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Not all teachers want to be principals, but what comes next otherwise?

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November 14, 2023

This story originally appeared on TeacherCertification.com and was produced and distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.

Not all teachers want to be principals, but what comes next otherwise?

Career paths are vital for some professions, but what if your job doesn't really have one? At many businesses, an employee works with a human resources department or manager to lay out an action plan to develop their skills and help move them up the corporate ladder.

Teachers, on the other hand, start in a classroom and can stay there for decades—even their entire career. Many districts pay teachers with master's degrees higher salaries than those with only a bachelor's degree, according to a Pepperdine University analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data. But for teachers wanting more career advancement—whether a larger salary or more leadership opportunities—that typically requires leaving the classroom to take a role as an administrator, either as a principal or in a school district's offices. TeacherCertification.com explored what limited career advancement opportunities mean for teachers who don't want to go into administration.

The path to a role in school administration can be long

Principals typically earn more than teachers. From 2020-2021, a principal's average annual salary was $100,500, compared to $60,100 for a full-time teacher, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

However, getting to that big salary bump can take time. Most principals have at least 10 years of teaching experience before they begin leading schools, according to NCES data, as well as an advanced degree. Also, far fewer opportunities exist: There were about 116,000 principal jobs in the country in 2021 but over 3.6 million teaching roles, according to NCES.

The higher salary isn't enough of a lure for some. For starters, a principal's job comes with more stress. In January 2022, 17 out of 20 principals (85%) reported frequent job-related stress, compared to about 3 in 4 teachers (73%), and 7 out of 20 working adults (35%) in the U.S., according to a January 2022 RAND Corporation survey.

Additionally, a school administrator's duties can vary greatly from the day-to-day responsibilities of teachers. Principals take responsibility for school performance and are accountable to school boards and parents. Their interactions with students can be minimal. For teachers who want to advance their careers, losing opportunities to work directly with kids can make admin roles less appealing. Many effective teachers also don't want to be administrators because they feel their talents are better served by staying in the classroom and interacting with students.

States and school districts are exploring new career options for teachers

That said, states and local districts are finding ways to tap into teachers' knowledge and leadership capabilities to provide new career challenges while ensuring they can still fulfill their passion for teaching students. These leadership opportunities can include more work in student advocacy and policy development with education associations and state boards of education, according to Education Week.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, many states were actively creating leadership opportunities for teachers that would still allow them to remain in the classroom. In 2019, 35 states had formal policies for teacher leadership roles, according to a National Council on Teacher Quality analysis. Of these 35 states, 21 made provisions for additional compensation or other forms of support, such as lessening a teacher's classroom load.

In these states, hybrid teacher-leader roles are helping flatten the hierarchy of the educational system. They're also helping teachers feel more invested in their schools, creating systems, and supporting students to develop stronger schools. Patrick Harris II, writing for EdSurge, took a teacher-leader role at The Roeper School in Detroit and found that it made him more invested in his students' academic progress and personal lives.

The National Education Association's Center for Great Public Schools encourages administrators to tap into teachers' leadership skills to improve schools. Even though teaching may look like it doesn't have a defined career path, this approach allows teachers to develop skills in particular areas of leadership that interest them. Their options include mentorship and coaching, instructional design and curriculum planning, data analysis, writing, and public speaking.

The NEA found that when principals use these skill sets and empower teachers to initiate and develop new ideas for their schools, teachers can feel enriched and more apt to take on responsibility. This level of engagement can push teachers to advance their careers, without having to leave the classrooms they love.

Story editing by Jeff Inglis. Copy editing by Paris Close. Photo selection by Michael Flocker.

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