Show & Tell: Evan D. Winkler

Michigan principal starts first post during the pandemic.

Principal, March/April 2021. Volume 100, Number 4.

For Evan D. Winkler, principal of Ring Lardner Middle School in Niles, Michigan, the first of the three R’s is “relationships.” A proponent of using positive reinforcement to instill a sense of confidence, self-worth, and motivation in students and teachers alike, Winkler has championed a school culture that emphasizes the collective in meeting its goals.

Having launched his career as a teacher and soccer coach, Winkler believes in teamwork. He cultivates staff leadership and encourages teachers to take risks to make instruction innovative and engaging. Named a 2020 Outstanding Assistant Principal by NAESP and the Michigan Elementary and Middle School Principals Association (MEMSPA), Winkler stepped into the principal role at the beginning of the school year.

Principal magazine recently asked Winkler about his best practices and what it was like to take the reins at a 650-student middle school just as in-person classes were set to resume. Here’s what he said:

How did you navigate the transition from AP to principal during the pandemic?

I was ready for a new challenge, and it’s exciting to have an effect on more students and teachers. But to be honest, it was really hard this year with COVID and all of the unknowns. I feel a lot better about things now—I talked to other Michigan principals and my assistant principal, and it all came together through teamwork.

What was involved in implementing SEL practices at Ring Lardner?

We do two daily check-ins to help students understand and be aware of their emotions and self-regulate; we also do a check-in with staff. We encourage our staff to get the kids out as much as possible. We talk about the importance of getting sleep, eating correctly, and physical activity. If you have some of those basic needs met, you are going to be more successful in school.

You believe in positive reinforcement. What does this require from the principal?

I feel like nothing is accomplished when we complain, so having a positive mindset is essential. I try to be a model for the teachers, and the teachers model it to the students. Life is hard, but the biggest thing for kids to learn is how to either understand what’s going on and get through it, or know how to ask for help from a teacher or your mom and dad.

Do you have any tips for educators on connecting with children in the COVID-19 era?

Our No. 1 priority is safety and health, but the next-most-important thing is to connect with our kids, build relationships, and be aware of their mental and social needs. I feel like we are closer than ever because we really focus on relationships rather than academics, academics, academics. And our academics have been good because the students care.

What do you like to do in your hours away from school?

Exercise is good for me. I like watching sports and hanging out with my wife and three boys. Playing with them helps me forget about school for a while, and it’s important to have balance in your life. I think we’re better people when we can get away from work occasionally, and family time helps.

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