The new presidents of the two national associations that represent principals plan to continue focusing on school safety and student and staff mental health and well-being—but also spend more time listening to principals and students, whose perspectives are critical to a strong K-12 system.
Kip Motta, the president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and Dave Steckler, the president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals both started their one-year terms in their respective organizations this month. In a joint interview with Education Week, they pledged to strengthen the collaboration between the two independent associations.
One early start to this cooperation: joint annual national conferences for school leaders, beginning in 2024. (Both groups currently hold separate annual conferences, which provide dozens of professional development sessions for their members, but force some principals and assistant principals to choose which one to attend.)
Steckler, the principal of Red Trail Elementary School in Mandan, N.D., said working together will maximize the groups’ impact, especially when lobbying on their shared concerns. And while it’s always been clear that principals representing all types of schools should work closely together, the need for tighter alignment became more apparent and necessary during the pandemic.
Plus it’s just good sense: Issues left unaddressed at the lower levels can linger—and, in fact, metastasize—as students get older, the two leaders said. School leaders and teachers can also create more appropriate supports for students if they are briefed on individual students’ needs before they begin the next school level, they said.
Telling students’ and principals’ stories
In addition to shared priorities on school safety, mental health, the principal pipeline, and staff well-being, the two presidents have their own individual priorities they hope to pursue during their tenures.
Steckler, the North Dakota elementary principal, wants to use the power of principals’ stories and experiences to uplift the profession—and also spur changes. That can include sharing individual anecdotes to illustrate why schools need more money for school safety measures or mental health supports.
“We have a lot of stories in our schools and our communities,” Steckler said. “I want to talk to principals. I want to hear their stories. I need those stories to be able to share with the people that I meet with or work with to help and advocate for change. The stories are important.”
He also wants to shine a spotlight on successes in public schools.
“We need to celebrate public education,” he said. “We are getting more innovative. It’s continued to get better and better. We need to celebrate the great things we’re doing.”
“Celebrate loud and often,” seconded Motta, the principal and coach at Rich Middle School and North Rich Elementary School in Laketown, Utah, so that principals and teachers know their work is recognized and appreciated.
Motta plans to spend time listening to principals, too. But he also has a keen interest in hearing what another group has to say about their education experience: students.
“This generation of kids is so resilient,” Motta said. “They have gone through trauma and stress that no other kids have gone through, and I want to know what it would take for that student, that individual child, to consider going into what I consider the greatest profession anyone can want to do—and that’s education. So, what do we need to do as leaders to turn our kids on to think about making education their career?”
Motta also wants to build stronger relationships between the state principals’ associations and the national organization. He’s also concerned about student loan forgiveness because he believes the financial pressure of student loan debt discourages teachers from pursuing school leadership.
The veteran principals remain optimistic about the future of the profession, though they still worry the strains of the last few years will cause many of their colleagues to leave. A new survey from the NASSP released this week showed that nearly 40 percent of principals said they planned to quit in the next three years, though there’s no data yet to suggest a wave of departures.
Advice for principals as the school year gets underway
The duo also had some advice for school leaders entering a school year with what they hope will be some degree of normalcy.
Be enthusiastic. “Be as enthusiastic and as positive as you can,” Motta said. “But keep a very, very close eye on the mental health of not only our students, but the mental health of your staff members. ... Stand at the front door and meet every child as they walk into the building. Let them know that everything is going to be OK if we work together and we try to love every single child that walks through the door. … We have pretty amazing young adults, who can do some amazing things, and we need to listen to their voice. Not only listen, but hear their voice, and act upon it to make sure that they have the best experience that they can have.”
Focus on school climate and family outreach. “The last two and a half years have been challenging—the emotions have been high—but we really need to work on maintaining a healthy climate for our students and teachers, not only school-related [issues] but, [also], in our nation,” said Steckler, who added that the national political climate as well as the economy are causing stress and strain on families and staff that can seep into schools.
“We definitely need to maintain a healthy climate and then maintain and develop those healthy relationships with everyone,” he said.
Rely on the lessons they learned during the pandemic. Principals became better listeners. Staff collaborated more with colleagues in their buildings and in other schools. School leaders relied on colleagues with shared experiences, whether looking to networks or mentors for insights and supports. Technology—which powered remote and hybrid learning—bridged the gaps between families and schools. Don’t forget those lessons, said Motta and Steckler.
“I think it’s made us better educators,” Motta said. “I think it’s made my teachers stronger. Has there been some stress with it? Absolutely. But I do believe it’s made us better educators. It’s made us think differently. It’s made us give our stakeholders better opportunities, different opportunities.”