Do you like tackling big-picture issues in education? Are you good at handling difficult situations? Can you motivate and manage adults as well as kids? Are you ready for a new challenge in your career?
If so, perhaps it’s time to explore becoming a school principal. Shifting career tracks can mean an investment of time and money. So we’ve asked experts for advice on how make a successful transition from teacher to principal. Here’s what we found:
1. Sign up for a leadership role.
Volunteer to head a committee or spearhead a new project. Become a department chair. Get trained in reform initiatives such as Response to Intervention (RTI) or Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS), where leaders are often needed.
Organizing a professional-learning community, or PLC, can be a great way to learn more about key issues facing your student population while getting your feet wet with a leadership role.
“If you are making a big leap from classroom teacher to principal, that experience of leading something and working with other adults is a really good way to test the waters,” says Justin Baeder, a former elementary principal and current director of the Principal Center, an educational consulting business. “Also, it is a good résumé builder to demonstrate to others that you are ready.”
2. Connect with a mentor.
Dan Kelley, principal of Smithfield High School in Smithfield, Rhode Island, and president-elect of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, says he often reaches out to teachers he thinks have administrative potential to offer encouragement and advice. Principals are so buried they might overlook talent, but teachers interested in administration should seek out a mentor.
“There is a lot of opportunity for teacher leaders to go to their administrators and say ‘I want to be pushed a little bit out of my comfort zone,’” says Kelley. Try out new responsibilities where there is support and learn from the experience of others.
If you are in a job where you don’t see a path to administration, consider a lateral move to another school where you are wanted for your leadership potential and can find a mentor, advises Baeder. Look for a place that is adding a program, restructuring or opening a new building with opportunities for you to learn, advises Baeder.
3. Raise your visibility.
Build a reputation outside of school by taking on positions in district- or central-office-led initiatives. You may get noticed by people who are gatekeepers in hiring positions. “Do presentations periodically. Make a name for yourself,” says James Stronge, professor of education at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, and co-author of Qualities of Effective Teachers.
“It doesn’t have to be a big national conference—it can be at a state conference—relevant topics on good teaching practices or transitioning into teacher leadership … get involved.”
4. Pursue your degree or certification.
Look into the required credentials for your state. You may need to get a master’s degree or, if you already have your master’s, a certification in educational leadership. “A program that gives you a lot of hands-on experience throughout is absolutely essential,” advises Melissa Burnham, associate dean in the College of Education at the University of Nevada in Reno, which is launching a new principal-preparation program with its local school district this year.
Be sure the program is aligned with the ISLLC Standards, which were developed by the Council of Chief State School officers in collaboration with the National Policy Board on Educational Administration. Also, find a program that is accredited. “Having that seal of accreditation is a good sign that a program has higher standards for admission, tracks progress, makes sure you are getting what you need, and graduates only those who are well-prepared,” says Burnham.
In addition to master’s and certification programs, there are also alternative leadership programs around the country, including New Leaders for New Schools, the Lynch Principal Fellowship and NJ EXCEL. These programs typically combine an in-school residency with mentorship and continuing education and can be a great pathway for exploring various leadership roles.
5. Read as if you are a principal.
“A lot of what holds people back is they don’t have the vocabulary of leadership,” says Baeder. “You are being screened by people who are in leadership currently and you need to speak that language.”
Read books or listen to podcasts that school leaders are reading. Zero in on issues that are priorities in your district so you can be well-versed in what administrators who are making those decisions are reading. We have a couple of free downloads from ASCD (publisher of Educational Leadership magazine) about becoming a principal on our site. You can read them here.
Stronge encourages principals to know the latest research and stay on top of solutions that are evidence-based. “Know what makes a difference, what doesn’t work, and be able to talk about that and practice that,” he says. “It’s fine to read the popular press, a lot of that is practical and logical. A lot of it is pseudo-science and I’d rather go with building a base of solid evidence—knowing what works—that will be impressive to others and will make a difference in a person’s career.”
6. Develop an expertise.
When hiring an administrator, Kelley says sometimes he’s looking for someone with specific skills—in technology or curriculum—to complement the skills of others on his leadership team. “It’s about finding the right fit,” he says. “People need to think about what their strengths are and what they bring to the table and put those out in an interview process.”
7. Always look for ways to grow.
Kelley often asks candidates to describe their professional-learning network, or PLN. He values teachers who are active in professional associations or online social media groups or attend Edcamps. “There is a whole niche out there that can really help a teacher leader grow and flesh out some of their theories and practices in a safe way and learn from others across the world,” says Kelley.
Demonstrating how you’ve pursued training and professional development specific to your content area is also important. You want to show how you’ve gone above and beyond your district’s PD requirements in order to better reach and teach kids.
8. Be proactive about seeking feedback.
Invite teacher peers and mentors, not just your supervisor, to observe you in the classroom and to give candid feedback on what’s working and where you need to improve. Offer to do the same in return, of course, and be sure to solicit feedback specifically related to your leadership qualities. How do you work with other adults in the room, for example? What is the culture like in your classroom? How does your tone come across in speaking with children, coworkers and families?
9. Have a positive attitude.
“It doesn’t mean you have to smile all the time or be the perfect person, but I’d never hire an individual who is in the teacher lounge complaining frequently or constantly saying no,” says Stronge. To be an effective administrator, you need to show how you are an agent for positive school climate.
For example, how do you support growth mind-set? How do you show gratitude to the people around you? What do you do on a daily basis to help build impactful relationships with your students? Your outlook can go a long way in making you promising as a candidate.