TFA head of school celebrates 20 years

Dr. Steve Whitaker reflects on his 20 life-changing years at The First Academy.

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For The First Academy’s Dr. Steve Whitaker, 20 years as the head of school have flown by.

Whitaker joined the TFA team in 2003 after a request from Jim Henry, the senior pastor of First Baptist Church at the time and the lead of the school’s search committee. 

Whitaker said as soon as he and his family spent time in Orlando and were able to learn about the community, he knew it was the right place for them.

Throughout his journey, he said, a special Bible verse has become his compass: Matthew 6:33: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.”

“If you have your priorities right and you’re focused on things that are eternal, not things that are temporary, then life’s going to go pretty well for you,” Whitaker said. “That’s kind of what centers me and keeps me going in the right direction...the role of faith in my journey of servant leadership is essential. It’s the essence of all that we do here.”


Although education was never a professional path Whitaker saw himself pursuing, after graduating from college, a friend shared the high school his wife worked at had unexpectedly lost their basketball coach and history teacher, and he wanted to know if Whitaker was up for the challenge. 

Whitaker worked at the school for a year before moving on to a school in Jupiter, Florida, where he worked as a teacher and a dean of students. He then served as the high school principal at the school for about six years. 

Before coming to TFA, Whitaker served as the head of school at Whitefield Academy in Kentucky, where he had been for more than seven years.

Whitaker never thought he would be at TFA for as long as 20 years, but said he knows “God’s plan is always better than our plan.”

“I tell people that as long as I’m still having fun, I’m going to keep going,” he said.

Whitaker’s role lies heavily with building a team of leaders to carry out a vision that is developed with constituents. He compares it to being similar to a leadership coach or running a business. He equips, encourages and provides resources for the five levels of school at TFA: Lower, Middle, Upper, Classical (hybrid homeschool) and The First Hope (unique abilities program).

Although people typically stay serving for about five to six years in head-of-school positions, Whitaker said what continues to spark his passion is the people he serves both with and for. 

“Great people who have believed in the school and have said, ‘We want to come alongside you and do something special,’” he said. “I’ve always felt like if you have a team of people that want to do something significant, you can get so much more done than if you were to try and do it yourself.”


Whitaker said one of the biggest changes he has seen in his 20 years is that when he started at the school, most of the academic programs were all in church facilities. Over the years, TFA set out on a path to build new facilities so the school could grow and expand. During his tenure, the school has built and renovated numerous buildings, including the middle school, a field house with an NBA regulation court, and a kitchen and lunchroom. 

Another memorable moment for Whitaker was about 12 to 13 years ago, when 60 students were in Haiti for a mission trip and they got stuck there during the earthquake. TFA was able to rescue the children and bring them home to safety through the resources provided by the school community. 

Whitaker said the TFA school community is like a family.

“In families, none of us (is) perfect, right?” he said. “We’re all growing together. None of us (has) a perfectly intact set of gifts that we use, but when we all come together as a family, significant things happen.”

In addition, the academic programs have achieved many awards throughout the years, such as becoming a Blue Ribbon School.

However, there is more to the story than just tangible rewards. 

“Probably on the peak of all that is when you see students who may have gone through a family struggle, maybe they’ve gone through an emotional struggle, and through the incredible teachers that God has brought into their lives, they begin to see their sense of purpose and what God is calling them to do,” he said. “They begin to understand who they are as being made in His image, and their life becomes transformed by the power of the gospel and the people who are around them.”

In addition to seeing the students grow, Whitaker has seen his three children – Amanda, Stephen and Caleb – graduate from the school. 

He said his children made the journey even more joyful, as did his wife, Tricia, who he fondly refers to as the most supportive teammate, friend and caring spouse imaginable. He said she’s been a friend, confidante, wise counselor and faithful encourager.



Annabelle Sikes

News Editor Annabelle Sikes was born in Boca Raton and moved to Orlando in 2018 to attend the University of Central Florida. She graduated from UCF in May 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in sociology. Her past journalism experiences include serving as a web producer at the Orlando Sentinel, a reporter at The Community Paper, managing editor for NSM Today, digital manager at Centric Magazine and as an intern for the Orlando Weekly.

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