First Nations Schools Principals’ Course

The foundation of a successful school is a skilled and committed principal who provides consistent and creative leadership.

The Martin Family Initiative’s First Nations Schools Principals’ Course serves as a much-needed resource, providing principals, vice-principals and aspirants with professional development aimed at building leadership skills and improving educational outcomes for students.

How the First Nations Schools Principals’ Course works

Research has demonstrated the importance of principals in improving student learning. On average, a principal accounts for 25% of a school’s total impact on student achievement. Studies have concluded that there must be an effective principal in every school to turn around low-performing schools, to ensure effective teaching in every classroom, and to educate all children to post-secondary and career-ready standards.

Studies have also found that principals who received rigorous leadership training programs and support experienced larger gains in student achievement than principals who did not participate in the programs.

Extensive research on the role of principals was conducted by Dr. Ken Leithwood, professor emeritus at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). He concluded that a highly effective principal who is successful in leading student success initiatives has been trained how to first work with their teachers, and then:

  • Lead collaborative problem solving with staff and stakeholders,

  • Collect and analyze student test data

  • Implement school and classroom data-driven decision making

  • Carry out the work required for high levels of personal and organizational performance

The role of principals in First Nations schools varies significantly from school to school. Some work full-time as school administrators and others work as part-time administrators and part- time teachers. They have a wide range of responsibilities and very demanding workloads. They work in significant isolation without the support of colleagues and supervisors, and many are new to their positions. They are expected to participate in a variety of out-of-school committees, help with programs for youth, and participate in all types of community planning.

Unlike principals in provincially-funded schools, the principals of the majority of First Nation schools do not have the support of an administrative infrastructure and must have an understanding of how to administer all aspects of school operations including: developing the daily schedule; supervising teachers; ensuring evaluation of students; reporting to parents; developing and implementing the school’s policies and the safety plans; establishing safe learning environments; overseeing the maintenance of schools, and providing information to Chiefs and Councils.

Principals in First Nations schools must have training in:

  • The variety of pedagogical skills that have proven successful in First Nations schools

  • How to address issues related to student attendance, since the need for regular attendance severely impacts the ability of First Nations students to succeed academically

  • The social, economic and cultural values of the community, which vary from First Nation to First Nation. It is vital that principals (particularly non-First Nation principals) learn about and respect these values, practices and beliefs in order to communicate effectively with parents and community leaders

  • Strategies to work effectively with a multicultural staff.

MFI spent over a year and half working in a partnership with 13 First Nations   educators, academics, and education leaders as well as the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto to develop a principals’ course that combines face-to-face and online learning, which greatly increases its accessibility and reach.

The resulting course was introduced as a pilot program in September 2015. It was piloted with 20 experienced principals from across Canada in order to provide feedback on the activities and resources, and smooth out potential hiccups.

The curriculum

The curriculum includes teaching strategies, assessments, assignments, readings, resources, key experiences, group assignments, and group discussion points and case studies. Participants will learn how to ensure that teaching and learning at high standards are the first priority of every school. They participate in an intensive set of learning experiences to develop their instructional leadership skills in order to increase levels of student achievement by developing improved teaching performance. The ten-month, 200-hour program consists of ten modules plus a 30-hour practicum. The first module is in a face-to-face format and the remainder is taught online.

The First Nations Schools Principals’ Course is based on the following principles:

  • School leadership is key to improving student achievement

  • Support must be provided for principals to allow them to become instructional leaders and to implement strategies to support teachers

  • Principals must ensure, to the extent possible, that teachers receive training focused on teaching literacy and numeracy using highly effective instructional strategies

  • Principals must establish high expectations for student achievement, and then must verify that teachers accept responsibility for seeing these expectations realized

  • Policies to support student achievement–for example, attendance, strategies for student assessment, performance review processes, reporting to parents, school year calendars, and special education–must be implemented

  • Schools must develop specific strategies to support First Nation parent and community engagement

Within an Indigenous framework, the main themes of the course include:

Educational Leadership

  • How to work together with parents, community leaders, Elders, community members, teachers, and others to meet the needs of students

  • How to be an effective leader in a First Nations context and how to lead change in on-reserve schools

  • How to effectively motivate teachers

Improving School Practices

  • How to heighten teacher expectations, both for student outcomes and their own teaching practices

  • How to implement data-driven decision making–collecting and using a range of data about student learning to improve classroom instruction

  • How to identify an intellectually stimulating and culturally inclusive curriculum, and how to work with teachers to provide it

  • How to provide feedback to teachers in ways that support improved instruction


Currently, successful completion of this program provides a Certificate of Completion.


Please click the "CC" button on the video below to select either English or French subtitles

Where the First Nations Schools Principals’ Course is offered

Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at University of Toronto  currently offers the course to educators from First Nations schools across Canada.

Results from the Pilot were very encouraging

A survey of the principals who participated in the Pilot Program at OISE in September of 2015 suggested that the course was very well received. Highlights of these principals’ feedback include:


  • They learned how to put students at the centre of their everyday activities

  • The course enhanced their classroom observation skills

  • They shared their learning with their staff

  • The course gave them a true taste of what community-based learning is about

  • Materials for the course were very rich; the resources were unique to First Nations schools

  • The course’s topics were practical and relevant to what goes on in First Nations schools and their classrooms

  • The most impactful activities were: classroom “walk-abouts”, receiving school feedback from an Elder, teacher evaluation, how to have courageous conversations, and instructional leadership

  • The course connected principals across Canada, who were able to share ideas and resources beyond the scope of the course

  • Principals felt part of something “bigger”; the course reinforced their belief that they have a role to play in improving the outcomes of First Nations Schools because “principals are the knowledge keepers of First Nations education.”

  • The whole experience was “fantastic”, starting with the trip in September and meeting principals from all over the country, to sharing ideas and practices

  • Principals felt their isolation was overcome by this course

  • Many of the participants indicated that they were not previously aware of the strategies and best practices outlined in the course

Hearing from principals about their experience with the course

The following are just a few testimonials from principals who participated in the Pilot Project:


  • “Fantastic resources, they are timely and relevant.”

  • “I appreciate the tools and strategies I am learning that help me to deal with day-to-day issues.”

  • “I have shared with other principals that this is the greatest principals’ course, and I recommend it to others as the best course to take.”

  • “The sequence of the topics covered in the course is very good; they come up as needed.”

  • “The course is a definite support to my practice as a principal.”

  • “I am enjoying the course and feel privileged to be able to take part.”

  • “Activities and resources are excellent, and will continue to be of use … after the course ends.”

  • “The course is helping us to focus on what is important in our job and is inspiring us to be better principals.”

  • “Connections to other principals is invaluable to me.”