Mike Howard was nominated by his colleague, Chelsea Miller.
It’s nearly impossible to describe how someone can do a million little things every day to improve the lives of others. It’s like water on rock. The particles, over time, can elicit great change over an unyielding surface. Mr. Howard operates like water. He does a million little things every day, not only to make his school better, but to make the lives of his students and staff better.
2020 has been a year like no other year. The School District of Jefferson is one of the only districts in the area that is currently having face-to-face learning. As a result, there has been an influx of new students. 2020 has brought with it a collective trauma. Some students and staff have fared better than others, but it’s apparent how the isolation, family financial troubles, food insecurity, and rising stress levels have been affecting school. Students and staff alike are scared, anxious, frustrated, and angry. The needs are great, yet Mr. Howard met the challenge of this year like every other: with a calm wash of positivity. Not overly sweet and fake, but with genuine positivity and care for all the people he interacts with.
Mr. Howard has many hats as principal, but the one he is most committed to is having a safe, nurturing environment in his school. His visibility and involvement is apparent.
"I was able to witness Mike interact with two students this morning," said Miller. "At that moment, both were struggling to make it to their classrooms. One was defiant, and the other was anxious because it was his first day. Mike recognized both of these students' needs immediately. He allowed the anxious, new student to spend some time with him until the student felt ready to attend class. He allowed the student to share information about himself. Mike listened, offered feedback, and asked follow up questions to facilitate conversation. He eased this student’s anxiety. The student was able to shift focus and was visibly relieved by the opportunity to have a little more time before entering his classroom."
"Then, Mike shifted his attention to the other student who was refusing to enter the building," said Miller. "He introduced the students and then asked the student who was exhibiting defiance to help the other by describing and demonstrating what the start of the day looked like for the new student. He used the new student to encourage the defiant student to step into a leadership role. The defiant student was happy to show our new student what the morning procedures were. Then, they both made their way to their classrooms. Mike remained compassionate, allowed both students to retain their dignity, and even facilitated space for the defiant student to move into a leadership role during their moment of struggle."
What makes this story more special is that this interaction isn’t really special at all. Mr. Howard does this all day, every day. The relationships he develops with students are exceptional.
“Mike makes connections with struggling children who don’t have male role models, and he becomes their support system," said a first grade teacher. "As angry as these children get, they know how important they are to Mike and that he has their back, even when he is disciplining them.”
This is evidenced in the way a fifth grade student, who has spent a significant amount of time with Mr. Howard, describes him; not as a disciplinarian, but as someone that helps when their emotions get the best of them.
“Mr. Howard helps people out if they are mad or sad," said the student.
In the 14 years that Mr. Howard has been the principal of West Elementary, he has seen significant ups and downs. The political climate has become hostile, the school has been stripped of funding, and now, there's a pandemic. However, the difference he has made has remained evident. His dedication, passion, compassion, and ability to remain levelheaded are traits that have washed over the school and changed it. The test scores at West Elementary have steadily increased, particularly over the past five years. This is directly proportional to Mr. Howard’s leadership ability. His reputation, demeanor, and positivity give him opportunities to hire, retain, and push his staff to work tirelessly in order to get the best out of their students. He trusts his teachers as professionals and encourages them to always do what is best for their students. In 2013, the school's state report card statistic for closing educational gaps was at a measly 69.1/100. Today, it’s over 93/100!
The demographics of the school have not changed dramatically, and it's categorized as a high poverty school. The change has been Mr. Howard’s insistence that his staff works together for the betterment of the students. He implemented data meetings every several weeks in order to systematically look through data and discuss what the staff can do to better serve the student body. This process was difficult at first. Teachers had to find a way to work together if they didn’t agree on an issue. Mr. Howard served as a leader and walked the staff through the process, coached them, listened to their frustrations, and helped them problem solve. The scores for West Elementary have been a direct reflection of not only the hard work of the staff, but of the leadership that Mr. Howard has provided.
In the hardest times, Mr. Howard remains a force of positivity and encouragement. He is passionate about retaining quality staff and hiring the best teachers. He is able to quietly push his best teachers to be even better.
"My first year of teaching was brutal...I became so stressed that my physical health was negatively affected, and I quit the profession, never wanting to teach again," said Miller. "Life circumstances pushed me back into education, and I landed at Mike’s elementary school. I had no confidence when I started at West. I knew that Mike was incredibly intelligent and passionate about education. My anxiety was sky high and I required a lot of reassurance. Mike is the king of the 'pass by compliment.' He is always in the halls making connections with students and staff. He uses these moments in passing to recognize effort. 'Hey, great job with X student. You handled it beautifully.' 'I loved that lesson that you did! Way to connect it to science. You are so good at that.' Over the years, my confidence levels have soared. He has built me up to the point where the anxious, unconfident educator I once was no longer exists. He has provided and afforded me opportunities to grow and shine. My peers often notice the same thing about Mike and his 'pass by compliments.' We continue to push ourselves for our students because we know that Mike supports our learning and growth. His positivity polishes staff members, and he encourages us to shine.
Mr. Howard is also one of the most skilled listeners in the business. He dedicates so much of his time to listening to his staff and problem solving with them. He holds people accountable and will challenge his staff to rise up and dig deep in tough times. Mr. Howard challenges staff by utilizing their strengths. He elicits change by providing genuine feedback and by asking questions that encourage growth and reflection. He knows his teachers’ strengths and where they are passionate, and he uses those skills to direct teachers to push themselves.
His ability to listen doesn’t stop with staff. He listens patiently to parents and students. He hears people, and he sees them. Mr. Howard validates feelings and offers solutions when asked. He has the ability to understand where someone is coming from, despite maybe never being there himself.
"When I asked parents to reflect on ways that Mike may have helped them, one parent remembered an interaction that her daughter had with him," said Miller. "She had gotten into a bit of trouble at the high school level and had to call every administrator in the district and apologize. Mike was the only one who told her that if he was in her situation, he may have made that same mistake. Both the parent and the student remembered how this small comment modeled his endless compassion and understanding. It lifted much of the burden of guilt off of this student’s shoulders, and they are forever grateful for those words of kindness and compassion."
He cares deeply about the families that come into West Elementary. He will do everything in his power to help a struggling family. Mr. Howard will give rides to students in an effort to increase attendance. He recognized a need, and recently, a washer and dryer was installed in the building that is used by the custodial staff and needy families. He listens to their worries and supports the parents and the students. He is a true partner in education. Mr. Howard works diligently to meet the needs of families. Several parents mentioned that he “always takes the time to listen to the needs of families. He is willing to help them succeed in every way possible.”
He supports after school clubs as a way for students to have enrichment opportunities that they would not otherwise be exposed to. West Elementary currently offers 16 extracurricular opportunities for students. Teachers volunteer outside their contract hours to provide a whole host of enrichments. For example, there's a garden club where students work with master gardeners from a local university. They plant and care for a school garden. Students learn about the environment and ways to protect it in the environmental club. Students learn about giving back to the community, collaboration, and perseverance in the school’s Stained Glass Club.
On top of being an outstanding principal, Mr. Howard selflessly volunteers as a Special Olympics basketball coach, as well as the varsity girls assistant coach. He is a natural coach and mentor to these young athletes. In his role as a Special Olympics coach, he sets a tone of inclusion and positivity. Special needs students are given the opportunity to be a part of a team and gain confidence in their abilities. As a volunteer coach of the varsity girls basketball team at Jefferson High School, he has been the glue that has held the team together through three different head coaches. The team has been able to thrive under Mr. Howard guidance. They have competed at three regional championships in the last three years. Mr. Howard has a unique talent of getting athletes to see the best in themselves and discover unknown talents. The girls have the utmost respect for him and treat his words like gold. He is extremely knowledgeable in the sport of basketball, but what takes him to another level is his ability to get into the minds of his athletes. He can push their limits without breaking them. The athletes he coaches form lifelong bonds with him, not because of the success they had, but because of who he helped them become. He devotes his time to both of these programs without asking for any type of compensation. He is truly a servant leader.
"Every day, in a million little ways, Mike shapes the people he interacts with into more positive role models," said Miller. "We take that positivity with us and carry it on. He is like a ripple of water, building into a tidal wave. He is fluid and gentle in his encouragement. Mike truly is a LifeChanger, in a million different ways, like water over rock."