Middle school reformed by innovationApr 26, 2021 10:34AM ● By Jet Burnham
Students visit the Diamond Mine room to catch a quiet moment to reset their emotions. (Ali Barson/FHMS)
By Jet Burnham | [email protected]
Fort Herriman Middle School principal Eric Price is changing the way educators think about discipline, mental health and students’ needs.
Price had only been a principal for 18 months when he was named Principal of the Year by colleagues of the Utah Middle Level Association, who were impressed by his leadership in middle school reform and innovation of effective middle-level practices.
“Even when we're on lunch break or when we're carpooling together, he's always talking about how to make school better for the students, always bouncing ideas off of anybody who will listen,” FHMS teacher PJ Smalley said. “You can tell that he's not just in this as a job. He really does care about the students.”
Because of Price’s innovations, FHMS looks different from the middle schools of previous generations.
Changes to discipline
Suspension is an outdated practice that has been replaced with restorative justice practices—communication, mediation, student-led problem-solving.
“It's not about punishing the behavior,” Price said. “It's about helping a child change the behavior, and a lot of times, it's figuring out the root of that.”
“Helping teachers educate students on their behavior is every bit as important as academic content,” Assistant Principal Audrey Fish said. “It has been beautiful to watch and listen to teachers as they handle misbehavior with a restorative approach.”
Changes to teachers’ role
Price encourages every staff member at FHMS to let students know they care about them beyond just their academic performance. Language arts teacher Kaylee Dunn said this focus on her eighth graders’ emotional and social health affects the way she teaches.
“It helps me remember what's really important, which is the mental health and the overall health of my students, not as much my curriculum,” she said. “That is still definitely important, but the curriculum can't come if students aren't having their fundamental needs met.”
A new focus
Mental wellness is at the forefront of education reform. In the past few years, educators have recognized the need to teach social and emotional skills. FHMS was one of the first schools in the district to implement the Second Step Program, which teaches students about the biology of their brains and how to take control of their emotional reactions.
“We believe that we have a huge impact on helping our kids be successful through life,” Price said. “We want to give them strategies that they can use in those dark moments. Some of these kids are having major adverse childhood experiences, and the trauma that kids are going through, even with COVID, has been huge.”
FHMS has a wellness room, with low lighting and comfortable seating, where students can take a mental health break.
Happy teachers are better teachers
Price also has provided a wellness room for staff members; the Teacher Balance Center is a resource that is unique to FHMS.
“As teachers, we always have to at least act like we're on our A-game, even if we're not; we kind of have to put on a show,” Price said. “That can be tough, especially during this pandemic. This is really eating at our teachers a lot, because it's been stressful, exhausting and mentally draining. I always tell the teachers, ‘You’ve got to take care of yourself before you can take care of the kids.’ Well, we have to show that we mean what we say.”
The Teacher Balance Center has low lighting, a massage chair, an aromatherapy diffuser and a mini fridge stocked with drinks.
“It's a calm, quiet place where teachers can go—during their prep or before or after school, or during lunch—and just relax and recenter themselves,” Smalley said. “It’s one of those little things that Eric does to show that we're high on his priority list.”
Even if teachers don’t use it, counselor Ali Barson said just by providing the space, Price shows that he respects teachers’ needs.
“It just gives you permission to step away for a minute,” Barson said.
Price became principal at FHMS in a mid-year transfer and immediately began to get to know the staff so he could better support them. Though the focus is usually on pay raises, he believes teachers really want to be treated like professionals and have their professional and personal needs met.
“He builds leadership capacity in our teachers by allowing them voice and choice,” Fish said. “When a teacher comes to him with an idea, he will often say, “yes” and then want to know how he can support them with their idea.”
Price cares about his staff and regularly checks in with them to see how they are doing emotionally.
“Eric is the kind of guy who actually will see me in the hallway, and he can tell something’s wrong, from my body language or from our brief conversation,” Smalley said. “He takes the time to find out what's going on and how he can help.”
Fish said Price is a positive influence at FHMS.
“He is changing lives because of who he is and how he leads,” Fish said.
Price’s background prepared him for the kind of principal he has become. He worked with award-winning principal Dixie Garrison at West Jordan Middle for four years. He also gained experience working with struggling students at an alternative school in Texas.
Price loves his job and believes what he does matters every day, as he prepares teens for the rest of their lives.
“They're not going to remember everything that we teach them here at Fort Herriman,” Price said, “But they will remember how they felt and that we taught them how to learn and how to think critically and to start to look at the world around them and realize that, no matter who they are, they're important.”