Government Job Profile: School Principal

principal in elementary school
Phil Boorman / Getty Images

A school principal must be a versatile leader. In any given day the principal can be a curriculum consultant, budget analyst, public relations representative, mediator, disciplinarian and manager. If you like a varied workday, this could be a job for you. 

The principal is held accountable for all aspects of a school. While the principal formally reports to the school superintendent or an assistant superintendent, the principal answers to many different people.

The school staff expect leadership; parents expect a quality education and a safe environment for their children; and the community expects tax money to be spent wisely and student achievement on standardized test to be up to par with the rest of the state’s schools.

The Selection Process

Principals are selected by the superintendent, assistant superintendent or a hiring panel. The hiring panel members depend on the particular job and the political forces in play at the time. The more politically charged the environment, the more unconventional the hiring panel membership will be. If there is a school board member particularly interested in the school, that board member may work their way onto the panel. Otherwise, the hiring process is similar to that of other senior management positions in other fields.

The Education You'll Need

Most principals hold master’s degrees in education administration or educational leadership.

Bachelor’s degrees are often acceptable, but candidates with advanced degrees are preferable. Job postings may be written in such a way that candidates with only a bachelor’s degree is required to have more work experience than candidates with advanced degrees.

The Experience You Need

Principal positions are jobs individuals assume mid-career.

Principals often have experience as teachers and as assistant principals. Some states require principals to have direct teaching experience before they can become principals.

What You'll Do:

A principal manages all faculty and staff at a school. The principal is held responsible for the school’s academic performance and for the safety of students while they’re on school grounds.

A school’s performance is primarily measured by how students perform on standardized tests. Principals in high performing schools are expected to keep their school’s test scores high. Principals in low performing schools are expected to foster improvement in the scores each year until the school becomes high performing.

The principal decides how the school’s funds are spent. With general guidance from the district’s school board and more specific instruction from the superintendent and other district office staff, the principal decides how to most effectively spend the money allotted to the school.

Hiring decisions are overseen by the principal with little interference from the district office. Human resources staff in the central office may assist in the administrative tasks of hiring, but the selections of assistant principals, teachers, counselors, librarians and other staff are left to the principal’s professional judgment.

Strong management skills are essential to running an effective school. Teachers should trust that the operations of the school are well looked after, so they can focus on their students. Teachers should also feel like their principal is going to back them up when they refer students for disciplinary action. The support staff look to the principal for leadership. Whether good or bad, the support staff will often follow the behaviors modeled by the principal.

The principal is the public face of the school. When parents want to take their concerns straight to the top, the principal is the person they contact. Principals learn quickly how to deal with irate parents who think their child has been shortchanged in some way. The principal separates facts from lies and exaggerations to get to the heart of an issue so he or she can address it and move onto the myriad of other issues demanding the principal’s attention.

What You'll Earn:

According to 2012 data compiled by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, principals typically earn an average salary of $87,760. High school principals tend to make more than middle school principals, who tend to make more than elementary school principals.