Career Advice

Want to Be a Principal? How to Prove You’re Right for the Job

By Elizabeth Heubeck — February 26, 2021 5 min read
illustration of hiring.

Thu Ament knows firsthand how stressful being a principal can be.

In 2007, during his first year on the job, a student was murdered in the school hallway one morning just before classes were about to begin. Perhaps nothing could have prepared him to respond to that tragedy. Similarly, no one has written a playbook on how principals are expected to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, said Ament, who currently serves as director of K-12 leadership development for the Tacoma school district in Washington state.

“The job requires a strong leader who can handle high stress,” Ament said. “That’s what’s going on now. It’s constant.”

The unprecedented and ever-evolving crisis presented by the pandemic has pulled principals in multiple directions and saddled them with increasing responsibilities, requiring rapid-fire acquisition of knowledge on legal and health regulations in addition to the responsibilities they juggled in pre-pandemic times.

See also

Carrie P. Meek/Westview K-8 Center principal Marchel Woods, center rear, greets parents dropping off their children for class on Oct. 5, 2020, at the Carrie P. Meek/Westview K-8 Center in Miami.
Principal Marchel Woods, center rear, greets parents dropping off children at the Carrie P. Meek/Westview K-8 Center in Miami. A new study quantifies the connection between principal effectiveness and students' academic achievement.
Wilfredo Lee/AP

It’s no wonder, then, that 45 percent of 1,000-plus principals reported that pandemic working conditions are hastening their plans to leave the profession, according to an August poll by the National Association of Secondary School Principals. If even a portion of principals who consider leaving the profession actually do, it could pave the way for a new wave of educators poised to take on this challenging, and impactful, job.

In a sweeping new study, researchers reviewed hundreds of studies and examined data on tens of thousands of principals to quantify how much impact school leaders have on student success. The upshot? Replacing a “below-average” principal with one who is “above-average” can translate into direct learning gains equivalent to 2.9 more months in math and 2.7 more months in reading in a single school year.

How can you realistically size up your skills and experience to know if you have what it takes to make a positive impact as a principal? Beyond meeting states’ required credentials to become school leaders, we talked to insiders about what it takes to attract the attention of K-12 recruiters looking for their schools’ next principals, and how to ace the interview.

Laying the groundwork for becoming principal

Establishing yourself as a solid candidate for a principalship often starts long before you take on the role. Several steps can get you there.

Become a change agent
A recruiter will want to know what you’ve done to effect change—not just for one student, but across a spectrum, explains Cedric Cooper, principal at Schoo Middle School in Lincoln, Neb. That could mean advancing academic achievement, as seen in improved reading or math scores, or being part of a school improvement committee.

“They’ll want to know: Have you been a part of creating a system that you led and showed results?” Cooper said.

Quantify your impact on your resume
It’s important to quantify the results of your work, and the resume is the first and most obvious place to demonstrate that. For example, said Cooper, if you have increased reading or math scores, show it in measurable terms, like “X percentage over Y number of years.” The same goes for having improved graduation rates—or any other quantifiable measure of student success.

Show staying power
One way to gauge an educator’s commitment is by seeing how long that person’s been employed by a given school. While extenuating circumstances sometimes shorten one’s tenure, most teachers stay an average of five consecutive years before transferring to a new school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics Schools and Staffing Survey.

“Recruiters are looking for a solid number of years in a given place—two, three, four years. Not one and done,” said Ament.

Be a team player
It may seem counterintuitive to require the person in charge of a school to demonstrate teamwork. But, say experts, particularly during challenging periods, this skill is critical for principals and, by extension, anyone who wants to become one. Middle school principal Cooper says that, of all his years in education, this one lent itself to the expression ‘all hands on deck’.

“We’re very visible. We’re sanitizing desks right along with teachers,” said Cooper of himself and his administrative team.

Exhibit leadership
The jump from classroom teacher to principal may seem like a long leap. But it’s not unheard of, particularly if you take on leadership roles along the way. That can mean becoming a team lead for a specific grade, or a department chair; or, it could involve spearheading a new schoolwide initiative.

“Start to be seen as a leader in the building,” Cooper said. “Then the staff starts to trust you.”

Once you land an interview, then what?

There’s probably no such thing as overpreparing for an interview. Allow yourself ample time to consider the following expert suggestions before you’re actually in front of the recruiting team.

Be ready to showcase your leadership style
Interviewers will want to know what makes you a leader. Cooper shares specific questions about leadership style you can expect: Can you balance tough love with earned praise? Are you adept with building relationships with people? Are you organized and prepared?

Prepare to contribute ideas on current topics
It’s important to readily articulate ideas on topics relevant to the current K-12 education landscape, Ament explains. Racial equity and social-emotional learning, for instance, are dominating high-level conversations in many school districts and communities. Principal candidates will want to be equipped to contribute to or lead these discussions.

Get the back story
Before the interview, it helps to be educated not only about big-picture topics relevant to education, but also about the more niche issues affecting the school where you’re applying, said Paul Young, a former principal and past president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

Are there specific controversies happening within the school community? Is the interview team looking for someone to shake things up or to maintain stability achieved by the current principal? Do your research and use your findings to prepare accordingly.

Project well, virtually
Gone, for now anyway, are the traditional soft skills used in an interview that leave a lasting impression—like a firm handshake and direct eye contact. Now, as you look into a computer screen, you still need to find ways to connect and make a positive impression, while ensuring that audio or visual obstacles don’t stymie your efforts.

“That stuff matters because it can distract from your content,” said Ament. “You need to up your game.”

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