By Sommer Reynolds

When I was in elementary school, I didn’t know who my principal was. He was this elusive figure whose name was on my report card, but we dared not say his name because he might show up at our classroom door. I remember my kindergarten teacher telling us that he had eyes on the back of his head and could see us if we broke the rules. Suffice it to say, I did not have a positive opinion about the principal. When I became an assistant principal, I remembered my childhood thoughts about the principal, and I knew I wanted to be different.

There’s something you need to know about me. I’m a smiler and an upbeat person. My parents taught me the value of a smile and how it positively affects someone’s day. I always remember this and try to be friendly and kind to my students and teachers. When I interviewed to be an assistant principal, some questioned if I had it in me to be a tough, stern person. Is being an administrator synonymous with being a tough, stern person? Through my experiences, I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t have to be.

Do you feel like you get so caught up in the hustle and bustle of everyday school life you sometimes lose sight of who you are, your vision, your passions, and your goals? Administrators can easily get caught up in the daily aspect of responding to situations that sometimes we lose sight of where we want to take our campus. You can have a plan for the day (T-TESS, attendance calls, curriculum, etc.), and then that radio goes off for assistance and your plan laughs in your face. I had to be purposeful about not losing sight of my vision, passions, and goals. I had to reflect on what I wanted to help my school accomplish and how I could use my passion to make it happen.

My passion is all things reading because I’m also a certified librarian. You can take the girl out of the library, but you can’t take the library out of the girl. I’m a principal. I’m an assistant principal. I’m also a librarian. Although that is not my title anymore, I can’t bring myself to say “former” librarian. Once a librarian, always a librarian. (That’s what the librarians say.) I feel lucky and fortunate to have experienced the journey that I had to becoming an assistant principal. I started out as a classroom reading teacher. Reading was a part of the culture of my class. We connected over books. Students were able to read to learn, read for fun, and read to connect with others. I saw my students become more empathetic and accepting. They left me as a READER. When I transitioned to the library, I couldn’t wait to spread the book love throughout the campus. It was a reader’s dream! Because the library is the heart of the school, I was also able to talk and build relationships with the teachers. Once someone put the idea of being an assistant principal in my head, I felt led to transition into the role. I just knew that I had the passion and purpose to make positive changes while never forgetting my roots of loving books.

As a principal and assistant principal, my heart is always thinking about books and creating a reading culture on my campus. That’s a guiding light for me because so many positive effects come from investing time in building that love for reading at our campuses.

As an administrator, here are some things you can do to make a difference at your campus and to build a reading culture:

1. Visit Classrooms and Read to Students
One of my favorite things to do is to visit classrooms and read to students. You will not be the elusive figure my elementary principal was! Students will know who you are, and this is where you can start building relationships. When I visit classrooms, I make sure it’s a fun book. I especially love using the Novel Effect app that uses sound effects with the books I read. We laugh! We learn! We learn to love one another through the power of a story.

2. Read to Your Students During Lunch
As a school administrator, I still feel like a reading teacher and a librarian. I use books to connect with students, teachers, and parents. My goal as a campus leader has been to promote reading any chance I can. During lunch, I read books to students while they eat. Students typically are well-behaved during that first 20 minutes of lunch, but the last 10 minutes is a different story. I decided to read to them. My heart feels like it will burst when I hear my students say with me, “It’s story time!” They can’t wait to hear the book of the day. I also use this time to connect with my students through social-emotional learning lessons using books. If I see a lot of discipline referrals for physical aggression or for being unkind to others, I find a book that will open conversations about it. They see characters going through emotions, and we learn lessons from the stories we read. They can connect with the story and with each other.

3. Recommend Books to Students
Part of our job is connecting with our students and having conversations. We utilize morning duty, cafeteria duty, hallway conversations, and basically any chance we get to build those relationships with students. If they have a Minecraft shirt on, I’m going to talk to them about Minecraft. If they have a football jersey on, you bet I’m going to talk to them about their game. In the process of this, I’m making a note in my head. I really try to do this with my students who are struggling with behavior, academics, or students who are having a hard time. I go to the library, check out a book, write a note to that student on a bookmark, and take the book to them. I want them to know they’re important, they matter, and I’m investing my time in them.

4. Have Lunch with Your Students and Talk about Books
Lunch talks are such a wonderful time to invest in your students. Inviting a group of students to eat lunch with you is a treat. I enjoy modeling positive conversations and getting to know students. During these lunch talks, I obviously bring up books! Students end up recommending books to me, and I recommend books to them. I love it when a student shows up to my office with a book suggestion because they know they can connect with me through books. I really try to read those books and give them feedback. It makes them feel special.

5. Use a Book to Start a Hard Conversation
When I make connections with students, it’s easier to have hard conversations. There’s a level of respect where they know I care enough to be real. If the time comes and we must have a serious talk about their actions, they know I’m holding them accountable because I care. Normally, during those hard conversations, we’re reading some sort of short book together about what happened. These books start conversations to help students understand how they can handle situations differently in the future.

6. Encourage Student Choice
The library should be a place where we encourage student choice. Yes, we guide students into finding books they can read. That’s when you and your librarian get together and discuss how you want students to check out and choose books.

7. Model That You Love to Read
Talk about books during morning announcements. If you feel comfortable, share what you’re reading on your email signature. Decorate your door with the books you’re reading! My middle school has students participating in a 20 Book Challenge, and I’m participating, too. During Covid lockdown, I needed to connect with people and my community, so I started a book club. Through my book club, I’ve built good relationships with my staff, parents, and other people in the community. It’s not uncommon for us to talk about books in the break room, and we also have a place where we share books at work. I have had parents drop off books for me when I commented that I hadn’t read a book. It’s okay to have a reputation as the book-loving principal!

8. Make Reading a Positive Experience at Your School
Anything we do for fun, I try to bring it back to reading. Have you heard of Flashlight Fridays? Make it fun where students get to read with a flashlight. Our librarian and teachers host book tastings where they “sample” different books and genres. Go outside, enjoy the beautiful weather, and read! Use Library Assistant as a PBIS prize. When students read and share what they’re reading, they can earn a free book. Host a Storybook Character Parade where students dress up as book characters that they love and invite your parents. I hosted a summer camp where students came once a week DURING THE SUMMER to have fun with a themed book day. Reading can be fun!

9. Increase Parental Involvement with Books
Connect your parent involvement nights with book fairs. Have a literacy night where students can attend the book fair and where they can also earn free books.

Now more than ever, we need to advocate for our libraries and our librarians. Did you know that a certified librarian in Texas must have a master’s degree and receives specialized training in their field —just like administrators? Librarians are a wealth of knowledge. Research shows that schools where children have access to a certified librarian have increases in achievement. Librarians do more than just check books in and out. Librarians support their teachers and students. Librarians know their students and their interests. Librarians cultivate a library collection that is representative of their students. Your biggest ally in building a reading culture in your school is your librarian. They have a vision and want to collaborate with you! They want to feel valued. Trust them, and they will be your biggest supporter! Also, don’t forget that when you’re building your budget. You want your students to have access to a school librarian, a school library, and to books.

As administrators, we want to make connections. One of the ways we can do that is through the positive power of books. Remember this as an administrator and make time for books and reading. Not only will it help you grow as a reader, but it will positively impact your connection with your students, staff, and community.

Sommer Reynolds is the 2023 NAESP National Outstanding Assistant Principal of the Year for Texas. She is now a middle school principal in Little Cypress-Mauriceville CISD.

TEPSA News, January/February 2024, Vol 81, No 1

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The Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association (TEPSA), whose hallmark is educational leaders learning with and from each other, has served Texas PK-8 school leaders since 1917. Member owned and member governed, TEPSA has more than 6000 members who direct the activities of 3 million PK-8 school children. TEPSA is an affiliate of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

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