Principal Mary Fulp asks each student and staff member three inspirational questions about school spirit at the beginning of every school year:
- What will you do to make this school a better place?
- What is one thing uniquely wonderful about you?
- Who are you when you are at your very best?
This type of self-reflection is at the heart of Fulp’s drive to create a positive environment at Colony Middle School, part of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District in Alaska. Her effort picked up more urgency when a climate survey revealed that some students felt intimated by their peers due to bullying.
“I believe as a leader that my job is to find unique qualities in people and nurture and grow them,” says Fulp, Alaska’s 2022 principal of the year. “On this campus, we need everyone to take action to make this a positive place to be—everyone has something to offer.”
Fulp’s philosophy is an example of how District Administration‘s latest principals to watch are inspiring their communities to strengthen school spirit.
How school spirit creates community
Sustaining a positive culture is particularly important in middle school because students are establishing their belief systems and goals for the future. “We want them to believe they are so much more capable than what they thought they were,” she explains. “If we do our jobs well, we’re going to create a better community of more thoughtful citizens who are open to differences, instead of being divisive.”
The District Administration Leadership Institute has developed an academy for school principals to be refreshed and challenged in leadership skills and knowledge by looking through the lens of Systems, Culture, and Instruction as they continue to grow as impactful leaders.
She and her educators are also working to help students balance their use of technology. Her students have plenty of hands-on opportunities to be creative in the art room, but the school is also 1-to-1 with Chromebooks. The heavy reliance on technology during the pandemic inspired Fulp and her team to create the school’s first digital citizenship course.
Fulp also says she is optimistic about this year, particularly when it comes to more consistent staffing. “I believe that in the most difficult circumstances there are opportunities for us to figure out new and better ways to do things,” she adds. “We’ve learned new and innovative ways to provide education and we can provide high-quality online instruction.”
‘It can be a very lonely job’
The building leader’s job is more difficult—and more important—than ever before, says Amy Schott, principal of Henderson Elementary in Virginia’s Prince William County Public Schools. Schott stands at the center of these challenges in her role as a mentor for new principals, which she considers an opportunity to positively impact an entire community of students, staff and families.
“My goal is to maximize their time in classrooms and work side by side planning for instruction with teachers, which is absolutely the most important part of our role as a principal,” says Schott, who was named The Washington Post’s principal of the year. “I love being able to coach new principals through challenging situations because it can be a very lonely job at times.”
Two of her keys to the job are reflecting on three positive things at the end of each school day and turning off email notifications on her cellphone. This mindset also drives her to create a fun climate and intentionally strengthens relationships with students, staff and parents at her neighborhood school, she says. “This gives me a unique opportunity to connect with families at the pool, library, at the neighborhood lake, at the grocery store, when I’m out exercising, or at many other places in the neighborhood,” Schott explains. “Parents have quickly learned that they are not a bother to me and that I absolutely love being a part of families’ lives outside of the regular school day.”
Schott’s goals for the near future are expanding project-based learning, emphasizing environmental literacy, and developing a “house system” in which each student is a member of one of five houses. This system motivates students to demonstrate positive character, develop a stronger sense of belonging and create additional positive relationships, and it “boosts school spirit to extremely high levels,” she says.
Students get to exercise voice and choice at school in how they demonstrate learning and through activities such as the school’s “No Place for Hate Committee.”
The biggest challenges Schott sees ahead are students’ increasing need for mental health care and the pressures of standardized testing. “Every time I’m reading the news about topics such as the negative impacts of climate change, deadly diseases, violence, or unkind humans,” Schott says, “it gives me such a strong sense of urgency to change the trajectory of so much that is happening in our world through our work with students today.”