Ask Beth Houf, NASSP’s 2022 National Principal of the Year, what she likes best about Fulton Middle School (FMS), and she’ll tell you it’s the sense of community. Ask her students the same thing, and they’ll agree. “When I graduated middle school, I felt like I was saying goodbye to family,” says Aidan Haglund, a junior at Fulton High School and a graduate of FMS. That sense of family has been carefully cultivated by Houf and her team over the past six years. In fact, when Houf holds a school assembly or needs to have a meeting with the students, she calls it a “family meeting.” Before Houf became principal, the school culture lacked a sense of camaraderie; she knew it was the first thing she needed to change. That realization led to her mantra, “Culture comes first, next, and always.” With her team, she continues to foster a family culture today.

Pathway to Education

Houf’s desire to create an inclusive school culture stems, in part, from her upbringing and experiences before she started teaching. Born to 15-year-old parents, Houf watched her mother (who was forced to quit school to raise her) begin a career as a phlebotomist and spend years working her way through school to become a nurse. Watching her mother succeed in nursing school had a profound effect on her. Houf, who was 15 when her mother earned her degree, imagined her future in medicine, as either a nurse or a doctor, or in education. But after watching a loved one die of cancer, she realized she couldn’t pursue a medical career. She wanted to be in a field that was full of life. So, she turned her attention to education that involved one of her passions: music.

Houf spent much of her time in high school as a band member. She says the outlet helped her get through school and cope with a sometimes tumultuous home life. She played the clarinet and embraced the feeling of family when marching with her bandmates at Friday night football games and weekend competitions. This passion led to a music scholarship at the University of Missouri, where she started as a music education major. Her trajectory changed a bit when she realized that being a band teacher would not allow her to balance work and family life because of the abundance of weekend commitments. In her junior year, she switched her major to elementary education and vowed to infuse music in her teaching. 

As a college senior, Houf traveled to Hawaii to study and student teach. There, she was struck by the differences in both climate and culture. Hawaii is also where she learned about equity. Given the living conditions of some of her students, her time there helped to develop and drive her leadership mission that, “All would mean all.” She wanted to help all kids succeed, not just those who had the same experiences as she did. 

Houf eventually returned to Missouri to finish her student teaching and earn a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction. As soon as she had her own classroom, Houf knew she had found her place. 

After six years in the classroom, Houf had the opportunity to participate in a new program called Select Teachers as Regional Resources (Missouri STARR). This two-year program allowed teachers to spend their first year in the program learning about professional development. During their second year, those same teachers were sent to over 40 different schools to present whichever professional development was needed. The time Houf spent in the program was invaluable. (See sidebar.)

Given her socioeconomic background, Houf is keenly aware that, statistically speaking, she could have ended up working in a dead-end job or perhaps living on the street. Throughout her career, she has learned that although statistical data is helpful, numbers do not define a human being. Today she leads her school culture using data—only to inform, not to dictate her students’ futures. “My personal goal is to be the leader of leaders, creating a school that has sustainable practices that will live beyond my days as principal,” she says. She has accomplished this by championing innovation and inclusion, equity, and leadership roles for all.

Leadership Roles for All

Houf believes “people are less likely to tear down systems that they helped build.” That’s why she seeks input from faculty, staff, and students to implement various leadership programs for FMS, including an FMS Leadership Team and the FMS Student Ambassadors. “Empowerment is definitely at the forefront of all that Beth Houf does,” says Cami Webb, the gifted instructor for Fulton Public Schools. “She not only opens the door to leadership possibilities, but she creates an environment where people can’t wait to step through and step up, especially students.” 

The FMS Leadership team is a cross section of staff who represent their colleagues and focus on school culture and student achievement. The team is responsible for successes such as their Book of FMS, a handbook developed by the staff for the staff, and the Return to Learn Plan the team implemented for the return to in-person learning in the wake of the pandemic.

The FMS Student Ambassadors is a cross section of the student body. The group’s goal is to ensure that all student voices are represented in the decisions being made in the school, as well as in creating a safe and welcoming environment for all students. The student ambassadors’ work is apparent in their interviewing potential FMS staff, selecting school programs, and participating in new student orientations. They also contribute to the principal think tank, for which students from all social groups give Houf feedback on various programs. 

For staff interviews, Houf intentionally enlists the help of at least two students on the interview committee for each staff member hired. The students ask prospective teachers their own questions, and they give applicants a tour of the school. According to Houf, their involvement has vastly improved the school’s interview and hiring process. Additionally, when choosing new programming or curriculum, student focus teams serve on the selection committees and participate in aspects ranging from brainstorming to implementation. The student ambassadors also give new students tours of FMS and provide feedback to Houf on a regular basis. Houf’s goal in creating leadership possibilities for all members of her school community is to increase commitment by ensuring they have a seat at the decision-making table.

FMS House of Hornets—Innovation and Inclusion

Houf recognizes that having a sense of belonging is incredibly important to middle school students at a time when they are figuring out who they are and who their friends will be. Everyone wants to belong somewhere. So, Houf and her team decided to create The House of Hornets Days—modeled after the houses of the Harry Potter novels by J. K. Rowling. These special days are observed quarterly and involve three components: service, spirit, and “The Hornet Way.” 

Each house, named “hornet” in a different language, has a group of about 60 students, with equal numbers of sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. There are nine houses total, and each works with a community partner. The system was developed to “foster a positive culture, bolster community, establish a sense of belonging, and develop empathy,” Houf says. For the service component of Hornets Days, students must organize and present a service project that shows gratitude and support for their community partner. For instance, one house hosted a prom for a senior center. The spirit component involves everything from practicing the house chant to designing the coat of arms to decorating classroom doors. 

Each house also follows “The Hornet Way,” where students incorporate expectations for Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports and develop lessons and resources for these expectations at FMS. And, like the houses in Harry Potter, each house can earn “Hornet Bucks” to contribute to the ongoing tally of points for their house. Based on such points, one house wins the Hornet Cup at the end of each semester. 

Also, during Hornet Days, the house committee develops a theme for a House of Hornets conference. Teachers and students submit proposals to be featured as speakers, and the committee creates a line-up, which includes keynote speakers and a local musical guest or assembly. “The creativity and passion that both the students and the teachers put into this endeavor is amazing,” Houf notes. The House of Hornets embodies the familial culture and leadership skills that this school leader loves to cultivate. 

Additional Innovation

Houf’s influence also extends to the school’s sixth-grade transition. Her counseling and administration team conduct “What to Expect When Expecting a Middle Schooler,” an orientation night for parents that includes tours of FMS and small group discussions. She also started the FMS Welcome Wagon. For the past three years, Houf and the assistant principal have personally visited each upcoming sixth grader the summer before they attend FMS. This fun, informal way to say hello and give students some hornet swag lessens the worries that some students have about moving to middle school. Additionally, in May, Houf and her team assign lockers to next year’s incoming students so that sixth graders can have all summer to practice opening them. Finally, the school stages Hornet Camp—a one-day summer camp at FMS, also held during the first two weeks of school, to welcome students and give them the opportunity to become familiar with the school’s layout and culture.

Building Equity 

A quest for equity has always been a passion for Houf. As she learned in her youth, “all means all,” and no one should be pigeon-holed because of their background, zip code, or last name. At FMS, “equity starts with my daily example,” she says.

Much of the school’s curriculum for social-emotional learning (SEL) is administered through advisory groups and the FMS Global Read Aloud. For the advisory groups, every adult in the building implements an advisory curriculum, which includes weekly lessons specific to SEL, as well as a Global Read Aloud, in which the teacher reads aloud a book and discusses it with their advisory group. The book must have a foundation in empathy and empowerment relating to middle school, and the team strives to include diverse authors and main characters. Recent books have included: Ghost and Patina by Jason Reynolds, Wonder by R. J. Palacio, I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai, and Refugee by Alan Gratz. Advisory groups are currently reading Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt.

Houf also leads equity efforts in her school and district, as well as on her social media platforms. She especially focuses on supporting the most marginalized students—those who identify as LGBTQ+ and students of color—and engaging in trainings on creating safe spaces and understanding implicit bias.

Teaching to Lead Like a Pirate

Houf co-wrote her book, Lead like a Pirate: Make School AMAZING for Your Students and Staff, with Shelley Burgess so she could serve as a resource and source of support for principals. She knows the loneliness of the principalship firsthand and believes in the power of professional learning networks. Houf spent the first couple years as principal believing that she had to do the job alone and that she was responsible for the entire school. She now understands that is not true, and she wants other principals to know it as well. 

When school leaders read Lead Like a Pirate, they learn the character traits needed to “captain” a school or district and where to look for “treasure” that already exists in their schools. They learn how to utilize their personal and professional passions, how to ask the hard questions for self-evaluation, how to muster the determination to seek positive transformation, and how to exhibit the kind of enthusiasm that excites others about education. Houf and Burgess ultimately want to help other principals create a school where students and staff are clamoring to teach and learn. 

At the end of the day, Houf isn’t just the principal of Fulton Middle School—she’s the head of the family. But she is quick to say that if it weren’t for her faculty, staff, and students, there wouldn’t be a family. Because she recognizes that she can’t captain the ship alone, this unlikely pirate has thrived—and so has her school. 

Christine Savicky is the senior editor of Principal Leadership.

Sidebar: Changing the Principal Narrative

When traveling for Missouri STARR, there were five schools that Houf dreaded visiting to lead professional development. The reason? The principals’ negative attitudes and lack of faculty support. When her own district approached her about becoming a principal, she initially refused. She didn’t want all those long hours and difficult conversations. Eventually, she realized that if she were truly going to make a difference for students and teachers, and change the narrative of what a principal could be, she would need to lead. So, she began her tenure as the principal of McIntire Elementary School. Seven years later, she transferred to Fulton Middle School.

Sidebar: Meet Beth Houf

Most of Houf’s time is dedicated to her students. Fortunately, her son Paul, who is now a senior at Fulton High School, didn’t have to lose too much time with his mother, as she was his principal for six years. Next year, her son Dawson will attend FMS and will also have his mother as his principal. Away from work, Beth and her husband Todd like to watch their boys play football and baseball and relax on their family farm. The family also loves to travel, usually to a beach or lake, so they can relax together. If she’s not spending time with family, you can find her behind the cover of a good book.