JEFFERSON — The principal and custodian of West Elementary School in Jefferson have been nominated as “Lifechangers” by school staff.
The “Lifechanger of the Year” award is a national honor sponsored by National Life Group which aims to recognize K-12 educators and school employees who change lives through their everyday actions.
In their nomination of West Elementary Principal Mike Howard for the award, teachers Chelsea Miller and Megan Carstens said that Howard acts with the patience of water on rock, getting through to even the most reluctant and recalcitrant students through his sincere interest and generosity of spirit.
“It’s nearly impossible to describe how someone can do a million little things every day to improve the lives of others,” said Miller, who herself has won great honor as a 2019 Kohl Fellow and 2020 Wisconsin Elementary Teacher of the Year. “It’s like water on rock. The particles, over time, can elicit great change over an unyielding surface.”
Similarly, she said, Howard does a million little things to improve lives, and his sincerity and warmth has made a huge difference in what has been a difficult year for everyone.
“Our school district is one of the only districts in the area that is currently face-to-face,” Miller noted.
For that reason, the school has seen 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 our school,” Miller said. “Students and staff alike are scared, anxious, frustrated and angry.”
In the face of these needs, Howard has met challenges with a “calm wash of positivity,” the teachers said, describing the principal’s manner as “not overly sweet and fake, but with genuine positivity and care for all the people he interacts with.”
As a principal of a high-needs school — where, even before the pandemic, many students fit into the category of qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch — Howard wears many hats, and he always is visible around the school.
Parents and students have commented that by the second week of school, he knows everyone by name and interacts with all his students on a daily basis. He knows their family members, their special strengths and interests, and he reaches out with personal attention and humor.
The teachers said on a recent morning, Howard stepped in to help two students who were struggling to make it to their classrooms.
“One was defiant, and the other was anxious because it was his first day,” the teachers said.
“Mike recognized both of these students’ needs immediately,” the teachers said. “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 and Mike listened, offered feedback, and asked follow-up questions to facilitate conversation,” they added. “He eased this student’s anxiety.”
This interaction allowed the anxious student to shift focus. Soon, that student appeared visibly relieved by the opportunity to take a little more time before entering his classroom.
Howard then turned to the other student who was refusing to enter the building.
“He introduced the students and then asked the student that was exhibiting defiance to help the other by describing and demonstrating what the start of the day looked like for the new student,” the teachers said.
“He used the student that was new to encourage the other student that was defiant to step into a leadership role,” the teachers said of Howard. “The defiant student was happy to show our new student what the morning procedures were. They then both made their way to their classrooms.”
Throughout, what could have been a stressful incident, Howard remained compassionate, allowed both students to retain their dignity, and even facilitated space for the defiant student to take on a positive role.
“What makes the story more special is that this interaction isn’t really special at all,” Carstens said. “Mike does this all day, every day. The relationships that he develops with students is exceptional.”
The teachers cited a fifth-grader who has spent a significant amount of time with Howard over the years to describe the principal. This student said, “Mr. Howard helps people out if they are mad or sad.”
A first-grade teacher added that Howard makes connections with struggling children who don’t have male role models and becomes their support system.
“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,” the teacher said.
Howard has served as principal of West Elementary School for the past 14 years, overseeing the school community through many ups and downs.
“The political climate has become hostile,” the teachers noted. “We have been stripped of funding ... and now a pandemic.”
Throughout all of these challenges, Howard’s commitment has not flagged, staff members say.
“His dedication, passion, compassion, and ability to remain levelheaded are traits that have washed over our school and changed it,” Miller said.
She cited the test scores at West, which have gone up steadily, especially over the past five years.
In 2013 West’s score on the state “report card” in the area of “closing educational gaps” stood at a “measly 69.1 out of 100,” the teachers said. Today it’s over 93 out of 100.
The demographics of the school have not changed dramatically, the staff members noted. West continues to be categorized as a high poverty school.
“The change has been Mr. Howard’s insistence that his staff work together for the betterment of the students,” Carstens said.
The teachers attributed this performance on the part of the students to Howard’s leadership and his ability to motivate others to do their best.
“His reputation, demeanor and positivity allow him opportunities to hire, retain and push his staff to work tirelessly in order to get the best out of their students,” Miller said.
The teachers also credited Howard with trusting his staff as professionals and helping to facilitate staff members’ ideas, not just pushing his own agenda.
Throughout the whole process, Howard has been guided by data, implemented data meetings to systematically go through what the data showed and where the school could target its learning goals to better serve the student body.
“This process was difficult at first,” the nominators said. “Teachers had to find a way to work together if they didn’t agree on an issue.”
Howard served as a true leader, walking the staff through the process, coaching them, listening to their frustrations and helping them problem-solve, the teachers said.
The scores for West Elementary have been a direct reflection not only of the hard work of the staff, but of the leadership that Mike has provided, they asserted.
“In the hardest times, Mike remains a force of positivity and encouragement,” Miller said. “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, something that I can attest to first-hand.
“My first year teaching was brutal,” Miller added. “My administration was unsupportive, and I became so stressed that my physical health was negatively affected, and I quit the profession, never wanting to teach again.
“Life circumstances pushed me back into education,” Miller continued. “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 king of the ‘pass by compliment,’” Carstens said. “He is always in the halls making connections with students and staff. He uses these moments in passing to recognize effort.
“Over the years, my confidence levels have soared,” Miller said. “He has built me up to the point where that anxious, unconfident educator that I once was no longer exists. He has provided and allowed me opportunities to grow and shine.”
The 2020 Teacher of the Year said her peers have similar comments, and they find themselves pushing themselves to be the best educators they can be, with the understanding Howard has their back and fully supports their earning and growth.
The teachers also complimented Howard’s listening ability, noting that he dedicates a great deal 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,” the teachers said. “He challenges staff by utilizing their strengths.
Howard doesn’t just reserve his spirit of listening for staff colleagues, either.
“He listens patiently to parents and students,” Carstens said. “He hears people, and he sees them. He validates feelings and offers solutions when asked. He has the ability to understand where someone is coming from, despite maybe never being there himself.”
The teachers went on to say Howard has a deep well of caring for all of the families at West Elementary, and that he will do everything in his power to help a struggling family.
They noted he has given rides to students in an effort to increase attendance.
Recently, he recognized a need in some needy families, and had a washer and dryer installed in the building that is used by the custodial staff, opening the facility to needy families who did not have somewhere else to wash their clothes.
Several parents noted that Howard always takes the time to listen to the needs of families and is willing to help them succeed in every way possible.
Over the years, this can-do attitude has given rise to after-school clubs to provide students with enrichment opportunities that they otherwise would not have.
West Elementary currently offers 16 extracurricular opportunities for students.
For example, the school has a celebrated garden club in which students team up with master gardeners and university volunteers to plant and care for a school garden, in the process learning about where food comes from and how to act in an environmentally friendly manner.
Meanwhile, West’s unique stained glass club gives students a chance to try a form of art few this age have access to, working together to create visual masterpieces that are then presented to community institutions, businesses and individuals in honor of their own contributions.
Then, on top of his duties as principal, Howard also volunteers as a special Olympics basketball coach as well as serving as an assistant coach for the high school’s varsity girls basketball program.
“He is a natural coach and mentor to these young athletes,” Carstens said.
“In his role as a Special Olympics coach, he sets the tone of inclusion and positivity,” she said. “Special needs students are given the opportunity to be a part of a team and gain confidence in their abilities.”
Similarly, the teachers said, as a volunteer coach of the varsity girls basketball team at Jefferson High School, Howard has been the “glue” that has held the team together through three different head coaches.
“Mike has a unique talent of getting athletes to see the best in themselves and discover unknown talents,” Carstens said. “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,” she said. “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.”
Howard devotes his time to both of these programs without asking for any compensation, the teachers noted, calling Howard a true “servant leader.”
Every day, in a million little ways, Mike shapes the people he interacts with into more positive role models,” the teachers said. “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. He truly is a life changer, in a million different ways.”
Though being a custodian often is considered a lowly job, West Elementary’s Dale Zastrow takes his work to the highest standards, not just in how he cleans the school, but also in how he relates to students and staff, offering constant support and positive energy.
“His presence is seen and felt by all of us every day at West,” said Jessica Krause, English Language Learners teacher at the Jefferson school.
She noted that Zastrow greets students and staff at the front door of the school daily, engaging with everyone and helping everyone start their day out with a smile.
“It is rare to find a custodian who knows every student in the building, but Dale is that one-of-a-kind person,” Krause said.
“He has a pulse on what’s happening in our building,” the ELL teacher said of the custodian. “Being positive and caring for people every day is how Dale changes lives.”
Zastrow’s nomination includes comments from people at all levels of the school, from the school administrator to teachers to students.
Third-grader Payton (no last name given) said, “When everybody comes in, he says good morning to us. It makes me feel happy.”
Another student, Jesse, is quoted as saying, “He is always super-friendly to me every day.”
Principal Howard said that Zastrow greets staff and students alike with enthusiasm, and obviously makes a point to get to know everyone.
“If he senses a staff member is struggling or having a tough day, he takes a little time to simply visit with them,” the principal said.
Zastrow’s colleagues said that in his interactions with students, he not only spreads goodwill, but he also serves as a mentor and a role model in terms of responsibility in action.
“He teaches young children to complete a task with caring and kind words and gestures,” a staff member said, referencing how Zastrow works with students as they take on small responsibilities like emptying the classroom trash or picking up the milk for their room.
Another student contributed this comment: “He makes everyone’s day... He always has a smile on his face and that makes us feel cheerful.”
Another student, Johnny, called Zastrow a “really funny, nice, hardworking” guy who is “always willing to help” and is “fun to be around.”
A staff member noted that Zastrow knows every student’s names and family connections, and he shows sincere interest in how each child and their family are doing, and what students are working on at home and in class.
Lauren, one of the older students in the school, noted that he brightens up everyone’s day with jokes.
Another student, Chase, had high praise for how Zastrow completes his cleaning work.
“Mr. Zastrow always cleans the whole entire school,” the child said. “He even cleans the bathrooms — yuck!”
Another student, Viante, agreed, saying, “He is always working so hard! I even see him shoveling the sidewalks so we don’t fall down.”
School administration said Zastrow’s professional performance is top-notch, and that he demonstrates an incredible work ethic, and he cleans and fixes different areas of the school.
One teacher said that prior to Zastrow’s arrival at the school, she had been trying to get her classroom drinking fountain repaired for six years and was told it couldn’t be done.
“The first day I met Dale, he asked what was on my wish list,” the teacher said. “I told him I’d like the drinking fountain in my room fixed. The very next morning, it was fixed.”
“Dale is an incredible person to know,” a staff member said. “He makes me want to be a better person, with a positive attitude and a smile on my face.”