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How to Become an Elementary, Middle, or High School Principal

Most schools require elementary, middle, and high school principals to have a master’s degree in education administration or leadership. Most principals also have experience as teachers.


In public schools, principals often must have a master’s degree in education leadership or education administration. These programs prepare future principals to lead teachers and other instructional staff, prepare and manage budgets, set goals and carry out plans to meet them, and work with parents and the community.

Education leadership or administration programs require candidates to have a bachelor’s degree in education, school counseling, or a related field to enter the program.

Work Experience

Principals often gain experience in education by working as a teacher before entering a master’s program or applying for a job as a school principal. For information about how to become a teacher, see the profiles on kindergarten and elementary school teachers, middle school teachers, and high school teachers.


Most states require public school principals to be licensed as school administrators. Licensure requirements vary from state to state, but most require a master’s degree or some other training. Some require candidates to pass a test and take continuing education classes to keep their license. Working with a mentor may be required, as well. Some states have alternative programs for job candidates who do not have a degree in education administration or leadership but have experience in another field.

Principals in private schools do not have to be licensed as school administrators.


An assistant principal can advance to become a principal. Some principals advance to become superintendents. Others become instructional coordinators. For more information, see the profile on instructional coordinators.

Important Qualities

Communication skills. Principals need good communication skills to explain the goals and vision of the school. They also need to be able to advocate on behalf of the school to their community.

Critical-thinking skills. Principals need to analyze data from students’ tests and evaluate trends in the data to determine how best to meet students' needs and where the school needs to improve.

Decision-making skills. Principals are responsible for students, staff members, and matters that affect the school community. They make decisions often, sometimes quickly, and must be able to consider many factors.

Leadership skills. Principals set educational goals and establish policies and procedures for the school. They need to be able to motivate and inspire teachers and other staff members to improve their skills and do their best work.

People skills. Principals work with many different members of the community, as well as teachers, students, and parents. They need to be able to develop good working relationships with all groups.

Problem-solving skills. Teachers, students, and other staff members bring problems to the attention of the principal. Principals need to be able to think creatively to develop solutions.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition