How to survive and thrive as a high school principal

The middle school years may seem like a setback in a student’s K-12 journey, but it’s a very important transition period for them. They try to make sense of their place in school, their social circles, and the world, while navigating a wave of emotional and hormonal changes.

Those who came of age during the pandemic had an added layer of uncertainty to navigate. But college can also be a stimulating and joyful place for school leaders.

“It’s messy,” said Wes Kanawayer, the former principal of Woodgate Intermediate School in Waco, Texas, in the Midway School District.

Here’s what some current and former quorum leaders can help principals and their students through these difficult years.

Don’t take things (or yourself) too seriously

Running a college requires thick skin. Children say a lot of things they don’t mean, especially when they’re upset. Don’t take it personally.

“If you can’t laugh in a day in middle school, you’re not supposed to,” said Ashley Bowling, vice-principal at Florence Middle School in Florence, Ala.

Kanawyer agreed.

“It takes a certain mindset if you want to enjoy the process,” Kanawayer said. “If you’re too rigid and can’t just laugh at certain things, you could be miserable on a college campus. You just have to roll with the punches.

Middle school students are also really funny, said Kyle Nix, principal of Christiana Middle School in Christiana, Tennessee. So take the time to appreciate their humor.

“Everything is funny to them,” she said. “You don’t want them running around and hitting door frames, but it’s like the best part of their day. So when you see kids in the hallways, they’ll hit the door frames, they’ll hit all the walls and will just be clumsy.

Sharpen your listening skills

Students will tell you what troubles them, but you really you have to listen to hear the problem.

They also aren’t always looking for a solution, either, Bowling said.

“Sometimes they just need a listening ear,” she said.

Focus on interventions with students

Students often come from different elementary schools, which means they have had varying access to interventions and school programs.

It is easy to think that every student would have been screened before arriving at college. Don’t assume, Kanawyer said.

If you can’t laugh in a day in college, you’re not cut out for it.

Ashley Bowling, vice principal, Florence Middle School, Florence, Ala.

Go the extra mile to ensure students need interventions and supports as early as possible, whether it’s helping them get up to speed academically or ensuring they have a adequate access to special education or other services.

“If they need accelerated training, it needs to happen now,” Kanawyer said. “It can be a game-changer going into high school.”

Strengthen student agency and student voice

Students just find their voice at this level. They also test the limits. After two years of students being told what not to do during the pandemic, principals need to give them space to be themselves.

Students at Fulton Middle School in Fulton, Missouri, participated in focus groups alongside school staff to work on issues related to school themes: safety, academics, family and community partnerships, and culture and climate.

“Our children are there to help make decisions,” said Beth Houf, school principal and 2022 National Director of the Year.

But the students wanted more, and one group flagged her last year and gave an impromptu 15-point presentation on why Houf should start a student advisory council and what topics they wanted to focus on. They wanted to improve the pass period and are now looking for ways to update the schedule to include more electives, which they will present to the school board.

It was “completely organic,” said Houf, who is now one of the newly formed advisory group’s academic advisors.

“I have to let go of the reins a bit and make sure the kids are leading,” Houf said. “I have children who are passionate about something. Let me step back, be that safety net, and let them run with it.

Strengthen parent engagement

Students begin to drift away from their parents in middle school, but this is also a time when parental guidance can help them avoid many pitfalls.

It is important for school leaders to keep parents informed about what is happening at school and about their children’s education.

“He doesn’t have to be visible on campus,” Kanawyer said. “But it has to be about having ongoing, honest conversations about how they navigate certain things and offering a different perspective.”

This relationship is a two-way street and can help principals develop appropriate responses or programs for students.

“You still have to communicate with their parents on a level that you might not think you have to for a 13- or 14-year-old kid,” Bowling, the Alabama assistant manager, said.

Felipé Jackson, the principal of Bear Creek Middle School in Fairburn, Ga., has monthly coffee and donut meetings with parents and has created on-campus volunteer opportunities for them. He also visits local homeowners association meetings, community gatherings and city council meetings to keep parents up to date.

The idea, he said, is to communicate to parents that “we are a team and we are with you.”

Share leadership

There are a lot of activities at the college, from band to choir to sports. A manager can be very busy juggling everyone who performs his duties. It is good to remember that there are other capable and competent adults in the school who are often willing to step in if asked.

Shared or distributed leadership is really important for ensuring principals stay on top of what matters most, but it also helps teachers and other staff build their expertise and gain valuable leadership experience.

“I try very hard to be a leader of leaders,” Houf said.

Help students gain perspective

Everything (and anything) can seem like the end of the world for a middle schooler. A bad grade. The end of a friendship. Don’t make a sports team.

One of the most important jobs of the college principal is to help students see that this is not the case. They will bounce back; everything will be alright.

School leaders can help students develop these skills – coping with adversity, regulating emotions, making good decisions – by focusing deeply on social-emotional learning.

Kanawyer relied heavily on the CharacterStrong SEL curriculum, which helps students develop self-awareness and build relationships. Woodgate incorporated these lessons into the school’s weekly “flexible period”, where teachers centered lessons on desired character traits such as respect and perseverance.

“We want them to be nice,” Kanawyer said. “We want them to be empathetic. We want them to persevere. We are going to teach these things.

Be flexible and ready to change plans

You will wear many different hats: principal, adviser, disciplinary, confidant, etc. Sometimes in the same hour, sometimes with the same student.

“They want to belong,” Houf said of the students. “They want to be supported. They want to be cared for. It is certainly more difficult. Some are quicker to lash out and get frustrated.

Be prepared for all of these different roles.

Seventh grader Camdyn Fields and principal Felipé Jackson shoot basketballs in the principal's office.  Fields won a bet on a football game with Jackson and was able to order Chick-Fil-A and hang out in his office over lunch.

Building Meaningful Relationships

Students can spot a fake from a mile away, so find real ways to get to know them and let them know you’re there for them.

When Kanawyer was a middle school principal, he greeted students at the door and used the daily morning announcements to set a positive tone, reminding students that they “had a building here full of people who love you and care about you. you. Let us know if you need anything.

“Start each day positively and reaffirm the children,” said Kanawyer, who mixed celebrations and shouts in the greetings. “I know that sounds corny.”

You may not always get the answer you want, but persevere.

“Sometimes I get a big hug from a kid, sometimes I just get an eyebrow, a shrug,” Houf said. “But then again…every kid needs something different, and that’s okay.”

The whole team – from teachers to counselors to caretakers – should be involved in building meaningful relationships with students.

“Let them know we care and are here for your success,” Kanawyer said. “Show them the way you interact with them, the way you talk to them, your mannerisms – everything.”

Balance understanding with consequences

It’s an emotional journey, and the students go through a lot of changes.

While school leaders need to show empathy and understanding, they also need to make sure students know their actions have consequences.

It’s a delicate balance: the drill sergeant versus the principal who lets the students off the hook. Both extremes are bad places.

Jackson, Georgia’s manager, found ways to find balance. Her school has a student rewards program and weekly and monthly recognition for academic and behavioral improvement.

But sports teams and clubs have behavioral clauses, and students can lose the right to play or participate in those activities if they break the rules.

Instead of always calling parents when students misbehave, Jackson contacts clubs or the adult in charge of that school activity.

Still, Jackson and other mid-level principals said students must also have the chance to learn and grow from their mistakes.

“We know they’re still in the trial and error phase,” Jackson said. “We use it as a tool to help redirect behavior rather than just excluding or cutting them off… We are not here to take away students’ opportunities for growth, but to teach them.”

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