How Do You Become a Principal? The Path From Teacher to Principal

Teaching is a rewarding profession in so many ways. But, for some teachers, there comes a time when they feel a calling to do something that takes them beyond the classroom — while still keeping them in the education field. For them, the natural next step is to become a principal.

The Qualities of a Successful Principal

As a teacher, you’ve hopefully been fortunate enough to have worked with a principal you admire, respect, and trust. And, odds are, you’ve also had a front-row seat to the challenges and difficulties the job can bring. One thing is sure: Being a principal isn’t easy. But it can also be gratifying.

In his “Characteristics of a Highly Effective School Principal” post on ThoughtCo, Derrick Meador identified eight core traits shared by successful principals. They include the following:

  • Leadership: Schools need a strong leader at the helm. Without that, success will be elusive for the school, the staff, the teachers, the principal, and most importantly, the students.
  • The Ability to Build Relationships: Principals not only interact daily with teachers and students but also with parents, administrators, community leaders, and many others. “Every group requires a different approach, and individuals within a group are unique in their own right,” says Meador, who is the superintendent for Jennings Public Schools in Oklahoma.
  • A Balanced Approach to Tough Love and Earned Praise: There’s a fine line between being a kind leader and being a demanding one who sets high expectations. Principals must learn how to strike just the right balance.
  • Fairness and Consistency. Meador has observed that principals are judged by how they handle situations that are similar to one another. An area where this is particularly crucial is with student discipline. “If you are not fair and consistent, [students] will call you out on it,” he says.
  • Organized and Prepared: Every day is different and comes with its own set of opportunities and challenges. Effective principals work hard to be prepared for whatever the day might bring.
  • Excellent Listening Skills: Actively listening is key to being an effective leader. “You never know when an angry student, a disgruntled parent or an upset teacher is going to walk into your office. You have to be prepared to deal with those situations, and that starts with being an exceptional listener,” says Meador.
  • Being a Visionary: In a world that’s changing faster than we might ever have imagined, principals must have a clear vision of what the future looks like for their school. And that’s followed by being able to find ways to bring that vision to fruition.

Although these characteristics are part of the requirements to become a principal, they are also qualities that can be indicators of success in the profession.

What Do You Need to Become a Principal?

If becoming a principal is a goal you’d like to pursue, great! According to the National Association of Secondary School Principals, “many school districts across the country report principal vacancies and a serious lack of qualified candidates.” In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics is projecting a 4% growth in the job market nationwide for elementary, middle, and high school principals between 2018-2028. (And, in addition to a favorable job market, the annual mean salary for principals in California was reported to be $124,500 in May 2018.)

So, how do you become a principal? Requirements vary from state to state — so it’s important to find out what documentation, training, credentials, etc. you’ll need for the state in which you live and work.

In California, you’re required to earn a Preliminary Administrative Services Credential before being eligible to apply to be a principal. Requirements that need to be met for this include the following:

Education Prerequisites

Education Prerequisites: If you’re currently a credentialed teacher in California, you already have one of the requirements to become a principal. If you aren’t credentialed, you can fulfill the education prerequisites by presenting:

  • A valid California Designated Subjects Teaching Credential and a bachelor’s degree or higher.
  • A valid California Pupil Personnel Services Credential, Teacher Librarian Services Credential, Speech-Language Pathology Services Credential, Clinical or Rehabilitative Services Credential, or a School Nurse Services Credential (Clear or Professional Clear level only), plus a bachelor’s degree or higher and you must complete a program of professional preparation.

In addition to fulfilling one of the above requirements, you’ll also need to complete a Commission-approved administrator preparation program. Some exemptions apply, so always check with the credentialing body carefully.


Examinations: If you haven’t completed the Commission-approved administrator preparation program or a one-year administrative internship, you’ll take the California Preliminary Administrative Credential Examination (CPACE). Additionally, you might be required to satisfy the Basic Skills Requirement — which can be done by successfully passing one of several approved exams.


Experience: Instead of fulfilling the education requirement, you can complete a one-year Commission-approved supervised internship in administrative services. Additionally, you’re required to have three years of full-time teaching experience, pupil personnel work, health services, librarianship, or clinical or rehabilitative services. Part-time and substitute experience cannot be used to complete the experience requirement.

Additional Requirements

Additional Requirements: You’ll be required to submit several documents—including the Application for Credential Authorizing Public School Service (Form 41-4), transcripts, verification of employment, and others. Additionally, you’ll need to pass a criminal history background check.

Support Along the Way to Becoming a Principal

Satisfying the requirements to become a principal can feel daunting. However, there are resources available to make the process more manageable, particularly for people who are working full time during the day and have other responsibilities in the evenings and on weekends. One popular option among teachers is earning required degrees and credentials through National University’s Sanford College of Education. This NCATE-accredited program provides online and on-campus classes.

National provides both Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts programs in a wide variety of education-related disciplines, including educational administration and school counseling/psychology, special education, and teacher education. Additionally, National offers a doctorate program in organizational innovation.

Students at National take one course at a time, with each lasting only four weeks. For teachers who are busy working with students in the classroom all day, having the option of taking classes online in the evenings and weekends offers them much-needed flexibility.

Becoming a principal is a calling. It’s a calling to lead, to inspire and to support others in reaching their full potential. It’s a commitment to creating an environment in which students thrive. And it’s a promise to bring people together so that everyone feels heard, receives respect, and — above all — is assured that they matter.

If you’re interested in becoming a principal but need to meet additional requirements to be eligible to apply, visit our program page to learn how National University’s Sanford College of Education can support your journey. You can find out more about National University, the on-campus and online degrees and programs we offer, Veteran opportunities, and student experiences by reading our blog.

Learn More About Our University and Scholarships

Join our email list!

Recent Resources

Your passion. Our Programs.

Choose an Area of Study

Your passion. Our Programs.

Select a degree level

View Programs