7 Reasons Why I Am Humbled to Win the NDP Award as told By My Elementary Students – Part 1

Jon Konen
School Principal

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Humbled to say the least - let me start out by saying there are much better principals out there than me…many in my own school district. I recently was honored to win the 2018 National Distinguished Principal (NDP) Award from the National Association of Elementary and Middle School Principals (NAESP).

One of the assignments that NAESP gave to each state's nominee before the awards ceremony was to ask students in their schools, "What does the principal actually do in your school?" Their responses were insightful, inspiring, and honest! Much reflection on their responses prompted me into action, as well as reinforcing what my priorities should be as a principal.

The goal of this article, and the following articles, is for you to use self-reflection within your position. Ask your students, "What do you think I do every day?" Then, take action! What do you think will the number one thing your student's state? Lastly, create an action plan like mine below!

1 - Mr. Konen ties shoes. (Number one kindergarten response)

The ability to empower and enable is not more evident than with Kindergarten and first grade students on the topic of shoe tying. I can make a line 50 deep some days on students who need their shoes tied. This may be an exaggeration, but the number I have tied on the playground, lunchroom, hallway, and even classroom is numerous….daily!

I take this time to continue teaching students. I almost always ask if they are practicing on their own, who is supporting them at home, and many times I take them step by step through the process.

In addition, shoe tying is a great time to have a conversation with a student about their life. These 5-10 second snapshots of their lives are like a thermometer check into their socio-emotional status. I then can proceed to walk with them, help plan and practice a conversation to have with another friend, or simply praise them for something specific.

If I simply tie a shoe and be done, it would be enabling. I believe we need to offer support and encouragement in order for students to try tying their own shoes. The ability to empower students to become independent starts with full support, and we pull away gradually…but, we don't stop teaching. In some of my conversations I find there is no one at home teaching shoe tying, and if they are, do they believe in the process of empowering!

2 - Mr. Konen plays with us at recess.

The fastest way to earn a student's respect is engaging in play and games with them. Growing up in healthy families, games and play not only occur, but are planned. Many families have game night one night a week or even once a month. As a kid, I loved these nights, especially when it was my turn to choose the game….how many kids love to play pinochle? (Yes, I see you laughing now!)

As a principal I could go outside and supervise recess by walking around, monitor games, and blow my whistle. Yes, this is one task I do, but, I add one more element…play! You will see me kicking a ball, throwing a pass, shooting hoops, or even trying the latest dance move in my own funky funny kind of way (ask me about my one arm floss dance…drives students nuts because it's incorrect to them). Now, students ask me to come out and play…this is when I know I am building a positive culture of play!

3 - Mr. Konen keeps the school safe.

Columbine, Newtown, and Parkland all come to my mind immediately when I think of school safety. When I first started education all doors to my school were accessible to anyone. Parents would stop by, put a missing school lunch or band instrument into a locker, and pop out a back door without anyone ever knowing. Those days are gone!

Our priority as educators has changed. We are now asking and training staff members to fight if there is an unwanted intruder or threat in our school. The Run, Lock, and Fight philosophy changes the way we view our jobs as educators. The research states we can save more lives in a school shooting if we can first run if it is safe, effectively lock ourselves in somewhere, or fight if both those options are not possibilities.

Eight years ago, as I started as principal at my current school, I started a door locking protocol. We only have one door that is unlocked during school hours, the main door which has video cameras. Then, after Newtown, I added a routine where I walk the premises outside in a circle with kids until school starts. Next, I support all primary students coming inside. When all students are inside, I walk the complete school inside with a walkie-talkie and cell phone. I talk to students, parents, and staff members that are supporting students getting into class. I check all doors to see if they are locked, and finally head to do announcements in the office after I am done. All staff members know this routine or could at least tell you of my whereabouts. I have similar procedures for dismissal.

All these self-imposed safety protocols are new to me in the last decade of my career. Though we can't plan for all situations and emergencies, it does make me feel like I am being proactive to keep students and staff safe.

4 - Mr. Konen goes outside for recess when there are no aides.

It would be easy many times to just assign someone else another duty to cover recess. In fact, there are times I have to do this because I am busy. I don't like assign jobs for many reasons. When I fill in for someone else, I expect everyone else to continue their job. By me filling that empty position, they can do so. This brings up a major point of being a good leader…not being afraid to do any job in the school.

I can honestly say I have done every position in the school….subbed for teachers, done crossing guard, served meals, shoveled snow, completed attendance calls, and cleaned and bandaged cuts. As a "servant leader" I believe my staff needs to see that I am not afraid to do any job. In addition, I believe I should know what everyone does so I understand their job. I can then support them in making their job more effective and efficient.

5 - Mr. Konen shows grit.

Yes, this is our school theme this year, #GotGrit! It is great to see that some students chose to write about me having grit. How do we teach it if we don't show it ourselves? We have used Angela Duckworth's research on grit. Students are learning what it looks like and feels like to show grit.

At my school we are finding grit every day which can best be described as perseverance over time, stick-to-it-ness, or not giving up! I talk with students how hard certain aspects of school and life are going to be, but if we give up right away, how will we ever get better at something.

The power of "yet" is also part of our grit mantra. We do not allow students to say, "I can't" without adding one more word, "I can't yet." This permeates in our students minds and supports the idea of grit and perseverance. I want students to see me working hard and continuing to support even when I am frustrated or tired. I want them to know my mindset sets myself up for success.

6 - Mr. Konen is always smiling in the hallways.

School can be one of the most difficult places to be day-in and day-out. You can become burnt out if your focus is on what's wrong with a school, parent, principal, colleague, or a student. Your face and body language tell a story. It can be a story of sadness, anger, or despair.

We must become, as Jon Gordon coined, "Positive Warriors." These people reframe situations, find the positives in difficult or negative situations, and promote an aurora of positivity. I have taken on this attitude as my personal crusade…spreading the word of being a positive warrior. My staff knows that I expect them to "make this a great place to work and learn," because I cannot do it alone.

Smiling takes little to no time, but it expresses so much for everyone to see. It states I love my job, I love being around kids and staff members. We have to remember, that many of our smiles are the only ones some students will see all day. What story will your face and body language tell?

7 - Mr. Konen believes in me.

This was probably the most powerful comment a student made. For a student to actually state that I believe in them is the highest compliment I can receive, or any educator! It means that student believes in themselves because I support them. You might hear this more often from a favorite teacher, as teachers spend so much more time with students then a principal. I have read and reread this comment from this student and it chokes me up.

We are entrusted with students each year for 1,000 hours or more to build them both academically and socially. We can be that positive adult that helps a student understand a concept, investigate and stop a bully situation, or celebrate their growth. We know that it can take only one adult to believe in a student in order for them to succeed.


  • Continue finding teachable moments to connect and support students.
  • Continue to reflect on my "why," and connecting with students.
  • Continue thinking about safety and getting others involved to support.
  • Continue to model working hard and modeling a positive attitude for students and staff, especially when filling in for other employees.
  • Continue to find ways to model and teach grit, not only in my job, but by modeling grit in relationships.
  • Continue to work on being a Positive Warrior by reframing and looking for the good in others and difficult situations.
  • Continue to find time to work with students both academically and socially…and let them know I love them and believe in them!

Jon Konen

Jon Konen is a father, husband, K-6 elementary principal, and freelance writer in Great Falls, Montana. He has taught most all grade levels K-6, and has been a K-12 principal of a rural school. As a 5th grade teacher in 2010, he won the Presidential Award for Elementary Math and Science Teaching (PAEMST). As a principal, his school won the 2012 Blue Ribbon Award. In 2018, he won the National Distinguished Principal Award (NDP). He is the author of two guides, An Educator's Guide to Combat Bullying & Bully Prevention and Teacher Evaluation: A Transition Guide to Exemplary Performance. He has authored a children's picture book that will be released in October, 2018 titled, Principal Reads and Benjamin's Visit to the Office…Not the First!
Jon Konen