Find us on
Association of Washington School Principals
Washington Principal | Volume 2– 2021-22
5 Point Star
Authentic Leadership in Action
Kim Doepker
Principal, Garrison Middle School, Walla Walla PS
Evaluation Criteria: Creating a Culture,Ensuring School Safety, Improving Instruction, Engaging Families & Communities, Closing the Gap
If someone told me 10 years ago, I’d be wearing a jammypack (think fanny pack with built in speaker) in the hallways blasting 80’s music, a mask on my face, greeting staff in a daily huddle to set the tone for the day, I would have shaken my head and thought you were crazy – but here I am.
Students across our nation need schools and the adults in them to be constant, consistent and caring. Schools must be places where all stakeholders, especially students feel they belong, are supported and cared about regardless of their race, religion, and/or socio economic background. Creating such schools begins with authentic leadership – even if that means wearing a jammypack.
Being real and behaving with integrity and consistency is what every leader should strive for. Gift Gug Mona, author of “The Effective Leadership Prototype for a Modern Day Leader” said, “Authentic leadership is seen when the followers are loyal to the leader, not because of their fondness but due to the impact made by that leader.” So what does it mean to be an “authentic leader?” An authentic leader leads with humility, beginning with a vision that is communicated in multiple ways, in diverse settings and to a variety of audiences. In the words of Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America (TFA), “Leadership is at the core of the solution.”
I have been blessed to be a building principal at the elementary and middle school levels. After 10 years at elementary, I graduated to middle school, where I have been for three years. And when I took the helm as a middle school principal in the fall of 2018, I knew I was in my element. I felt at ease with the staff, students and parents. My sense of humor is understood and appreciated by students and, amidst a few eye rolls, I am able to be my authentic self.
The words “authentic leadership” are used widely. Authenticity as defined by Google is the quality of being genuine and real. And yet, what other way is there to be?
Students across our nation need schools and the adults in them to be constant, consistent and caring. Schools must be places where all stakeholders, especially students feel they belong, are supported and cared about regardless of their race, religion, and/or socio economic background.
To provide an example, I recall my first week of school as the middle school principal. I was out front crossing students and talking to families when my superintendent, Dr. Wade Smith, came to visit. After he left, I emailed him and told him what a great visit it was and how I enjoyed our talk that morning. Dr. Smith’s response made me stop and reflect. He said, “I haven’t changed anything in our visits. Maybe you are in the right place and feeling more confident.”
He was right. I was more confident and in my element but what did that mean exactly? I have thought and read a lot about leadership, and I have listened to podcasts on how to be a great leader, all of which have helped me formulate skills and strategies. What has ultimately come to fruition is being my authentic self. My mantra these days is: ”Be bold now.”
To be an authentic leader doesn’t mean always focusing on the big things such as the school improvement plan, activities calendar, or staff PLC work. These items are important to the growth of the school and students and need attention.ood! However, focusing on the little things and getting them right leads to the big things.
UCLA Basketball Coach John Wooden famously taught his players to put their socks on correctly. “That’s your first lesson. You see, if there are wrinkles in your socks or your shoes aren’t tied properly, you will develop blisters. With blisters, you’ll miss practice. If you miss practice, you don’t play. Andi if you don’t play, we cannot win. If you want to win championships, you have to take care of the small things.”
There are five points I focus on that are essential to me to authentically communicate with staff, students and families.
OFFICE HUDDLE: Making time all the time.
The goal is to have short, daily meetings to make sure we are communicating and sharing the load with one another. This is a quick 10-15 minute round robin of each secretary and admin to plan ahead for the big stuff. The Office Huddle helps us to build relationships and see the work that is done by each person. In addition, a time to acknowledge and praise the work that is done day in and day out of our office staff. Huddle allowed us to plan ahead for the big events. (Jim Collins)
JAMMYPACK: Be present for all, as instructional leader, coach, climate changer, etc.
Allon Allspey, elementary principal, author of “Through the Lens of Serendipity,” wore a jammypack when she presented at the NAESP conference in 2019 in Spokane. The playing of the jammy pack led us into her workshop. The energy of music, and her dancing and smiling drew me in. My principal colleagues and I quickly found the jammypacks on Amazon and purchased them! Playing the jammypack in between classes gets many eye rolls from middle school students as well as an occasional laugh. Playing songs from certain sound tracks, or teachers’ favorite songs and seeing them sing as I walk up and down the hallways adds energy to my day and the school as a whole. Students and staff have a chance to fill out the card that identifies song and artist. They turn it in and I draw names every Friday for Dutch Bros gift cards. I then announce those names on GNN or morning Garrison News Network that plays to the school each morning. “Music produces a kind of pleasure which humans cannot do without.” - Confucious
THURSDAY THRILLER: Sharing thoughts humanizes your leadership and makes you approachable.

Changing up what I did at elementary and adding a twist or sarcasm is how I came to the name Thursday Thriller. My thought was: “MS staff will love to read my weekly newsletter. They will be ‘thrilled’.” This is a weekly blog post shared as an email link each week. It starts off with shout-outs, congratulations and pictures of staff from that week. Then into nuts-and-bolts. It is these things that can be put in a memo so I do not use valuable time with staff; if it’s important it needs to be inked and referred back to. Next is the “Something to Ponder” section that links to an article, book, podcast, or something else that will cause the reader to pause, reflect and question. “Little Humor” allows me to find something to make people giggle and laugh. Next comes “A Quote for Reflection” and finally a Calendar of Events. The Thursday Thriller blog is then linked to the Admin Google Classroom so teachers have a place to access all information, refer and refer back to it.
OFFICE AREA: Physical accessibility.
We had the opportunity to hire an additional school counselor. This meant rearranging how the offices were assigned and set up for accessibility to all. I made the decision to move my office up front. The reason was to be closer to the office staff to answer questions and keep a pulse on the happenings. In addition, when parents come to see me and are upset I want to keep their dignity intact and get them quickly into a private space versus walking down the “gauntlet” of the offices. I wouldn’t have it any other way. SUPERVISION: Visibility and approachability which allows for Physical, Psychological and Emotional approachability and visibility.
I have always stood by the priority of being visible in the mornings and after school for student drop off and pick up. I learned this early on from my father, a former high school assistant principal. He never missed a beat for being visible! He was outside every morning, during lunch and after school. You would often see students walking with him. He explained that this was the time to see students, see what was happening around the school and to be proactive in case there were any problems. I have taken these words to heart and have been steadfast on my visibility. Seeing students in the morning gives me the opportunity to greet them with a smile. If I notice something amiss, I can alert counselors or intervention specialists during our morning huddle to check in with the student.
Before driving away one morning, after dropping his two daughters off, this parent called out to me. He said, “I told my daughter to tell you good morning before going into the school. My daughter told me, “Dad, Mrs. Doepker knows my name. She will say good morning to me even before I do.” The dad said “Sure enough, you did!. Thank you!’ One sixth-grade student commented to another adult when asked, “What is one great thing about Garrison?” This student replied, “The principal knows my name! This is the first time ever a principal has known my name.” Knowing someone’s name is an essential point when building relationships with people, students in particular. They are not just a number or a “hey buddy they are a person.
These are ways I communicate. Authentic leadership begins with a vision of what we want to be. So maybe it's not so crazy to sport the jammypack, blast 80’s music and huddle up each morning. Maybe it's less crazy and more rooted in a deep sense of commitment and belief in the power of strong, solid and transparent leadership. If I can step into this arena, so can you.
“You either walk inside your story and own it or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness.” - Brené Brown.
Kim Doepker is the principal of Garrison Middle School, Walla Walla PS.