October is National Principals Month, which celebrates school leaders and shines a light on the role that they play in building successful school communities. To find out what it’s like to be a principal today and find out about some of the changes they’ve seen over their careers, Today’s Modern Educator is talking to principals across the country. Our featured principal for today is John Gabriel, Principal of Independence High School, which is a new school opening in the fall of 2019 as a part of the Loudoun County Public School System (LCPS) in Virginia.
While many people can be qualified to become a principal, there are key components that make an outstanding principal. John Gabriel, principal of Independence High School, which opens in fall of 2019 in Loudoun County, Virginia, has a few ideas about what makes an outstanding principal. And he should know what it takes. Not only has Gabriel won the highly coveted LCPS Principal of the Year award for 2017 and author of three books — How to Thrive as Teacher Leader (2005), How to Help Your School Thrive (2009), and Dealing with the Tough Stuff (2012) – about how to help teachers and educational leaders thrive.
Now in his 22nd year as an educator, Gabriel started his career as an English teacher and worked within three school systems teaching at all levels. From there, he became English Department Chair, a position where he felt he could “have a positive influence on his hallway.” Finding fulfilment in this role led him to administration where he could continue to have a positive influence, but in a broader way. Gabriel became an Assistant Principal in 2004 and Principal of John Champe High School in 2011.
So, what does Gabriel see as the key components to establishing a successful school? He shared with us the three elements he focuses on:
Build relationships with students: At every point in my teaching career, I have felt that the core value has been developing and building relationships, which are the underpinnings of all leadership. Whether I’m building relationships with my teachers, with my students, or my community, those relationships are the cornerstone for the school that we’re going to build.
For students, it’s particularly important to build these relationships to keep them feeling safe, both emotionally and physically at school. If you have a relationship with a student as an administrator or a teacher, you’re going to know what’s going on in their lives, you’re going to know if they’re at risk, or could be a harm to themselves. Not to mention how these relationships can change a student’s willingness to engage in the classroom. High-performance kids are always going to engage, but not all kids are like that. The teachers who are the most successful get that and strive to have a rapport with their students.
Encourage students to engage in the life of the school: Another way to get kids to care about their education is to make sure that they are engaged in the life of the school. This means they are not just going home to do their homework but joining a sports team, a club, or an honor society. Whatever they choose as an extracurricular activity, it offers another opportunity for them to know that the adults in the school system care about them. Something that I tell my teachers every year is: “The students don’t care about what you know until they know that you care.” To make sure the students know that, it is important for educators to have rapport with the students inside and outside of the classroom.
Teach students to reflect on what they have learned: Over the past five years or so, it has become clear that students have very little time to reflect. In our digital age, kids are plugged in 24/7. Back when I was in school, I got home and was done for the day. If I wanted to get on the phone, I had to wait my turn. Now, for example, I posted on Instagram about the new school last night, and I still had students responding to me at 3 and 4 a.m. When are they sleeping? When are they finding time to process and find meaning in what is happening to them during the day as learners and young adults? I work with my teachers to help them find ways to give their students time to reflect and think about what they are learning, what has happened throughout the day, and what, if anything, their reaction should have been.
“When you are leading a high school, you are basically leading a small city, and there are multiple narratives taking place within that city,” Gabriel explained. “Whether it’s a student who just got into Harvard, a student who got a full ride to play lacrosse somewhere, or a teacher nominated for a Teacher of the Year award, there are so many great things that are happening. It’s joy to be able to follow those narratives,” he concluded.
Want to read our other National Principals Month interviews? You can do that here.