As a coordinator of a teacher preparation program, students often stop by my office to inquire about our program. Some of them are interested in becoming elementary school principals. However, they have not yet realized the importance of “earning your stripes” before moving into a leadership position. Many of them assume that it is possible to begin preparation for an administrative position upon completion of a bachelor’s degree or a teaching credential, and think nothing of omitting teaching experience. What they do not realize is that principals have complex and challenging jobs, and they must be skilled and experienced in numerous areas not covered by their training.
I meet a lot of students who aspire to be principals one day. A LOT. I work with students who are looking for an “easy” or “back-door” way into the teaching profession so they can get that pesky classroom requirement out of the way to step into an administrative role at age 26, apparently.
Getting a principal certificate in Texas requires just two years of teaching experience, after all, which puts it on the low end. Colorado, Oregon, and California ask for at least three years. Pennsylvania and Louisiana require a minimum of 5 years experience at the appropriate level (elementary teacher to become elementary principal, for example).
Here’s why this meet-the-minimum-standards plan may not be the best trajectory, professionally or personally:
- Parents (many of whom work in education or have family members who do, after all) sometimes worry when a principal with little teaching experience takes over. They may see you as more committed to politics and a higher salary than the education of their children.
- Teachers in your building may respect you less for not being in the trenches, working with students and slaving away on lesson plans and test preparation. They want to know that you understand their struggles because you have been there, done that. The established teachers who have been in the classroom for 20+ years may see you negatively, and since they have the hearts and minds of the community–they may have taught your students’ parents–their opinions matter.
- As a principal, you will need to evaluate teacher performance. Several years of teaching experience can help you understand this measure in ways that a graduate class just can’t. As Borba notes, “Meaningful teacher evaluations are not possible when principals have little knowledge about the instructional process and best practices.”
- What if you have a struggling teacher? The best way to help that individual may be to teach his/her class, to model different approaches and best practices. To do this confidently, you need your own positive teaching experience.
- Minimum experience doesn’t mean you’ll land a job. A 2009 study of New York City principals found average teaching experience was 10 years for those who did the traditional path. I asked my many friends who are teachers what they would advise for minimum experience, and every single one said at least five years.
I agree with Mary Borba when she concludes her article: “When my university students ask me about the quickest path to becoming a school principal, I tell them to focus on the teacher preparation program and to do an outstanding job as student teachers. Once they are credentialed, they need to continue to grow and develop expertise about teaching and learning. Only then should they consider school administration.”
Slow down. Focus on passing your certification exams and becoming not just a good, but a great teacher. Help your fellow teachers by sharing ideas. People in your building will notice; you may find yourself being singled out and groomed for administrative work based on your dedication to improving student learning. Work on your Educational Administration degree while you have a full-time teaching position. Getting that first job with a Master degree is that much harder because you’re in a higher salary bracket, and there are cheaper candidates in the mix.
Being in a classroom full-time and observing your own principal also can help you decide if it’s a road you want to travel. According to Jim Hull’s research for the Center for Public Education, the job has evolved into a complex combination of trainer, manager, and motivator:
- Principals work up to 10 hours per day. Don’t forget all the after-school events, book fairs, fundraisers, athletic/band/scholastic competitions on Saturdays, either. Going home at 5pm is often impossible, and many principals say there are not enough hours in the day to do their jobs.
- “Today, principals must spend much more time in classrooms than in the office, and they are asked to focus on curriculum and instruction as well as collecting, analyzing, and using data to improve student achievement.”
Prestige and pay are great things, but they should not be your primary motivations for becoming a school principal. You need to have a talent for teaching and leadership qualities to inspire others to greater teaching heights.