elementary, middle and high schools that are funded by a governmental entity and provide free education to children in a geographically defined area, usually called a district.Continue reading to learn more about public school principals
- What public school principals do
- Educational and certification requirements
- Income projections
- Pros and cons of being a public school principal
What public school principals do
Public school principals supervise elementary, middle and high schools that provide a free education to children in the school’s district. Ultimate responsibility for the success of a public school falls on the principal’s shoulders.
Public school principals give a human face to the schools they lead. They must maintain and advance the image and reputation of their schools. And they must always be ready to provide steady leadership in an emergency.
Day-to-day duties of public school principals include:
- Assigning teaching schedules
- Leading schools to meet or exceed state academic standards, including benchmark scores in standardized testing
- Budgeting and managing school expenses
- Negotiating the purchase of school supplies
- Conducting teacher and staff evaluations
- Planning school events such as open houses, back-to-school nights, fairs and dances
- Supervising custodial workers, guidance counselors, academic advisors and bookkeepers
- Disciplining delinquent students
- Setting up systems to identify students with special needs
- Supporting faculty with training, enrichment and goal setting
- Maintaining accurate academic records
- Contacting parents of students with failing grades or disciplinary issues
- Hiring faculty and other support staff
- Preparing for the upcoming school year during the summer
- Meeting with superintendents and school boards
Education and certification requirements
To become a public school principal, you will need at least a master’s degree. While public school principals come from a variety of academic backgrounds, acquiring a graduate-level degree in either education administration or leadership may streamline your path to becoming a principal.
School districts typically prefer principals who have teaching experience. This grounds a principal’s administrative responsibilities with a track record for working directly with students.
Some states may also require you to earn a school administrator license before becoming a public school principal.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average public school principal earns $90,410 per year, but salaries vary greatly depending on the district you’re working in. Principals in the top 10 percent of schools earn more than $129,480, while principals in the lowest 10 percent earn less than $58,300.
Here are three more estimates of the annual salary of a public school principal:
- PayScale.com: $85,868
- Salary.com: $99,487
- Glassdoor.com: $100,438
The job growth trajectory for public school principals is slightly below average. According to the BLS, the job growth rate for principals through 2024 is 6 percent. This growth will be mainly concentrated in areas where population is increasing. The BLS projects student enrollment will grow more in the West and the South while holding steady in the Midwest and declining in the Northeast.
Pros and cons of being a public school principal
As you think about becoming a public school principal, make sure to consider the advantages and disadvantages that come with the job.
- Leadership role comes with lots of respect and prestige
- Daily tasks are highly varied and problems encountered are often novel
- Salaries are higher than many other jobs in the education sector
- Full health and retirement benefits included
- You will leave a large impact on the institution you lead
- Enormous time commitment
- Less opportunity to work one-on-one with students than you would enjoy as a teacher
- Being responsible for the entire school’s success can be very stressful
- Managing an institution means dealing with bureaucratic challenges
- Must deal with the most difficult and unruly students, including deciding on appropriate discipline such as suspension and expulsion
- Addressing the needs of parents, teachers, school board members and other stakeholders requires an abundance of patience and diplomacy
Private school principals
Private school principals lead elementary, middle and high schools that are unaffiliated with government agencies. Some private school principals are called headmasters.Continue reading to learn more about private school principals
- What private school principals do
- Educational and certification requirements
- Income projections
- Pros and cons of being a private school principal
What private school principals do
Private school principals are in charge of elementary, middle and high schools that are funded by tuition and donors rather than taxpayers. Private schools use specific criteria for selecting students and operate with far less government oversight than a public school.
Like public school principals, headmasters are responsible for the daily functioning and overall success of the schools they lead. Many of the daily tasks of a private school principal may be nearly identical to those of a public school principal. This section will focus on areas where the role of private school principals diverges from their public school counterparts.
Fundraising and endowments
Private school principals spend considerable time raising funds from donors. They plan and host fundraising events and/or donation drives. They also hold meetings with private individuals or representatives of organizations to request donations.
Some private school principals help manage the school’s endowment (money and other financial assets the school controls). An endowment usually is invested in stocks, bonds and other financial instruments whose asset values increase over time. The endowment also generates investment income that can fund capital projects and other supplementary expenditures.
Private schools select their student body through an admissions process. Private school principals must ensure the admissions process is effective. They may focus on admitting students based on academic potential, diversity, family connections or any other criteria the school deems appropriate.
In any case, private school principals are ultimately responsible for deciding which students to admit to their school. They supervise the work of admissions officers to carry out this responsibility.
Private school principals must report to the organization or individuals responsible for establishing and supporting the school.
Some private schools are founded by religious orders. In that case, private school principals may be accountable to religious authorities.
Other private schools are secular, typically with executive boards composed of prominent alumni, major donors and other stakeholders. Private school principals must report to such boards on their school’s status and success in fulfilling their educational mission.
Education and certification requirements
Requirements for private school principals vary from one school to the next, but most require a master’s degree in an education-related field and several years of teaching experience.
The median annual salary for a school principal is $90,410, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, public school employees generally earn more than private school employees, and some estimates suggest this is true of private school principals as well. Here are two estimates of average private school principal annual salaries:
- SalaryGenius.com: $33,150
- National Center for Education Statistics: $57,500
Note that elite private schools often pay their principals (or headmasters) considerably more than their public school counterparts.
Pros and cons of being a private school principal
As you consider becoming a private school principal, take into account the good and the bad that come with the job.
- Excellent health and retirement benefits
- Much higher salary at elite schools than at comparable public schools
- Encounter new challenges frequently
- Opportunity for leadership
- Inspire young students to succeed
- Less opportunity to work one-on-one with students
- Responsible for difficult disciplinary decisions
- Must constantly keep parents and donors happy
- Lots of paperwork
- Organizational needs can be overwhelming
- Average salary may be lower than at public schools
Professional development for school principals
The principal is usually the top job in a school’s administrative hierarchy. Therefore, before you can become the principal of a school, you may have to work for years in other jobs. And your job performance will have to be consistently outstanding if you want to outcompete other candidates for principal jobs.
Most principals start out as teachers. So if you want to become a school principal, you should pursue a career as a teacher in a subject you feel passionate about.
You will teach for years for the chance to one day move into an academic administrative role, and from there you may have the opportunity to become a school principal. You won’t have much time for on-the-job training, so it’s important to learn as much as possible about school operations and communication with staff and parents before you become a principal.
You’ll also want to seriously consider earning an advanced degree in a field related to education and/or leadership and management. An advanced degree can boost your resume, increase your earning power and allow you to leapfrog over the competition to become a school principal years before you would otherwise.
If you’re pursuing a degree in an education-related field, seek out internships or other opportunities to gain experience in the administrative offices of a school, university or any other institution of learning.
Once you become a school principal, you should look into joining a professional association that provides access to networking opportunities, training, conferences and more. Depending on the type of school you lead, consider the following organizations:
- National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP)
- National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP)
- National Association of State Administrators and Supervisors of Private Schools (NASASPS)
What kinds of programs can help school principals?
Graduate education programs, such as the Master of Education and Doctorate of Education, help students cultivate executive leadership traits such as critical thinking, creative problem solving and informed decision-making. Coursework emphasizes communication and collaboration, teaching students how to make a virtue of complexity and embrace innovation, imagination and invention.
Other jobs for school principals
With additional education or certification, school principals are qualified for a wide range of educational jobs in both the public and private sectors.
Teacher: School principals can easily become teachers if they obtain the proper credentials and have a strong educational background in the subject they plan to teach. A bachelor’s degree is required, although a master’s is preferred. Typically, teachers become principals, though principals occasionally decide to return to teaching.
Librarian: A master’s degree in library science (MLS) is generally required for employment. Some states also require librarians to pass a standardized test.
Instructional coordinator: Instructional coordinators generally need to complete a master’s degree related to a subject like curriculum and instruction, and they may be required to have a teaching or school principal license.
Academic advisor: With a master’s degree in an education-related field, you can transition into being an academic advisor at either the private or college/university level.
Professor: School principals can become professors if they earn a doctorate in the area where they wish to research and teach.
Education consultant: School principals can become education consultants if they want to tackle challenges at many kinds of schools and education systems.
Education policy analyst: School principals can become policy analysts and examine big-picture issues affecting education nationwide.
Higher education administrator: School principals can work at institutions of higher learning if they make connections with administrators at the college/university level. For a higher-level position such as dean or president, a master’s degree or doctorate in educational leadership may be required.
Best of the web: our favorite school principal blogs, websites and Twitter handles
The web makes it easy for us to stay connected to prominent school principals. Here is a list of our favorite websites and Twitter handles, in no particular order.
Favorite school principal websites and blogs
- Connected Principals
- The Principal Blog
- Principal Principles
- The Principal’s Page
- Rock Star Principals