Becoming a Principal – Transition from Teaching to Administration


Advancing to an administrative position almost seems like the next logical step for an accomplished teacher. After years of successful teaching, where else is there to go but up?

School administration professionals such as principals and assistant principals require strong leadership skills, a deep understanding of school structure, and creativity to meet challenges head on – all qualities also exemplified by teachers.

It makes sense for principals to have backgrounds in teaching. Just think – what if a potential football coach had never actually played a game of football? Would this person be the best candidate for coach?

Similarly, the best candidates for school administrators have previously held positions as successful teachers.

Experience as a teacher helps many administrators better understand their roles, and helps them perform their duties more effectively. It also allows principals to understand how to identify with their teachers, taking into consideration their needs and concerns, and providing advice during challenging periods of time.

Why do effective teachers make effective principals?

As a principal, communication and interpersonal skills are key to a rewarding and successful career in a leadership position. During a regular day for a principal, it’s common to meet with and speak to a number of teachers, parents, and students about a variety of topics – something former teachers are already familiar with.

Teachers are constantly in communication with their students, each other, and their students’ parents, engaging in disciplinary actions, giving suggestions about teaching methods, and relating progress reports. A career as a principal is somewhat similar, but on a much larger scale.

Many teachers are nervous at the prospect of leaving their familiar classrooms to enter the world of administration, but the reality is that they are the ones best suited to take these roles. While focus shifts from helping students to helping teachers, principals need the same positive attitude that teachers bring to the classroom.

The goal of every school is to provide quality education to every student, and principals must be prepared to promote these goals through leadership, discovering which methods best deliver on this promise.

Effective principals are aware of student progress, as well as the best methods of teaching and reaching their students. As leaders of their schools, principals must help guide curriculum development with the teachers, providing insight and leadership to meet both student and teacher needs.

In order to provide this insight, principals need to understand what constitutes effective and ineffective teaching methods and practices, and communicate these to the teachers.

So how would a principal understand the best teaching techniques? The most obvious way is through gaining experience as teachers in the classroom.

Much like teachers, principals must have strong leadership skills to harness available school resources. Effective principals understand how to direct teachers and other employees to implement school-wide programs despite challenges in budget.

Teachers accomplish similar leadership goals in the classroom. Effective teachers are able to lead their students in teacher-led discussion and debate, maintaining order and keeping the class on-task. Principals exemplify these same leadership skills when helping teachers manage classroom resources.

One of the major job responsibilities of principals is the management of school resources. Teachers are familiar with having to perform more with less, so principals with past teaching experience are well-suited to make difficult decisions in the face of budget cuts.

When money is tight, principals must be prepared to decide which services are necessary, and how to combine programs to increase efficiency. Like their teacher employees, principals must also manage time and plan effectively to implement goals for the year.

For schools in need of additional funding, the principal is at the forefront of fundraising. The principal must champion his or her school, rallying support for increases in funding or donations. Fundraising and pushing for support while running a school also highlights a principal’s abilities as a true multi-tasker.

By balancing class activities, group discussion, grading, and tests, teachers understand how to manage time effectively. Similarly, future principals must become even better multi-taskers, sometimes taking on multiple projects at once while maintaining their designated duties.

Principals must not only prepare to manage their teachers and other staff members, but must also plan school events, call in repairs for malfunctioning equipment, ensure the smooth operation of daily school activities, engage in discipline management, participate in community relations, and deal with emergencies that crop up from time to time.

Given the huge range of duties and responsibilities principals have, they also share one other major quality teachers learn through experience: dedication.

Much like teachers, principals must remain positive and ready to meet challenges head-on, posing multiple solutions to problems that arise every day.

Teachers understand that they must never give up on a student, and must always try their hardest to help the child learn and grow. Principals should also share that feeling of perseverance with their teachers (unless the teacher is simply incompetent), supporting them during challenges, discovering new and innovative teaching methods, and implementing school-wide changes despite student opposition.

Transitioning to administration

For teachers looking toward the next step on their career path, school administration might seem like a natural leap forward. With their previous school knowledge and teaching experience, these individuals are perfectly suited to lead their schools to success.

If you’re interested in learning more about a career as a school administrator, find certification information in your state.

Teachers want experienced principals

Even most teachers agree that previous experience as a teacher is one of the most desirable characteristics of principals.

In “What Makes a Good Principal? How Teachers Assess the Performance of Principals,” published in The Economics of Education Review, researchers set out to identify how teachers rated different qualities of principals.

In the article, authors Dale Ballou and Michael Podgursky found that neither work experience outside of education, nor previous school administrator experience positively affected teachers’ views about a principal.

In fact, the single greatest characteristic to positively affect a teacher’s views was the amount of time a principal previously spent as a teacher. Ballou and Podgursky noted that principals who had spent more than 15 years as teachers received higher marks than principals who had spent less time.

Ballou and Podgursky examined how closely teachers agreed with statements, such as “The principal knows what kind of school he/she wants and communicates it to the staff,” and “The principal lets staff members know what is expected of them.” In examining the responses, they found the principals with plentiful teaching experience received more positive scores.

This research suggests that the best principals – from their teachers’ views – are the ones who can effectively identify with the teachers. Even years of administrative experience at other schools did not score higher than previous teaching experience in terms of importance for teachers.

With more teachers placing more importance on principals who can identify with their problems and concerns, while providing advice about teaching practices, the most effective principals have the necessary background to meet these needs.