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How Do Teachers Become Principals?

Knowing how to become a principal can help you reach your career goals.

There are around 3.6 million elementary and secondary school teachers in the U.S.* but only 240,000 school principals. If you’re a teacher interested in becoming a principal, that means opportunities are limited. However, understanding the process through which teachers become principals and possessing the right traits and education degree can help you take your career to the highest level.


How to Become a Principal

The pathway to the top in elementary and secondary education is pretty straightforward: you have to demonstrate educational leadership and rise through the ranks. As Education Week lays out in an article on the subject, the typical path to principal includes:

Almost everyone who becomes a principal starts in the classroom. It’s where you gain real-world experience with students and a deeper understanding of teaching strategy and the overall educational process.

Once an informal role, teacher-leader is now an official position in most schools. As a teacher-leader, you will continue to work in the classroom but take on added responsibilities such as leading the professional development of other teachers and helping to write curriculum. Being a teacher-leader is a great way to develop educational leadership skills.

Assistant Principal
While not all assistant principals are in line to become principals, the position is a common step up the ladder. As an assistant principal, you will help run the school, either by focusing on one area of school management (such as student discipline) or by taking on a wide variety of tasks delegated to you by your principal. The more responsibility you have as an assistant principal, the more you’ll learn about how to effectively run a school—and the better qualified you’ll be to move to the top.

When you become a principal, generally the buck stops with you. The position requires the ability to lead teachers and other administrators and create a school environment that gives every student the chance to excel. It’s a demanding but rewarding job.

The Key Traits That Principals Need

Whether you become a school principal will depend a lot on your leadership traits and abilities. Traits commonly associated with the best principals include:

High Standards
You have to expect the best to get the best. Great principals routinely push their teachers and students to work harder because they believe the school can achieve more.

Strength of Character
As a principal, you don’t want to be too soft or too strict. Instead, you need the strength of character to provide criticism when warranted and provide support when needed. This is true for your dealings with students and teachers.

How can you improve test scores? Elevate teacher morale? Solve disciplinary problems? Upgrade your classroom technology? As a principal, there will always be problems to solve. The best principals do more than rely on the standard solutions. When one idea isn’t working, they have the vision to see new ways forward. A principal who is also an idea person can succeed where others might fail.

A principal can’t be easily distracted or easily dissuaded. Instead, you need the ability to focus on the details of running the school while simultaneously staying focused on the larger goals. It takes a lot of drive, preparation, and organization to lead a school forward.

Every school has a wide range of races, cultures, disabilities, and personality traits. To ensure the whole school moves toward the same goals and that no one is left behind, good principals are inclusive and expect inclusiveness from everyone else. For these principals, differences should never be barriers.

The Teaching Degree You Should Earn

Almost all principals have completed one or more graduate programs for educators. If you’re already a certified teacher and want to put yourself on the path to becoming a principal, you should strongly consider earning an advanced degree such as an MS in Education (MSEd) specializing in Educational Leadership and Administration (Principal Licensure Preparation). Or, if you already hold a master’s degree, an Education Specialist (EdS) in Educational Leadership and Administration (Principal Licensure Preparation) is a great option. Not only can an EdS or master’s in education provide you with the advanced credentials needed for most principal positions, it will help you improve your skills and enhance your education knowledge. Regardless of which degree you choose, be sure the degree program is state-approved and leads to principal licensure.

While earning a master’s degree in education might seem difficult, online education can make it a lot more convenient. Through a master’s in education online program, you can complete most of your coursework from home or anywhere with internet access. You can also attend your MSEd degree classes at whatever time of day or week works best for you. That’s because online master’s in education programs offer flexible scheduling designed with full-time teachers in mind.

Becoming a principal takes a lot of time and work. But through online learning, you can help yourself get ahead by earning the principal licensure degree you’ll need.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering a nationally recognized MS in Education degree program and Education Specialist (EdS) in Educational Leadership and Administration (Principal Licensure Preparation) program. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.

*National Center for Education Statistics, Teacher Trends, Fast Facts, on the internet at

†Bureau of Labor Statistics, I.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Elementary, Middle and High School Principals, on the internet at

‡Education Week, From Teacher to Principal: A Look at the Typical Pathway, on the internet at

Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,

Walden offers both state-approved educator licensure programs as well as programs and courses that do not lead to licensure or endorsements. Prospective students must review their state licensure requirements prior to enrolling. For more information, please refer to

Prospective Alabama students: Contact the Educator Certification Section of the Alabama State Department of Education at 1-334-353-8567 or to verify that these programs qualify for teacher certification, endorsement, and/or salary benefits.

Note to all Washington residents: The MSEd program is not intended to lead to teacher certification. Teachers are advised to contact their individual school districts as to whether this program may qualify for salary advancement.

Prospective Washington state students are advised to contact the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction at 1-360-725-6400 or [email protected] to determine whether Walden’s programs in the field of education are approved for teacher certification or endorsements in Washington state. Additionally, teachers are advised to contact their individual school district as to whether a particular program may qualify for salary advancement.