• 1 country
  • 7 days
  • 40 volunteers
  • 650 students
  • 10,000 plastic bottles
  • Forever changed.

In January, Robert Motley, Gregg Wieczorek, and I represented NASSP on the 2023 Lifetouch Memory Mission. We joined a team of 40 volunteers to travel to Guatemala, where we partnered with Hug It Forward, an organization that helps communities in Latin America build schools using sustainable resources (like plastic bottles). I was thrilled to be part of the trip and looked forward to giving back and doing my part to help make the world better. Little did I know this trip would be life-changing.

Service to the community was only a part of our time in Guatemala. We also learned about and experienced the rich culture, traditions, and history of the people, by the people. This dual approach—hand and heart—made a tremendous impact. Forty volunteers entered this trip as strangers, and we walked away as family. A piece of my heart will always reside in the mountains of Guatemala, and the lessons I was taught by the amazing people will shape my leadership forever.

Beth Houf plays with children in Guatemala during the Lifetouch Memory Mission.
Beth Houf plays with children in Guatemala during the Lifetouch Memory Mission.

Choosing Joy

We spent the week at an elementary school in Agua Escondida working alongside the students, staff, and community. We were greeted with a welcoming ceremony filled with music and dance. After the ceremony, we were asked to dance along. And we showed up! At that moment, I recognized something in myself that had slipped away during the past three years of pandemic leadership: joy. Leadership and joy should not be mutually exclusive. I could feel the armor I had built as a survival mechanism disappearing layer by layer.

We then toured the school and met the staff and the principal. What these amazing educators are doing with significantly fewer resources that we enjoy in the United States is truly unbelievable. Even more overwhelming was that, despite the challenges, the pure happiness radiating from each person was contagious.

The Power of Presence

Another lesson I learned was that, although I consider myself a connected principal, I have been disconnected. In the hopes of being efficient, I have pushed multi-tasking to the next level. But it seems like nothing gets done when you are trying to do everything.

In Guatemala, I made the commitment to live in the moment and immerse myself in the experience, whether it was tying plastic bottles at the school, visiting the homes of our students, or spending time with my roommates at the end of the day. This resulted in creating powerful relationships that will last a lifetime. I returned home and made this switch immediately, as well. It is amazing how your experience changes when you take the time to be present. When you change how you look at things, how you look at things changes.

Reflection Matters

When I was a student teacher, one required activity each day was to write a page of reflection. Somehow through the years, I had lost this practice. As part of our days in Guatemala, intentional time to reflect individually and as a group was built in. This allowed me to truly analyze what happened in the day and how it connected to my practices at home. As leaders, we often rob ourselves of this time, and I am dedicated to carving time out of each day for this to happen.

Learning from Each Other

I am passionate about secondary education. I love the quirkiness and energy of middle school students and the journey of high schoolers uncovering their passion and life goals leading to adulthood. However, as a former elementary principal and teacher, it was good to return to this age level during this trip to remember that love and vulnerability should not stop when moving forward to secondary schools.

Although it looks different for each student and staff member, a hug, handshake, high five, hello, or fist bump can make a huge difference. When I lead with love, I bring my whole self to the principalship. This is who I am at my core. I have let the stressors of the job harden my heart and cause a disconnect with those I serve. Kids reflect the energy surrounding them, whether in Tecpán, Guatemala, or Fulton, Missouri.

One of our guides from Hug it Forward, Vivi, said, “We always have something to learn from each other.” This trip taught me more than I could ever imagine.

Learn more about the Principal of the Year Program here.

About the Author

Beth Houf is the principal of Fulton Middle School in Fulton, MO, and NASSP’s 2022 National Principal of the Year. She will become the principal of Capital City High School in Jefferson City, MO, next school year. Follow her on Twitter (@BethHouf).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *