Leading a middle school during a global health emergency was a monumental challenge for many school leaders. For Stacy Schreiner, who was in her first year as a principal, it was akin to baptism by fire. But Schreiner, who retires as principal of Landon Middle School in Topeka, Kan., this month, takes pride in how she led the school and students during that tumultuous period. Schreiner started in the Topeka school district in 1993, fresh out of college, teaching language arts and social studies. Along the way, she worked as an instructional coach and assistant principal and led the district’s first middle school dual-language program. Her superpower was building connections with students, she said.
In her own words, Schreiner shares what will stay with her as she moves into retirement. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
My memories all surround my relationships with my students.
The district had some students write letters, and they put them in a book for me. The kids wrote things like, ‘Thanks for always listening,’ ‘Thanks for not giving up on me,’ and ‘Thanks for always letting me know there was a fresh start the next day.’
The best part, the thing I will miss the most and the thing that I will always carry in my heart, is my ability to build relationships with kids that really are lifelong.
Topeka is not a very big town. Everywhere I go, I see former students, and I get hugs. My friends say, ‘It just always amazes me, because middle school kids have to be cool. I go places with you and they want to come and sit with you. They want to hang out with the principal.’
I feel like the kids never once doubted that I loved them. Sometimes that was tough love, and I had to be tough, and I had to tell it like it was. I’m a pretty straight shooter. That’s the other thing—If you asked kids to describe me, they’d say she pretty much tells it like it is.
I found that over the years that that helped them trust me, being a straight shooter and being able to say the truth: ‘I know it’s hard to hear, but this is the truth, and I’m telling you because I love you.’ They trusted me, and they knew I was there for them.
In fact, it’s funny. I would get emails from kids, ‘Mrs. Schreiner, I don’t have a pencil. Can you bring me a pencil to my class?’ I would come home laughing and ask my sister, ‘Would you have ever dreamed to email your principal because you forgot your school supplies?’ And she’d say, ‘Never.’ But that’s the relationship I have with the kids.
The thing I will miss the most and the thing that I will always carry in my heart is my ability to build relationships with kids that really are lifelong.
I have a student right now; he is a very sweet little 6th-grade boy. He’s a special education student, and he’s emailed me every day to ask me if I would come visit him at his house.
He would come up to me at school every day and he’d say, ‘There’s my favorite principal.’ I would say, ‘There’s my favorite student.’ He would give me the biggest hugs. Just the sweetest little boy.
I have one student that comes to my mind because she and I had a lot of really tough talks because she was wise beyond her years.
I could always tell by the way she presented herself and the way she talked that she didn’t really have much chance to be a kid—taking care of her siblings while her mom worked, things like that.
She would sometimes behave in ways that were sometimes more adult than she was. I would have to have a conversation with her that you’re a little girl, and I know it’s hard that so much is out of your control. I had conversations with her about how tough it is to be a kid, and everyone makes all your decisions for you, and they tell you how, and why, and when, and where. Because she had a hard time accepting authority.
I would use examples like, “Do you think I enjoy everything my boss tells me to do? I don’t. But I do it. I do it with a smile on my face, because that’s how you behave, that’s appropriate. That’s what you do as you grow up. You start to learn that you don’t have to like everything.”
I’ve had to have some tough conversations with kids, especially lately, about tolerance, as the world changes and groups of kids change, and we are now facing all the world issues at the middle school level.
My big message has always been to be kind. I talk to the kids a lot about the world is hard. It’s a hard place, and people should get to come here and be safe, and come to school and feel loved and nurtured.
I told the kids a lot that it was my job, and our job as a school, to not only teach them school things, but teach them life things, and prepare them for the world and to be productive, good people.
I probably took that part the most seriously, because in a world of technology, there are lots of ways to get information that you need. Obviously, their academic education was very important to me, but I think what I felt was most important was the whole child—showing them how to be good people and supporting their parents in those efforts to raise good kids.
That’s the big thing—that’s what I will take with me: The relationships, the kids that have worked their way into my heart and will be there forever. I am still in touch with kids I had in my class 30 years ago.