[cross-posted from Connected Principals, posted there on July 23, 2012]

“Although it was a bit too long, I really appreciated your letter this summer,” is something I have heard many times in the past 15 years.   Like many of you, I write a “welcome back to school” letter to parents every summer, and I think it is a very valuable practice—but be sure to make the most of it.

Last summer I happened to post my letter to my blog, something I wasn’t sure was worth doing because it tends to be mostly “inside-baseball,” material primarily pertinent just to my own immediate constituents.   To my surprise,  it generated quite a bit of traffic, all of it from web searches for various variants on the term “welcome back to school letter.”     What I have learned from my search engine traffic is that the welcome back to school letter is something about which every summer hundreds or perhaps  thousands of school-leaders go to the internet to seek advice.

Accordingly, I thought I’d share a few thoughts for my principal colleagues about writing these important missives.

1.  Don’t be afraid to write at some length.   (Or, alternately, do as I do: apologize for it being too long without shortening it very much.)   Summer is the one time of the year when parents may actually have the time to dedicate to a longer letter, and even it if it is a relatively small proportion of them who will read its entirety, take advantage of it.   Remember that the ones who do read you carefully are the ones most able to share and inform other parents (the ones who don’t read) in the ongoing and inevitable chatter that happens about your leadership.   This is your annual state of the union or inaugural address, and take the space to write a broad and comprehensive message, and don’t be afraid to make it four, five, or even six pages at length.   (But put the most important stuff right at the top.)

2. Embed your educational philosophy.   Share your vision, make it particular to you and your world-view (while being sure to make it explicitly congruent with that of your superintendent and district).  You are an educational leader, your constituents want to know and believe that you are, and it will enhance every decision you make every day when those decisions are viewed as the result of a well thought-out and intentional educational philosophy.  Share your philosophy and vision in all kinds of ways: perhaps by drawing upon the best elements of your graduate schooling, your favorite quotes from educational authors, recent books you have read, or via pertinent, compelling anecdotes, preferably from your personal experience.

3. Celebrate your successes.   Every constituent can benefit from reminders and reinforcements of what is going really well at school, and like the President’s state of the union, you have every right to take some space to underscore what you view are your school’s and your leadership’s greatest advances.  Don’t be too humble here: put it out there emphatically.   But, then, share and spread the ownership—make sure it is clear that these successes are the results of everybody’s contributions.

4. Articulate Next Steps.   Your school is on a journey, and you are leading it through its critical next steps.  Every parent wants to know that the school is a dynamic place of progress and movement, and wants to know how you are prioritizing as you take the school forward.  Be specific, attach these steps to your educational vision and your district’s direction, and try to offer ways for readers to recognize what these steps will bring and how they will be recognized and perhaps even measured.   Invite constituents to participate in this journey forward, and give specifics on how they might do so.

5. Advocate for your faculty.   This is a great time to underscore how accomplished your teachers are and what they are accomplishing.   Trumpet the credentials of the newly appointed teachers and administrators, but not at the expense of your veterans—be sure to find ways to showcase how the vets are also extraordinary educators.   Show how your teachers are learning, growing, collaborating, and planning for new and improved programs for the coming year.

6. Showcase your own learning.  You are a leader of learning; you are the lead learner.   Tell people what you are learning and how you are learning.  They can’t know what you are learning (or that you are learning) if you don’t tell them.    Be excited about learning, and provide specific experiences of the both the joy you take in learning and your recognition of how hard (but rewarding) learning can be, sometimes.  Take a moment to practice meta-cognition: tell people how you are learning most effectively, and then link that to the learning leadership you provide your school community.

7. Open your heart and invite people in.   Let people know more about your own life.  This builds intimacy and trust, and helps parents remember that you are human too.  Without betraying your privacy, talk about your family, your parenting or your parents; tell a story about a challenge or a hardship overcome or still persisting.   Be sure to tell people you took time off or away, that you refreshed and restored yourself, that you committed quality time to your family or your passion, and encourage your readers to follow your example in this regard.

8. Share your reading list and book recommendations.     Parents in my schools most often have remarked about my reading suggestions, (and usually appreciatively).    Show off your inner bookworm, enthuse and exult about the reading life, and motivate your letter-readers to do more book reading.    We all know as principals how incredibly important it is for our students to be reading over the summer, and we also know how valuable parents can be as reading role models.  Model the reading life for your school-parents and guardians, and prompt and prod them to read more.   Vary your recommendations widely: some should be more ambitious works of nonfiction and literature, but it is also fine for some to be accessible, popular titles.

9. Underscore and reinforce your school’s mission; invite, include and enlist.   Conclude with something inspirational about how you view your professional mission and your school’s mission and why you do what you do?  What motivates you, what calls to you, what is your intended impact?  End with an invitation: join me in this cause, this pursuit, this meaningful endeavor, the most important of all endeavors, to make a deep and genuine difference in the lives of your students, and, through them, on the future of our society.  It is up to us, and our time is now.

What are your recommendations for the annual tradition of the Principal’s Back to School Letter?

Photo image by lukemontague, from Creative Commons/Flicker: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lukemontague/120401296/sizes/z/