Beth Houf, principal of Fulton Middle School in Missouri, knows better than most what it's like to be an underdog.
Born to parents who were just 15 and never married, she told Education Dive that, "statistically speaking, I'm not a person that should be in education."
Through strong relationships with family and her community, as well as intense drive and motivation to succeed in spite of society saying "You shouldn't be," she now serves as an example of what's possible for a rural school of around 600 students, 50% to 60% of whom are on free- or reduced-price lunch.
"The passion she has for the work that she does is evident in every piece of the work that makes a school successful," said Shelley Burgess, a consultant and former administrator who co-authored the book "Lead Like A Pirate" with Houf. "She’s deeply committed to the work that she does in making school an amazing place for kids, for families and for staff."
But the path to becoming an inspirational leader wasn't always smooth. In 2014 — just six years after moving into administration — she considered leaving the profession altogether to pursue nursing, drained by an educational culture focused on data and test scores. Thankfully for her school and community, she was re-energized and inspired after peers introduced her to the "Teach Like A Pirate" approach, created by Shelley's husband, educator and consultant Dave Burgess, at the National Principals Conference.
Up until then, "I didn't lead like me," Houf said. "Our job is a serious job and so important, but I need to be having fun when I work. I need to be having fun as a leader. I need to model that to those that I lead. It's OK to let the kids know you love them, and it's OK to be real as a leader. And I really had been lacking that."
Measuring the influence of that approach at Fulton isn't hard, either.
"Fulton Middle School has a strong culture thanks to Beth," said music teacher Bethany Moebes of Houf's impact since becoming the school's principal in 2015. "Her enthusiasm, daily encouragement of staff and students, and seemingly limitless passion for creating meaningful relationships are truly remarkable. Beth has high expectations for students, staff and, most of all, herself. This is a beautiful thing because we are able to see her modeling determination and compassion daily."
One major way Houf encourages students and builds culture is by embracing "the power of positive referrals," or calling students to the office to praise good deeds or accomplishments, and then calling parents about it.
"We want to build strong relationships with our families," said Houf. "There's not a single person out there that doesn't want to hear something great about their kid that's specific to something that they did."
Creating "passion PD"
Just as Houf finds ways to feed her passion and grow in the areas she needs to, so too does she encourage staff to do the same, making time for them to pursue "passion PD."
"We take our staff meeting or we take our professional development days and look at what is it that you want to learn about," said Houf. "How is it tied to our building goals? How is it tied to your professional development plan? What is it you're going to do?"
Inspired by the Genius Hour and Google's "20% time" for its employees, staff are allotted time to pursue professional learning opportunities in areas they want to grow. One success Houf cites for herself is setting out to become a better digital principal, stating that it shows what happens when you put a little bit of intentional time each month toward your interests.
Staff are also encouraged to build their PD plans around things they're passionate about in education. "It's simple to link that to a school goal, because there's always a school goal about improving academics," said Houf.
Providing a specific example, Moebes, who was an opera singer before entering the classroom, said she approached Houf with concerns about lackluster music curriculum.
"Beth encouraged me to help students compose their own opera or musical. We are now in our third year of offering Arts Alive, an allied arts class where students create and perform original music," said Moebes, noting that learners have completed three original musicals about social issues. "Her encouragement motivated me to take what seemed like a crazy dream — empowering kids to be composer-performers — and make it a reality."