Dear School Principal…

Dear School Principal,

What will you remember about the 2019-2020 school year? Is it a struggle to think past March and even remember any or all the events and decisions  made prior to COVID 19? I am confident that the past weeks have pushed aside your thoughts of other work that was done. How did you start the year? What did you do to build culture, create learning opportunities for staff and students, what amazing events did you host for family and community and what actions were you continuously taking to ensure success for your students?  You worked on the right work and, for many, it felt that the fruits of labor did not come to be.  Not true… I say. In fact, because you built a collaborative culture, focused on student learning and because you were intentionally paying attention to results as the year progressed, you were able to be successful even during the COVID shutdown.  So, it is time to find those memories and celebrate your work this entire school year.

As I sit home, still unable to travel for my leadership coaching work, I am in awe of the recent graduation events planned for local high schools. In the school district that I worked my entire life, I see pictures and posts of very thoughtful and carefully planned ways to celebrate the 2020 graduates. Students have their own time with the principal and teachers with family in attendance, photographs with social distancing arranged and mostly, a focus squarely on the graduating student as they turn the next page in their life. They have their diplomas from a year no one will easily forget. For some graduates, this diploma might be the only one that they ever receive and for others, it is a key to continuous learning, anytime in their lives. They just have to pull it out and see what door it will open.

Strong, successful schools have courageous, focused leaders. Getting students to graduation is a learning progression; starting in Pre K or Kindergarten, numerous teachers and school leaders impact the progression. High school principals have the privilege of being there for the end, primary principals begin the journey. The decisions made at every level determine the experience for each and every student. In the end, the relationships and equitable decisions built through trust and respect are what matter the most. Of course there are the curriculum decisions, the need for quality instruction, the important times when we intervene to ensure learning, however, the culture built in a school by a principal determines how goes the school.

Reflecting on this school year, how have you addressed culture? What did you do to make your school a success? We know that changing culture is more difficult than addressing organizational changes; like the duty schedule or assignment of classrooms. We know that a healthy school culture is built from collective responsibility for all students and that teachers worked collaboratively to address the needs of students. And, it takes tons of trust and respect for each and every person, no matter what. How did that go for you this year?fullsizeoutput_17b3 What did you do, for example, last August or September, to ensure that this was the culture that you were building? How did you intentionally address expectations? What steps did you take to continuously build common understanding and support the work of your teachers? Where did you spend your time? Were you with students in the cafeteria? On the playground? At the door greeting them in the morning? How did you get to know your teachers?  And, how did you know that your culture was healthy? Undoubtedly, when COVID closed your school it became apparent; you had a healthy culture in your toolkit and was able to make good use of it to continue the amazing work of your teachers, students and families.

In my coaching sessions, I like to remind principals that when the going gets tough, culture will get them through. Trust, respect and collaborative relationships  focused on tight expectations provide a foundation for difficult decisions in messy times. I am fairly certain that you felt this tested this spring.  I truly hope that your toolkit was so full of a healthy culture that collaboration, results and learning continued- yes, how this had to happen had to be adjusted but it almost felt seamless as teachers stepped up and rallied behind a common goal; reaching, supporting and teaching students and families in a very stressful time. And this did seem seamless to many schools, thankfully with leaders who had spent time building a collaborative, healthy culture.

So, dear principals, take the time to reflect on the entire past school year. Consider what truly worked and CELEBRATE you!  Then, and only then, turn to your areas of growth. Plan for 2002-2021 with enthusiasm and courage to develop the healthiest, equitable, respectful school culture that you can imagine. There is always room for improvement and you are the one to have the greatest impact on how people (staff, students and parents) behave in your school. You can not do it all but you can find a few things to focus on and work deeply at ensuring that these priorities are moving your school forward.  Plan now to do that. Spend some time this summer considering policies and practices that must change. Understand your people; build relationships and get to really know your communities. Then you can focus on curriculum and instruction. It isn’t this or that; but without a healthy culture, the learning will be stuck.

Have a great summer. Thank you for all that you do to lead. And, if you are a school principal and as a gift to you, if you have read this far and you are interested… leave a comment here and we can arrange a complimentary coaching session at your convenience!

All the best!



9 thoughts on “Dear School Principal…

  1. Hey! Would love to chat with you once we have a little more direction in mid July! Hope you were able to get down to Florida to enjoy some sunshine!



    1. Hi Yvette. We are still in Canada. The border remains closed to the USA. If I was able to go I for work even, I have to quarantine 14 days each time so not worth it right now with the COVID cases there. We are hovering around 300-400 a day or less in Canada as a country so we are trying hard to mitigate it and I don’t see the quarantine or the border changing for awhile!


  2. Thank you Karen! I think back to what seems ages ago when we were in school with the students and teachers…we really did have a good thing going. Thank you for reminding us of that, and to celebrate that. I agree that the culture in our schools is so important and is what keeps us going when times are tough. We know we can rely on each other, continue to have high expectations and that we do what’s best for the students. Hope you are well, and please continue to share your wisdom and love of learning with school leaders!


    1. Hi Susan! It is so great to see your name here and know that you are reading my blog! I miss my District 2 friends! I hope all is well with you! If you want to chat sometime over the summer, just let me know!


  3. WOW! A letter to principals. Thank you Karen. You always know exactly what to say and how to say it. The 11 weeks of the COVID -19 school shutdown feel like a dream now. Being limited to connecting with teachers, parents, and students over phone and Skype completely changed the way we do business – but also further strengthened the culture we were building. Connecting during that time highlighted compassionate hearts. We weren’t necessarily connecting to check in on homework or to discuss a concerning behaviour with parents and students. We connected weekly because we care. I created a one drive folder where teachers logged their weekly contacts with designated families. What valuable information we have that supports our SIP in that folder! Teachers were eager to learn from each other and share experiences. When teachers and EAs returned to the building on June 1st, there was anxiety… but there was also this renewed pride in what we had accomplished together during a global pandemic. All staff worked together to celebrate individual graduations with students. When the final grad walked the stage, we congratulated each other and knew that we each played a vital role in a a class act. We knew that the culture of our building was stronger than ever before.
    Take care Karen. I miss you!


  4. Thank you for this article. COVID has cast such a wide shadow that you’re correct, we tend to forget all the hard work we put in before March. I will definitely have to start my year with as many positives as I can find!


    1. Thanks so much, Natasha. Please let me know anytime you want to chat! I know Michael is your embedded coach, however, I am here for you and can support you lots this summer if you want! Congratulations on the new role!


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