Interview with James Holifield

The following is a Q & A exchange between James Holifield and me.

James Holifield, Indiana Middle School Principal of the Year

James “Jim” Holifield is the principal at New Prairie Middle School in New Carlisle, Indiana. As the Indiana Middle School Principal of the Year, he represented his state this year at the NASSP Middle School Principals of the Year awards ceremony in Washington D.C. I am very excited he agreed to share his insights on school leadership.

My goal in posting interviews with successful leaders in education is to inspire us to reflect on how our own choices, goals, and actions can affect our lives, our leadership, and our teams. I must also give credit to John Lee Dumas of Entrepreneur on Fire whose great podcast interview questions I have modified for the Q & A’s I have with my guests.

Jim’s Bio:
Jim Holifield has been the principal at New Prairie Middle School in New Carlisle, Indiana, since 2002. Prior to that, he served as a high school assistant principal for two years and as a secondary science teacher for ten years.

In 2009, he began an innovative Mandarin Program at his school; the program began with a principal exchange visit and has grown to include five Chinese guest teachers, multiple exchange trips between his students/teachers and their sister schools in Liaoning Province, China, and Mandarin classes at all of the schools in his district.

Their program was recently selected by the Chinese Government to be a Confucius Classroom. Jim has served as a resource for other schools in his state who wish to begin a Mandarin program as well, providing presentations and resources to assist in their development.

WDP: Thanks so much for the interview! Can you share one of your favorite success quotes?
Jim: “None are so old as those that have outlived enthusiasm.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

WDP: How have you use the idea contained in your favorite quote to affect your school or organization’s leadership?
Jim: I always show enthusiasm for helping and working with my students. By seeking out new ideas to improve the education we deliver at New Prairie (such as developing our Mandarin program), I never get bored or stagnant in what I do each day.

WDP: Can you take us back to a failure or obstacle you overcame and how you did it?
Jim: As a new principal, I was sure that I had to have all the answers and that my teachers would follow me because I was the one “driving the bus”. It didn’t take long to learn that I didn’t have all the answers and that leadership was more than just a position or title. I quickly changed gears and went into the role of servant-leader (which I should have done from the start). I still don’t have all of the answers, but my teachers follow me since they know that I will always support them to do what is best for our students.

WDP: Please give one quick example of something you have done that required risk but created great results?
Jim: I hosted the first two of our Chinese guest teachers in my home at no cost to our school corporation. I was sure that, once the program got off the ground, it would grow into an unstoppable success. Three years later, we are hosting our fourth and fifth guest teachers and the program is flourishing in all of our schools, K-12, and has spread out into the community, as well.

WDP: Share an example of an “aha!” moment where you realized a key truth that you turned into a success?
Jim: This happened when a young, talented administrator referred to me as his “mentor”. I had always considered my mentors to be models for how to be an educator, a principal, a good person. The fact that he would consider me to fill such a role made me proud—and a bit more determined to work even harder not to let him down.

WDP: Have you had an “I’ve made it” moment?
Jim: In 2011, I led my first group of students and teachers to China (unassisted by a tour guide/company). The moment came when I was standing on the Great Wall surrounded by students and teachers and I realized that I had accomplished something rare that would impact these people for the rest of their lives.

WDP: What was holding you back from seeing the high levels of success you have been experiencing for years now?
Jim: As a younger administrator, I was hesitant to take large risks. My experience and confidences has allowed me to take bigger risks that have resulted in bigger rewards.

WDP: What is the best leadership advice you have ever received?
Jim: As a leader, you don’t have to know everything. Your job is to provide assistance in order for others to succeed.

WDP: Do you have a resource that you just love that you would recommend to other leaders?
Jim: Every day, I go on our morning news program and read “Words of Wisdom” from I wasn’t sure how much these thought-provoking snippets were impacting my middle school students until I heard one of our valedictorians refer to my daily readings and quote the “make it a great day, or not; the choice is yours” tagline during his commencement speech. Two other valedictorians have done the same since then.

WDP: If you could speak to the 20 year-old version of yourself, what advice would you give him or her?
Jim: You are your own worst critic. Lighten up every now and then and enjoy the journey!

WDP: Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share?
Jim: Being selected as Principal of the Year was quite a surprise. I know so many high-quality administrators in Indiana who would be equally deserving of such an award. Knowing that I was selected by my peers makes the award all the more special to me. Principals, as a rule, always try to do what is best for kids—we’re not making widgets or trying to amass corporate profits. It’s too bad that more people outside of education don’t understand that. We do. I’m very proud to wear the title of principal.

WDP: A huge thanks to Jim Holifield for taking time to give us insights into what is working for him and his school!

Questions for readers: Jim learned strong leaders are servant-leaders. What are ways you are serving your team members so that they see you as a support and resource? What are some innovative programs you are using that would benefit the rest of us? Please share them in the comments below!

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William D. Parker
William D. Parker