Melissa Shindel wants you know that she’s a happy person, not someone who goes around looking for things to complain about.
But in her 14th year as a principal, Shindel, who leads Glenwood Middle School in Howard County, Md., has been named an advocacy champion by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the organization that represents middle and secondary school leaders, for the intentional and sustained way she makes advocacy part of her job.
As the state coordinator for the Maryland Association of Secondary School Principals, Shindel work collaboratively with students, communities, and staff to improve teaching and learning conditions and opportunities. She shares the positive stories about what’s happening in her school, learns about successes in others, and pushes for school leaders’ input in consequential education policy decisions on the local, state, and federal levels.
Many principals see themselves chiefly as instructional leaders. But Shindel said being an advocate for staff and students—or as she calls it, giving them a voice—should be embraced as part of the school leader’s job, along with the instructional and managerial components, she said.
“I don’t know you can do those things in the absence of advocacy,” she said. “I think maybe the word advocacy sounds a little intimidating. But it’s really just speaking up for what your kids, schools, and your staff need. I would highly recommend not just sitting back and being silent about things that we know are working or are not working. If things are great and they can help others, speak up about it.”
Here’s what she had to say about being an advocate for students and staff.
Start where you are
Principals don’t necessarily need to go to their statehouses or Capitol Hill. They can look around their buildings and listen to their staff and communities to get a better understanding of what needs to be improved.
Then go to the people with the power to make the changes, and present the case.
Those changes can include facilities updates or beautification projects, in addition to supports for core instruction.
One of the schools where Shindel worked, for example, had a single hallway that was often overcrowded with students moving in different directions. It was a major inconvenience for students.
She assembled a focus group with representatives from the school, central office, and the community’s transportation department.
The end result after months of meetings? A new hallway for students was built during the pandemic shutdown that reduced bottlenecks and overcrowding.
Bring solutions to the table, not just problems
Shindel is a solutions-oriented person and is always thinking of ways to make things better.
“When you come with a solution, you come forward in a more collaborative manner,” Shindel said. “I think people are more willing to work with you when you have ideas of how something can be resolved.”
And it makes sense for principals to try to craft answers to pressing challenges because they are more knowledgeable than lawmakers about what happens in schools.
“We are the ones who know our schools the best,” Shindel said. “We know the day-to-day stuff the best because we are the ones in the schools—the principals, the teachers, the staff, the kids. If we don’t come with those solutions, then someone who may not know things as well as we [do] may come up with a solution that doesn’t even make sense.”
Principals may also not grasp the full breadth of considerations a district, state superintendent, or congressional representative may have to entertain while making policy changes. But that should not deter principals from proffering ideas they think are feasible, she said.
Listen, collaborate, and work with the community
Despite being the leader of the school community, the principal doesn’t have all the answers. That’s why it’s important to work with and partner with key stakeholders, Shindel said.
“It’s not just my voice,” Shindel said. “I try to listen. I try to take the things that I am hearing and learning from people. People who have been here longer than I have understand things that I [don’t].”
She’s worked with local businesses to fund scholarships for students and donations for Teacher Appreciation Week and other fundraisers.
“It’s trying to build relationships with people in the community,” she said.
Invite those in power to get a firsthand look
Part of Shindel’s advocacy work takes her to Capitol Hill and the Maryland State House in Annapolis. But principals can also open their own school doors to policymakers so they can see first-hand how schools work and hear from those who’ll be affected by their decisions.
Howard County executives as well as members of Congress—from the late Rep. Elijah Cummings to Sen. Chris Van Hollen, both of Maryland—have visited Shindel’s schools. During the Obama administration, education department staffers also spent time there during as part of a principal shadowing program, which is normally held in October during National Principals Month.
Principals should lean into opportunities to build relationships with their elected representatives and emphasize that they can be resources as lawmakers mull education policies.
“I like to bring people in to sit, and talk, walk, learn, and observe, so that people see what it’s like,” Shindel said.
“Maybe this is a pie-in-the-sky kind of hope,” she said. “But [I hope] they keep these real stories and these real faces in mind as decisions are being made, or [as] people are pushing back against decisions that should be made.”