Q&A: Glenwood Springs Middle School Principal Joel Hathaway
Continuing our interviews with Roaring Fork Schools principals, Joel Hathaway, principal of Glenwood Springs Middle School, shares his thoughts on engaging the community, his favorite moments as an educator, and the differences between schools in Colorado and North Carolina.
You’re coming up on four years as principal at GSMS, and four years in Colorado. In that time at the school, what lessons have you learned about education?
I started my career as a school leader in North Carolina and spent five years as a middle school principal there. I came here having learned the importance of structure, organization, keeping a good calendar, and keeping people on the same page.
What I’ve learned from students, teachers, the community and my colleagues here in Glenwood Springs are lessons about the importance of keeping culture first, intentionally tending to a community where everyone belongs, and everyone feels safe, the importance of building trust, the importance of active listening, and the importance of seeking many voices and perspectives in decision-making.
How do you engage parents and community members in decisions for GSMS?
By listening. This isn’t a natural strength for me. If I’m not careful I can get distracted easily and I can find myself in a conversation where I am accidentally thinking about something else entirely — that can get really awkward.
The first step to engaging stakeholders in decision-making is to be an active listener, and I’ve been intentional about trying to recognize that weakness in myself and improve on it. I think its important to remember that even though sometimes people have differences of opinions on how to reach our goals, or even what our goals should be, we always have a solid common ground: We love our kids. We want the best for them. We want them to be happy.
Sometimes at GSMS we joke that we are the most “committee laden” organization of all time. We have leadership teams for our overall school vision planning and goal setting, our supervision plans and day-to-day operations. We have focus groups. Every teacher is a member of a group with a voice. We also have a Parent Voice Committee that meets regularly, my door is always open to parents, and I am sure to keep everyone in the loop with the infamous 6 p.m. Sunday phone call.
Are there any major differences in public school education in the American south compared to Colorado?
I believe schools reflect society, so any of my observations probably have more to do with subtle differences in how people interact and not so much in how public education functions.
People in Colorado have an adventurous spirit, are drawn to the natural world for inspiration, and have a healthy tendency to resist heavy-handed authority. Our schools reflect that. On a more serious note, if Asheville, N.C., had the type of winter we had this year in Glenwood, school would have been closed from New Year’s until Spring Break. I love sending pictures of snow-covered buses and bundled up students to friends back home with the caption “Not a Snow Day.”
Would you describe a few of your most rewarding moments at GSMS?
My most rewarding moments always come when I am watching a student give their all and do their best and accomplish things they didn’t know they could accomplish. Our Celebrations of Learning are moments like this for me. Listening to our band and our choir, watching our basketball team. Better World Day, when our students reach out to specific community members and groups to serve.
Last year, after Parkland [Florida school shooting] when students across the country walked out in protest of school violence and I asked our students to not participate but they did anyway by walking our of school, circling up around our flag pole and telling stories of how violence affected their lives – that was an extremely proud and rewarding moment for me. A moment I will never forget.
It could be as simple as hearing a student explain the significance of what they are learning — these types of moments give me little chills.
What do you see as the greatest challenges teachers face in the Roaring Fork Valley?
If you watch the news you know that teachers across the nation are speaking up around issues of professional respect and salary. The cost of living and particularly housing costs are particularly challenging in our beautiful valley.
What is one thing you hope GSMS students learn before starting high school?
Academically middle school students need to start high school with executive skills — knowing how to access information and discern truth from non-truth and how to keep track of their responsibilities as students.
But I also want our students to know that they can and should change the world — I hope our students have a strong grasp on the deep responsibility that comes with the potential of being a change agent. I want our students to learn that treating others with compassion and kindness is the best path toward a better life and happiness. I want our students to complete middle school knowing that there are many people in the community who love them, want to help them and want to listen.
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