In a roundtable discussion, three school leaders share how they have established a trusting environment with students and staff and ensure that feedback is a two-way street. They note that fostering a positive school culture has been a particular challenge during the pandemic. But remembering to be visible, consistent, and actively listen can go a long way in fostering it, says Andrea Dennis, the former principal of Phillips Preparatory School in Mobile, AL, who is now the district’s chief area administrator; Darren Ellwein, the principal of Harrisburg South Middle School in Harrisburg, SD; and Kip Motta, NASSP president and the principal of Rich Middle School and North Rich Elementary School in Laketown, UT. Both Dennis and Ellwein are co-facilitators of NASSP’s Middle School Leaders Network, of which Motta is a member.
Growing Great Leaders
When Margaret Nichols Files became principal of Kerman Middle School, in Kerman, CA, one of the first things she did was add staff leadership growth to her five-year plan for the school. Teachers, administrators, and other staff have since joined a staff leadership group that she has created for the school, and together they have delved into lessons on leadership. The group “has had a ripple effect on our campus,” she says. “Members have effected positive change through their influence and the example they set in their classrooms, during club meetings while they are supervising students, collaborating with colleagues in PLCs, coaching sports teams, and interacting with all educational partners.”
The Power of The Arts
The arts can be a powerful catalyst to engage students in their learning and promote social-emotional development, says Benny L. Bolden Jr., the principal of R. Frank Nims Middle School in Tallahassee, FL. When he arrived at the school four years ago, it was marked by academic decline, behavioral issues, and a small arts department. Today, the arts curriculum offers band, dance, chorus, orchestra, theater, and visual arts—and has helped bring about significant school improvement.
Not Going Back To Normal
David Schilling, the 2022 Vermont Principal of the Year, reflects on how the pandemic changed the definition of “normal” in schools. “Every single school leader in this country has experienced a set of circumstances that the world around us will never understand,” he says, adding that it’s important to celebrate school leaders for persevering and shining during the past two and a half years. Moving forward, “our greatest gift in this moment is a blank canvas, and the realization that we don’t have to go back to normal if normal wasn’t working so well anyway.”