Beth Houf is the proud principal of Fulton Middle School in central Missouri. She is the Co-Author of Lead Like a PIRATE: Make School Amazing for Your Students and Staff. Beth also serves as a facilitator for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Leadership Academy, providing monthly training to state educational leaders. She has spoken at many venues, including the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Conference, the Association for Middle Level Education National Conference, The National Principal Conference and many state and local educational venues. She is also active in her local, state and national elementary principal associations. Fulton Middle School was recognized as a Missouri Exemplary Professional Learning Community and Solution Tree Model Professional Learning Community in 2019. Beth was named a Missouri Exemplary New Principal in 2011, the Missouri National Distinguished Principal for 2016 and 2019 NASSP Digital Principal of the Year. Beth’s proudest accomplishments are her two sons, Paul and Dawson. She has been honored to help lead schools that she is proud to have both attend.
We talk with Beth about some important topics: restorative practices, and school culture.
“Well, I think school culture is what's around us all the time. It's the air, it's our oxygen. You might not always be able to see it or feel it or hear it, but I think schools that do it well in schools that don't, you can definitely feel that culture when you walk in the doors. For me it's about, it's got to be very intentional, whether or not you're the school leader. Whatever your job is in that school, you've got to be intentional on building it every single day. And for me, that means relationships always come first, especially this time of year.”
— Beth Houf
- John: Welcome to the CharacterStrong Podcast, where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today we're talking with Beth Houf. Beth is the proud principal of Fulton Middle School in central Missouri. She is the coauthor of Lead Like a Pirate: Make School Amazing for Your Students and Staff. Beth also serves as a facilitator for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Leadership Academy providing monthly training to state educational leaders. She has spoken at many venues including the International Society for Technology and Education, ISTE, the Association for Middle Level Education National Conference, the National Principal Conference, and many state and local educational venues. She is also active in her local state and national Elementary Principal Associations.
- John: Fulton Middle School was recognized as a Missouri Exemplary Professional Learning Community and Solution Tree Model Professional Learning Community in 2019. Beth was named a Missouri Exemplary New Principal in 2011, the Missouri National Distinguished Principal for 2016 and the 2019 NASSP Digital Principal of the Year. Beth's proudest accomplishments are her two sons, Paul and Dawson. She has been honored to help lead schools that she is proud to have both attend. Are you ready? Let's get CharacterStrong with Beth Houf.
- John: All right. It is such an honor to have Beth Houf with us today on the CharacterStrong Podcast. Thank you for making the time to be with us.
- Beth: Well, thank you so much for asking. I love CharacterStrong, and it's an awesome opportunity for me to be a part of the podcast.
- John: Well, thank you. Well, if you knew how big a fan we were at CharacterStrong of you, then you'd be maybe a little bit scared at our little obsession with the great work that you're doing and seeing you at conferences. You're incredibly active, obviously a speaker, author, leader, and yet as I'm hearing the bio that was just read, and that your most proud is your what, is it two sons that you have? And I just love that focus, that balance that many can obviously connect with of the great work doing an education, but we also have families and that's a tough balance, and love just hearing that and appreciate the work that you do.
- Beth: Thank you. Well, my passion are my kids and I am super passionate about creating schools and helping lead schools that I'm proud to send both of my boys to, which they do. My oldest has made his way to high school and away from mom and the youngest is at the school that I used to be the principal at. He'll be to me soon.
- John: All right. That is awesome. I love it. Well, when we were talking before and I was thinking about, man, I could literally pick a thousand different topics and ask Beth to talk about it because you're in this space and you're leading it. One of the types of episodes that people a lot of times say they like the best are just topics episodes where you throw out a topic and the person that is in that work, what's either the first either practical strategy, thought, idea that comes to mind, and so why don't we do that today? Here you are, a principal leading this work and so I'll just throw some topics. We'll talk about them and then our kind of shorter nature podcast will quickly come to an end, but let's start with this. I know that this is a big focus for many schools right now and so I'm interested. First topic, restorative practices.
- Beth: Definitely. Okay, so I have a lot of passion around restorative practices. As you know, I've been an educator for 20 years. This is my 12th year as a building administrator and the first year that we have implemented school-wide restorative practices as our norm, and it's completely changed our school. I've always felt strongly of the positive school culture that we have and a lot of great things that we do within our school, but restorative practices is where it's at and it really makes change happen with behavior instead of just worrying about a punishment.
- Beth: And so I can tell you a little bit about the way that we've gone about doing that is we spent last year, spending a lot of time in trauma-informed care, learning more about trauma-informed practices as well as the secondary effects of trauma on our caregivers, on our teachers then because working with kids of trauma, it uncovers a lot of the trauma that we as adults had the chance to go through and our own aces and things like that that we went through as children, and so we really have to make sure that that wellness piece and mindfulness piece with ourselves is huge.
- Beth: We spent a lot of energy, and that's a whole probably another book right there of how to work through that. Last year was one of those, I call it a once in a career year. We had a lot of students that we were responding in the way that we thought we were supposed to on. All the training we had wasn't working, because students of trauma, the typical consequences don't work for. So we did a lot of work around that last year, and then this summer, the leadership team really looked at our data from our PD surveys and from our referral counts and things like that.
- Beth: I had the opportunity to read the book Hacking School Discipline. It's a great book by Fred Weinstein ... I want to make sure I say it right, and Nathan Maynard. And when I read it, I said, "This is us. This is something so much that I think I could utilize," because I've read lots of books on restorative practice. I've been to lots of workshops, but I couldn't really find the way to make it work. And so we did a voluntary book study of it over the summer with the district through Voxer, and then Brad and Nathan reached out and said, "Hey, if this is something that you would like to" ... They have something called BehaviorFlip, which is kind of their tool that they have within there, they're like, "If you this year, we would love to get your feedback and such."
- Beth: Within that, we did a lot of just collaborative decision making and we knew this, so after hearing all that feedback we took that to our leadership team and said, "Hey, this is really what we think as administrators," as well as the teacher leaders that had gone to the webinars and done all of the stuff that we need collective efforts upon restorative practices, because if you just do it in one place or one space, it almost will damage our kids because then they're like, "Well, it's safe in this room but the other rooms aren't safe." We also are a PBIS school and we had lots of different practices we were doing through PBIS, which or someplace kind of all over the plate. So we said, "Here, we'll take all of these things off the plate and integrate them within this BehaviorFlip and Hacking School Discipline."
- Beth: Our teachers were overwhelmed in a positive way. They're like, "Okay, as long as you're taking all that off the plate and we're doing this instead." But again, it was that ownership. In education, we talk all the time about buy in, which is one of my pet peeves. I don't love that word because we're not selling anything. This is the human business, so it's all about ownership and having that collective commitment to whatever cause that we're rallying behind. Part of that change process, and we write about that Lead LAP, too, is you just got to get everybody on the same page, because we can make so many decisions and say what's best for kids, but most people already think they're doing what's best for kids, so having them change, you have to make sure there's really that compelling why behind it.
- Beth: Our staff was sold. And so we actually started our year, we read the first four chapters of the book before school started during our staff PD day, so no required outside of school time to do that and we're able to start the year really looking at how we set our classrooms up, how we develop the procedures in our classroom with our kids instead of to our kids, and then we continued on our chapter a week during our collaborative team time that we have and it's been hands down completely different year. We have five negative referrals in the whole school which last year, we ended with 1400 referrals in our middle school. That's the change that happens. The kids are hilarious because they said, "We're talking about our feelings a lot this year, Miss Beth." I was like, "Oh wow, okay, that's interesting," and watching kids call for a restorative repair the harm right now. Before we leave class, we need to call a circle and joining in.
- Beth: One thing that's super hard to do is I'm in classrooms all day, and as soon as I walk into the room and permission to join, but then listening to the kids advocate, it's amazing. It truly is amazing. And the cost for the student, this type of work, it works. Let's go ahead. We're going to do a book study. I don't want the administrators listening to say, "Oh, we're doing a book study because Beth said it was a good book." No, you've really got to get that ownership from your staff and it's got to be ... Our paraprofessionals joined us as well because they work with kids every single day, as well, so figuring out how to make it happen.
- John: That's so good. And just to zero in, I just love one, that reminder what implementation science tells us, which is one that there's no evidence to back up that something takes in one year and we're so used to that, that this too shall pass, and it's like, no, that's because nothing takes nine months. We have to do that work and look at this through the lens of a multi-year, like what is this process? Well one, when it specifically comes to this work, we need to do the adult work first and how critical that is. And so when we say, "Oh, we don't have the time," well, when you think about the results that you are getting there on the number of negative referrals and how much time that takes when it continues to be much more than it is when we invested that time, and yes, it was hard work and effort, but the payoff is huge and ultimately that payoff is supporting our students and meeting their needs.
“Our goal in our building was every kid feels like we are so excited for them to be there, those first days of school especially, because that's what it's all about.”
— Beth Houf
- John: Well, how about this? Let's get at least one topic more in before we wrap up today, and I know that you're huge on this and have done great work, but just even it's a big topic, but it's one that we're about on the podcast. If I was to throw out the topic of just school culture, what is one of the first things that comes to mind or a nugget that you could share with our listeners?
- Beth: Well, I think school culture is what's around us all the time. It's the air, it's our oxygen. You might not always be able to see it or feel it or hear it, but I think schools that do it well in schools that don't, you can definitely feel that culture when you walk in the doors. For me it's about, it's got to be very intentional, whether or not you're the school leader. Whatever your job is in that school, you've got to be intentional on building it every single day. And for me, that means relationships always come first, especially this time of year.
- Beth: We had our first professional development today and we looked at data. It was the first time we looked at data, because before school professional development was all about how do we make sure that our kids feel welcome, how do we make sure that we set up good systems and things like that, and sometimes we start with data a little bit too quickly and it crushes ... People start worrying, "Oh my gosh, I got to get my numbers up. I've got to worry about this." Kids don't learn at accelerated levels in schools they don't want to be at, and neither do adults.
- John: That's right. So true.
- Beth: We've got to figure out how do we make sure that we're in a school that ... Our goal in our building was every kid feels like we are so excited for them to be there, those first days of school especially, because that's what it's all about. And so to me, school culture is so much deeper than that. I mean, you could go so deep, and climate and culture I know are two different things but yet so interdependent on each other I think as well. I haven't ever been in a school that has really strong culture that does also have a really strong climate.
- Beth: I think the climate, though, is the day-to-day where you can have a really bad day in your climate world, but the culture is still positive, and vice versa, you could have maybe a really positive staff carry in for your climate committee, but yet your culture is backwards. For me, I really feel like this, again, it's going to go back to that collaborative and collective evidence piece and collective accountability. So for us in our school, it took us three years to do it, but our collective commitment as a staff, and how do we hold each other accountable for that? And there's some things that, directly related to my job as a principal, I need to be doing more of that.
- Beth: But yet it's having that high levels of trust so our teams are able to support each other as we look at the things that we say that we're going to do in our school, so making sure everyone has a really clear ... they know our mission, they know our vision, they know how we're going to get that done. That's a big part, and then making sure our kids are part of that. Sometimes as adults, we think that the culture lies within us. Well, I think Todd Whitaker is the one that said it, "You've got your culture with staff and your culture with kids and whichever one is the most negative is the one that will take over the building."
- John: Oh, so good.
- Beth: You've got to make sure that kids are a part of it, and to me, that also goes into, you can say all you want, but I had the chance to talk to somebody a couple of weeks ago and we were talking about some of the practices we do to try to make middle school more amazing because a lot of times people negate negativity to middle school. One thing that we do to help build our collaborative culture is our kids sit in on interviews for staff. We have at least two students from our student body sit in and they write their own interview questions, the thing that they're most passionate about, feel like a teacher should have. There's no boxed interview questions. Each member, we have teachers as well as kids that they write a question they're most passionate about. If we're going to change benchmarking tools, our kids sit in on the focus team meeting with the representatives from the different benchmarking companies. We just make sure that we can say collaborative business decision making, but you got to make sure we don't forget the kids.
- John: That's right.
- Beth: And I think that's definitely huge. With social media, which is another topic I'm super passionate about because I think our kids need to see the positive examples of it, our kids help us tell our story. We have kids that help us with our social media presence and impact as well. I think it's just really looking at school culture that way as well and making sure that you're taking time to get feedback on the culture with staff. That was one of the areas we looked at today of, what are our strengths of our culture? What are things that we need to focus on?
- Beth: And our staff we're pretty apparent, like, "We've got to make sure that we hold each other accountable, that we can't just do it when it's easy. We've got to make sure we continue to do our good practices no matter what," and then again, trust, being able to have that high trust, which this sounds, and I know not everyone believes in this, but for us trust means you have to talk to each other. We start every professional learning time together with celebration, with our norm, with our agenda, and then we do some type of inclusion activity that's kind of, not necessarily a team builder because sometimes you say team builder and everybody just kind of ... but something to get people that talk and get to know each other so that when you need to have those hard conversations, you know people as humans first. Also, we model everything with restorative practices with our staff. We ended our staff meeting with a circle today just because we needed to do some of that as a team as well.
- John: Well, there's so many just nuggets within that that I know that would be incredibly valuable for our listeners to hear. And there's a reason why people are asking you to speak in so many different places because you're speaking just from experience and wisdom and being in that work on the day-to-day, and so grateful for you to share that with us. How can people connect with you? Because there's a lot of places that you are, so share a little bit with where they can learn more.
- Beth: So a couple of different places that folks can connect. I'm trying to be very active on Twitter. It's @bethhouf, so B-E-T-H-H-O-U-F. I am also a fan of Voxer. That's a great way if you would like a more personal answer than a tweet. I can explain systems a little bit more. Voxer is Bhouf, just B-H-O-U-F 2026, and then my email, my personal email is [email protected] Feel free to reach out. Some days I do better about getting back right away. Other times it takes me a little bit longer depending on how many supervisions and meetings and stuff I have after school. But definitely love to connect. I think my biggest thing that I believe and why I love CharacterStrong so much is we're better together and our roles as educators can be super isolating and lonely and overwhelming, but that we can be better when we have other people to lift us up and support us for sure.
- John: Awesome. Well Beth, I am so grateful for you. I look forward to the next time that we get to either run into each other at a conference or even talk more again because I'd love to do another one of these with you and just throw out more topics. But thank you for the passion. Have fun at the JV football game tonight. True principal life. We'll talk more again soon.
- Beth: Sounds great. Thank you so much.
- John: Take care.
- John: Thank you for listening to the CharacterStrong Podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, feel free to share on your social media. Please rate, review and make sure to subscribe for future episodes on iTunes, Spotify, and Google Play. To learn more about CharacterStrong and how we are supporting schools, visit characterstrong.com. Thanks for listening. Make it a great day.
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The CharacterStrong Team is a partnership of educators, speakers, and students who believe in creating sustainable change in schools and helping young people develop the skills of service, kindness, and empathy.