Guest post by Brandon Mowinkel

The role of a principal is complex, tiring, and stressful, to say the least. Balancing the needs of your staff, students, school, and community can wear on you, especially as the school year winds down. Tensions seem to run high as patience wanes.

It is vital for principals to keep the focus where it needs to be—on the students. The demands of the job can pull us in various directions and our need to keep students at the forefront of what we do becomes muddled in the minutia of school life. Every principal must find a way to remember his “why” and continuously keep the focus on students and their learning. In my practice, I use three constant reminders to keep me focused on what matters most.


This past year, the assistant principal and I had postcards printed with our school motto, “Everyone has a story…make yours worth telling.” We made one for each student in our building and made it a goal to write two cards a day to send home. Students received cards for athletic achievements, classroom success, acts of kindness, wishing students good luck, or just letting them know we care. Through this daily exercise we were not only able to celebrate the successes of our students, but also remind students that we are here for them.

Feel Good File

Tucked away in one of my many drawers are a variety of artifacts that I cherish. I call it my Feel Good File and I drop random items from students into the folder throughout the school year. Certificates, graduation programs, pictures, cards, and drawings fill the file with fond memories. I also have notes, emails, and funeral bulletins among the many artifacts. You may ask: Why include these items in a folder that is meant to celebrate the “feel good” times?

School leadership is never just about the good times; it’s also about the times we live and learn. Every item in the folder has a story to tell and a lesson learned from it, and unfortunately not every story has a happy ending. However, it’s through these stories that I can reflect on the achievements of our students and the lessons I have learned from them. I enjoy pulling out the file a couple times a year and seeing a selfie with a student from 2008, a note a student wrote to me while sitting in detention, or my sub plans from a day when a spark started a (small) fire in the industrial tech shop where I taught. These stories come flooding back and make me smile, laugh, and even cry.

Picture Wall

A picture is worth a thousand words, or better yet, a thousand stories. When I became principal in the fall of 2012, I wanted to come up with something unique to hang on the walls of my office. Various ideas came to mind, but what I decided to do was focus on student stories. However, I didn’t just want pictures of our achievements, I wanted images that evoked stories and memories of the displayed students.

Whether it is the actor who performed on Broadway, a wrestler who overcame a blown ACL to make it to the state championship finals, or the MHS Sportsmanship Committee whose members became culture makers and changers, each picture has a distinct story for those students involved. Other images I chose show stories of students overcoming obstacles to reach their given goals and dreams. But the picture of which I am most proud is of me smiling with our seniors at graduation.

As an educator, there is no greater feeling than seeing students walk across the stage to receive their diploma. And while it is a foregone conclusion for many, others overcome many obstacles and hardships to get to graduation day. This picture represents that struggle and what happens when a school comes together to do what is best for a student. Most importantly, it is a reminder to never give up on a student even when that student may want to give up. I often sit at my desk and stare at these pictures recounting the thousands of stories they conjure up.

As a school administrator, how do you keep the focus on students? In what ways do you celebrate the stories your students have? What can you do to learn these stories and how can you embrace the lessons they teach us? Remember, “Everyone has a story…make yours worth telling.”

Brandon Mowinkel is the principal at Milford Jr./Sr. High School in Milford, NE, where he has spent his entire career, previously serving as the industrial technology teacher and as an assistant principal. He is actively involved in the Nebraska Association of Secondary School Principals and is the current president of the organization. Follow him on Twitter @bmowinkel.

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