Being a school principal in America can be a thankless job, and one that is ever-evolving. But what would happen if you brought together some of the best, most influential school principals in our country to talk about how they leverage their strengths and resources to stay focused on transformational leadership on behalf of their students?

I just had the opportunity to be part of such a group. As the 2017 New Hampshire Principal of the Year, I have been honored to have spent the last few days in Washington, D.C., with 51 other State Principals of the Year at the 2017 Principals Institute, a program sponsored by the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP).

Speaking on behalf of my fellow state principals of the year, I can tell you that we are a humble bunch. We don't generally like the spotlight to be on us, although we enjoyed the opportunity to spend an evening this week at a spectacular awards ceremony hosted by NASSP where U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos took time out of her busy schedule to personally congratulate us on our professional efforts.

When asked what we believe led to our selection for our state awards, most of us gave surprisingly simple answers. We listen. We put students first. We are endless cheerleaders for our schools and our school communities. We love what we do. Finally, we truly believe that we are making a positive impact on our communities in ways big and small, each and every day.

My award is a tribute to the many educators at Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, New Hampshire, who work with me, laser-focused on redesigning our school to be one that is personalized, student-centered and competency-based. My family will tell you that 24 hours a day, seven days a week, I see myself as an endless cheerleader for my school, my students and, of course, my staff.

I see my role as a school leader as the person who can make connections and leverage resources for our school community so that our staff can help our students realize their potential. Ask any of my fellow State Principals of the Year, and they will tell you they follow the same philosophy. Each of us represents the thousands of school principals across our country who believe this as well.

On Sept. 26, our group got to do what we do best — we took the spotlight off of ourselves and instead focused it on advocacy work for public education. You can follow our efforts as a group on Twitter at #PrincipalsAdvocate or #POY2017.

Over the course of the day, we conducted private meetings with many members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Here are the highlights of what we focused our discussions on that day:

  • We promoted the importance of support for the Dream Act of 2017 (H.R. 3440/S. 1615). This bill provides a permanent solution and multiple pathways to citizenship for children in our schools who need this opportunity.
  • We endorsed the Public Dollars for Public Schools Act, a bill that would support taxpayer dollars for public education by barring individuals from receiving federal charitable tax deductions for contributions to voucher nonprofits that were already reimbursed with a state tuition tax credit.
  • We discussed the importance of career and technical education, urging our elected officials to support the reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act as well as several accompanying bills such as H.R. 2353 and S. 1814/H.R. 3785.
  • We spoke out against the Creating Hope and Opportunity for Individuals and Communities through Education (CHOICE) Act, because we strongly believe it will shift scarce public funds for special education to private institutions that do not have to adhere to federal or state laws on things like staffing, programming and personalization for students with disabilities.

We strongly believed that as representatives of school principals from coast to coast who live and work, day in and day out on the front lines of education with our teachers, we know what is best for all of our students and the future health and welfare of our country. We weren't afraid to make our voices heard that day on Capitol Hill.

Finally, as a culmination to our experience, NASSP announced the three of us who are finalists for the honor of 2018 National Principal of the Year. The winner will be announced at a surprise ceremony at their school sometime during the month of October, an event to coincide with National Principals Month.

Congratulations to the following 2018 National Principal of the Year finalists:

  • Jack Baldermann, principal of Westmont High School in Westmont, Illinois, a school that was one of 500 nationwide chosen in 2015 by Newsweek Magazine for "Beating the Odds," because all African-American and Latino students have graduated on time, four years in a row, and the number of underrepresented AP Scholars has increased by over 700 percent.
  • Dr. Akil Ross, principal of Chapin High School in Chapin, South Carolina, a school recognized as a South Carolina Palmetto's Finest Award recipient in 2015 for improving its graduation rate to 96 percent.
  • Tommy Welch, principal of Meadowcreek High School in Norcross, Georgia, a school that under Welch's leadership took one of Georgia's largest and lowest-performing, yet most diverse, urban schools and raised the graduation rate from 47 to 73 percent.

As the 2017 Principals Institute draws to a close, we will return to our school communities later this week re-energized, refocused and rededicated to the fundamental reason we each got into education and took positions as principals in the first place: to make a difference for students, each and every day. They inspire us to do what we do. We feed off their energy, their drive, and their enthusiasm.

We are, and shall forever be, their cheerleaders and advocates.