From Teacher to Principal: A Look at the Typical Pathway

The career path to the principalship has been a fairly rigid one. Only in the past decade or so has the field seen some important changes in who makes it to a school’s top job—and how.



Nearly all principals start their education career in the classroom. Of the 3.5 million public school teachers in the United States, only a small percentage ever end up in the principal’s office.

Despite that, nearly 200,000 teachers have taken the courses and earned the graduate degrees needed to become school leaders, according to a 2013 report by New Leaders.

Many have earned a master’s degree as a way to increase their salaries, something that has typically been an incentive driven either by union contracts or state policies.


This role has evolved over the last decade from an ad-hoc position in school districts to an important addition to the principal pipeline.

Teacher-leadership roles have become more formal, with some districts building additional pay into contracts for teacher-leaders or offering stipends for those positions. The role allows teachers to continue with classroom instruction, but also to take on leadership duties in their schools or districts—from leading professional development to rewriting curriculum.

The creation of professional standards and the emergence of preparation programs tailored for teacher-leaders, including at the University of Washington, are all signs that the position has become indispensable.

Assistant Principals

This position is an integral training ground for future principals, but it’s not always been the main place some school districts turn to develop their next generation of principals, according to a 2013 report by Bain & Company.

More recently, though, the job of assistant principal has evolved from managing buses, food services, and student discipline to a more complex role that more closely mirrors what principals’ jobs entail.

Some states and districts have become more deliberate about grooming assistant principals for the next step by providing regular coaching and other supports that prepare them to be instructional leaders.

Districts are becoming strategic about matching assistant principals to schools where their skill sets are a good fit and where the current principal is planning to leave.


The majority of people who make it into the principal’s office graduated from traditional university-based programs, though the number of graduates taking the nontraditional route, including through non-profits and district-based programs, has been growing since 2000.

The number of higher education institutions offering master’s degrees in educational administration, which normally leads to a principal certification, grew from 375 in 2000 to 585 in 2013, according to data from the University Council for Educational Administration.

There has also been robust growth in the for-profit arena, from six principal-preparation program in 2000, to 55 in 2013, according to UCEA data.

Source: Education Week

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A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 2017 edition of Education Week as Step Into the Principal’s Office