Joel Pedersen

Though there are nearly 400 school districts in Iowa, only one has the Middle School Principal of the Year.

Principal Joel Pedersen at Davis County Middle School has been a finalist three years in a row, but this is his first win. He was selected by a School Administrators of Iowa panel composed of fellow principals.

“I was nominated two years ago by [a principal] in the Cardinal School District. This year I was lucky enough to win,” Pedersen said Thursday.

One of the most rewarding things about the recognition has been the notice the Davis County School District has received.

“It’s brought a lot of positive press for our building and our community,” Pedersen said, listing news interviews, emails and phone calls. “I do appreciate this honor — but I’m part of a great team.”

Pedersen, 34, is a “proud 1994 graduate of Ottumwa High School,” where staff helped shape the man he’d become. He attended Buena Vista University, then earned his master’s degree at Drake University. He’s currently part way through an online doctoral program.

“I’m very fortunate that I had people who cared about me,  including principals, educators and coaches, [who] helped create my core values, and helped shape what I believe on how we treat kids [which is] with respect.”

So does that mean the old trick to remember the spelling of either “principle” or “principal” is correct: The principal really is your pal?

“One of my biggest jobs is to be visible in my building. To me, if you’re visible, you’re going to build those relationships.,” he said.

But there are times, he acknowledged, the principal has to lay down the law.

“So while the principal can be your pal, we may have to have a ‘difficult conservation’ on discipline, for example, and that’s easier if you have that relationship.”

Building a respectful relationship usually means being on the level with young people

“Kids will respond if you’re honest with them,” Pedersen said. “That goes for the whole building; as the building leader, we have to be honest about what we need to improve. And that starts with me. There are places Joel needs to improve, and I can show my staff we want to get better. We’re always trying to improve. If we’re doing that, good things are going to happen, including learning.”

The other piece important to most administrators, he said, is a balance between several aspects of education.

“The thing all principals are trying to do is be a building manager, and make sure there’s a safe and orderly environment. But the piece I get most excited about is instructional leadership, getting right in the trenches there, and working with teachers, parents, community members, to do good things for kids. We’re using data to make good decisions, and we analyze data on a regular basis to make sure what we’re doing is making a difference.”

He said he looks forward to meeting his fellow honorees in Washington during the national competition.

“One of the neat things about this award is the opportunity to meet principals from a number of states, and share ideas, and hopefully bring some of those ideas back to our building,” Pedersen said.

He doesn’t have to implement improvements on his own, he said.

“Leadership is very important, but I’m blessed to have an unbelievable building — a great team of teachers and kids.”

Courier reporter Mark Newman can be reached at 683-5358 or by e-mail at


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