Principal Leadership: Be Bold and Unapologetic

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona challenges principals to prioritize themselves and to lead boldly and unapologetically as they serve school communities.

We’ve got a saying at NAESP: Once an NDP, always an NDP—an NAESP National Distinguished Principal. Being named an NDP is an honor bestowed upon school leaders who have gone above and beyond for their schools and their students, leading learning communities with a passion for their craft and a love for education.

Once an NDP, Always an NDP

In 2012, one such NDP was Miguel Cardona, at the time an elementary school principal in Connecticut, but you might know him now as U.S. Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona. On the 10th anniversary of becoming an NDP, Cardona joined us during the 2022 NDP celebration in Washington, D.C., during the closing award ceremony and gala on Friday, Oct. 7.

Cardona was nominated to the role of U.S. Secretary of Education after rise through the education field, from on-the-ground experience as a public school teacher and an elementary school principal—the youngest in Connecticut for 10 years—and then an assistant superintendent and, finally, Connecticut Commissioner of Education.

“The job with the closest pace to the pace I have now was the role of the school principal,” said Cardona. “It’s the most demanding job in education, and I would argue, the most rewarding.”

Supporting the Whole Principal

A voice and leader for all students and school communities, Cardona spoke with NDPs about the challenges they’ve faced—and overcome—as they led schools through a pandemic.

Principals are leading in a time when the pressures of the pandemic shifted but never went away, he said. Cardona acknowledged he understood the challenges associated with leading during a political divide, the largest achievement gaps than in any other point in education, and a mental health crisis for our nation’s children, offering a strong message of support for school leaders. It was a timely message, as NAESP is focusing on principal wellness all October for National Principals Month.

“Take care of yourselves; we need you,” he said. “You won’t be able to serve if you’re not well—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Be OK prioritizing you every once in a while. It’s critical you prioritize yourself to be your best. We didn’t sign up for the pandemic, but we signed up to serve children, and we’re serving at a time when our children need us most.”

A Path Forward—Together

NAESP has long advocated for the principal voice to be included in policy discussions on every aspect of public education. As a former principal, Cardona understands this, too.

“We can’t talk about increasing mental health supports in our schools without focusing on the role of the principal,” Cardona said. “Want better parent engagement and student voice? We better focus on having the voice of our principals at our table. Want to talk about staffing shortages? Not without principals, we’re not. As a school principal, you’re at the heart of the ecosystem that serves children.”

“The work ahead is not easy,” Cardona said. “It’s different but just as important as your work the past two years to safely reopen schools. That work might have had you questioning yourself, but it made you stronger and prepared for today.”

Cardona challenged school leaders to set a new goal.

“For the last two years, we gave our all to fight COVID,” he said. “For the next two years, use that same passion and that same urgency to fight complacency—complacency of low expectations, complacency of silos in education that limit our growth, complacency of thinking we can’t change things.”

Cardona believes that together is the way forward in education. Earlier that day, he welcomed the NDP class to the U.S. Department of Education building in Washington, D.C., to hear from leaders in the department about their efforts to support principals and schools. The department leaders also met in small groups with NDPs to listen to these principals’ stories and experiences of struggle and learn from them what they need most in their school communities to support better outcomes for students.

To end his speech with the 2022 NAESP NDP class, Cardona offered a bright look toward the future.

“Lead boldly and unapologetically for the students we serve. Together, I am confident that the best days in education are still ahead of us.”

Krysia Gabenski is the digital communication associate at NAESP.