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What Does an Elementary, Middle, or High School Principal Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

Image by Maddy Price © The Balance 2019 

Principals manage elementary, middle, or secondary schools and are responsible for everything that goes on in them. Also called school administrators, they establish educational goals for their schools and make sure teachers and staff meet them.

It is the principal's job to represent the school within the school district and the community at large. He or she may delegate some duties to one or more assistant principals.

Principal Duties & Responsibilities

This job generally requires the ability to do the following work:

  • Supervise the instructional programs
  • Evaluate lesson plans
  • Assess teaching and learning effectiveness
  • Confer with teachers, students, and parents
  • Oversee student discipline
  • Ensure compliance with all laws
  • Keep staff informed

Principals are the top on-site official at a school. They play an active role in hiring teachers and other school staff members, and they ultimately are responsible for making sure the school runs smoothly and efficiently.

From an educational standpoint, they must work with the teaching staff to make sure curricula are being followed and that students are achieving desired goals and objectives. This involves assessing teachers and helping teachers when necessary. Principals also must oversee student discipline and ensure that a school is a safe and inclusive learning environment. This often involves seeking and obtaining cooperation from parents.

From an infrastructure standpoint, principals must ensure that the school is running properly. If maintenance needs arise, the principal must ensure they are met and that issues do not interfere with learning.

It is an all-encompassing job, and the way it is approached by principals often sets the tone for the kind of environment a school building will be.

Principal Salary

Pay for principals can vary depending on the size of the school district and whether or not it is public or private. Public school principals typically earn more than private school principals, and larger public school districts in suburban communities typically pay the highest salaries.

  • Median Annual Salary: $95,310 ($45.82/hour)
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: $144,950 ($69.68/hour)
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: $61,490 ($29.56/hour)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018

Education, Training, & Certification

Principals almost always are teachers before they lead a school. This means they first need a bachelor’s degree in education and to be certified as a teacher by the state where they work. Additional educational and certification requirements must be met to become a principal.

  • Education: Earn a master's degree in education administration or educational leadership. Admission requirements for these programs usually include a bachelor's degree in education or school counseling.
  • Certification: In most states, public school principals must be licensed school administrators. In addition to completing a master's degree, they also have to pass a written exam and a background check. Private school principals typically don't need a license. 

Principal Skills & Competencies

Principals obviously need to be experienced as teachers and knowledgeable about education, but there are certain soft skills necessary for managing the faculty, staff, and student body in a school building. This includes dealing with the parents of students too.

  • Leadership Skills: Principals have to lead a team of teachers and other school staff members to the common goal of providing an excellent education for students.
  • Interpersonal Skills: The ability to negotiate, persuade, and coordinate actions with other people is essential to success as a leader. Principals need to be able to establish good relationships with students and their parents.
  • Communication Skills: Good leaders also need superb listening and speaking skills. Principals need to understand the needs of students from different backgrounds while making goals clear to faculty and staff.
  • Problem Solving: When running any entity—including a school—the ability to identify and fix problems is crucial.
  • Critical Thinking: When solving problems or making decisions, principals must identify various solutions and options before choosing the best one.

Job Outlook

Job growth for principals is projected at 8 percent for the decade ending in 2026, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is slightly better than the 7 percent growth projected for all occupations. The limited growth is due mostly to the fact that there are a limited number of openings. Teachers who hope to become principals may have to move to other districts if their current districts have principals who are entrenched in their jobs.

Work Environment

While all schools have some basic common elements, they also are their own unique environments, depending on the grade levels and socioeconomic makeup of the students. As well, principals can play a large role in defining a particular school’s environment through the way they lead and the expectations they set.

Work Schedule

Principals work during school hours, and most work more than 40 hours per week during the school year. In addition to working during school hours, principals typically are regular attendees at school functions, from athletic events to plays, concerts, and more. Occasionally, they also have to be available at district meetings that might be held during evening hours.

How to Get the Job


It’s very rare for a principal to rise to that role from a background other than teaching.


While teaching, take on administrative duties that may help put you on the district’s radar for openings.

Comparing Similar Jobs

People interested in being a principal also might consider one of the following career paths, listed with median annual salaries:

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018