Principal plans to empower students

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By Caton Deuso

Once a teacher and now principal of Whitehall Junior-Senior High School, Ethan Burgess has a list of goals he is planning to continue working on implementing at his school this year.

“I noticed while I was a teacher, as an example, when we would do the prom, it’s a bunch of teachers running around planning a prom that kids just show up to. It’s teachers planning things that kids show up to. So, what happens in the long run is the student body doesn’t find ownership in it and they tend to not be excited about the event,” Burgess said.

“There are things that the student body has told me they want to do that friends at a different school did and I ask, ‘why can’t you?’”

Burgess is working on getting the student body as well as staff and faculty on board with the idea of empowering students to make their ideas come to life. He specifically mentioned that he is trying to make the school more of a student-driven atmosphere.

“I have a small group of seniors I meet with once a week, and we talk about things they would like to do during the year,” he said. “The catch is, they have to organize it themselves and I give them some adults to lean on in case some obstacles come up, but they pretty much plan everything.”

This way of approaching education is described as a new way of thinking by Burgess. He said that he will never let a student fail, but he wants to see them look for the solutions to their problems before thinking of giving up.

“We will help them with the solutions, but the students are the ones that have to do it. If a student says that they want to have a dance, we say ‘okay, well, who are some of the local DJs, you need to call some, negotiate a price with them, make sure you have the money in the bank account, you need to write them a check. All of that stuff, students are now doing here,” he said.

With Burgess making students aware that he intends to run his school with the students, not for them, he opens a door of respect and trust with the student body. He hopes to use 2022 as a year he can continue to build trust with the students, as well as the staff and faculty having trust in their students.

“I’ve been saying yes to a lot of things, and I think that’s something else that they are not used to and there’s trust there… For example, we had anything-but-a-book bag day. You can carry your books in anything but a book bag,” he said.

Burgess was hesitant at first because he feared that the items used as a book bag could possibly get out of hand, but the students were aware of Burgess’ generosity.

“I was afraid kids were going to bring in big wheelbarrows to carry their books around which is funny, I get that, but think about what a wheelbarrow means in the middle of the classroom. But I said let’s run with it, I’ll trust the student body and I will keep my eyes open. Believe it or not, the students spread the word that, ‘hey, Mr. Burgess is allowing us to do this kind of stuff so don’t let it get out of hand, have fun with it,’ and they did it,” he said. “Nothing was obnoxious and nothing said, ‘we can’t do this anymore.’”

Another idea that Burgess hopes to expand on this year is the involvement of the junior-high as well.

“I want to start planning some events that the student body can participate in that also include the junior-high. Basically, we have a high school here that has allowed the junior-high to exist so we are creating separate junior-high events, creating separate high school events, it’s basically a new way of thinking for the student body and staff,” he said. “It’s going to take the better part of two years to get it running, but it’s something we are working on.”

Burgess said the idea of giving students ownership of their school was spawned a few years ago when he watched the yearbook being made. After seeing teachers running around upset and stressed trying to take photos of the sports teams, that’s when he thought, “why isn’t a student doing this?”

“’Well, if we don’t do it, it doesn’t get done,’ I went, ‘wait a minute, that means the kids haven’t been taught to do that. That means we have to teach them how to get the camera, how to get the team in the lobby, that’s a whole set of skills that we need to teach the kids,” he said.

The Railroader Nation is something Burgess is proud of, and he hopes to continue building trust with students by letting them make the school theirs.

“I’m trying to brand the school as Railroader Nation. Faculty, staff, students and the community (are) a part of it. We are all one team, and we need to lean on each other. Students need to lean on their teachers and that also means teachers need to lean on students by saying, ‘hey we need these things done,’ or ‘we need you to do that,’ but we are all Railroader Nation,” he said. “The only way to get that done is by giving people ownership.”