Why relationships “drive everything” for this Principal of the Year

Culture is of the greatest importance for Farid Johnson, principal of Siwanoy Elementary School just north of New York City. That’s because honoring students’ backgrounds and traditions builds confidence and makes children feel safe as members of the building’s community, which is part of Pelham Public Schools.

Farid Johnson
Farid Johnson

“Everyone represents a different culture, based on things like food, what they like to wear, what they like to listen to—that’s what we celebrate,” says Johnson, New York’s 2024 principal of the year. “When you have a strong sense of confidence in yourself and where you come from, it helps you understand where you’re going and it helps you develop empathy for other people.”

Johnson, who took the helm at the school four years ago, has launched a Culture Fest and a “Heart program.” The latter is an afternoon where students and educators practice honesty, empathy, attitude, respect and teamwork. “I believe relationships drive everything,” Johnson asserts. “If you build positive relationships you are going to go far. If you make your students feel safe, they are going to go far.”

Self-confidence and strong relationships add up to the school’s word of the month for April: grit. It’s also a keyword for Johnson, who explains that he grew up in poverty and as a child experienced or witnessed drug and alcohol abuse, physical abuse and other ordeals. Grit also anchors his motto—’#Every day a better you’—which is repeated every day during morning announcements and emphasized as a growth mindset in the school’s classrooms.

“Every day you have a chance to get better, and it’s not about being better than the next person but better than who you were yesterday,” he asserts. “I don’t think I’m a bad principal, but I’m always thinking, how can I get better?

“What’s the point of working if you don’t want to grow and get better?”

VIDEO: Principal Farid Johnson talks about the time, thanks to an old family friend, he played basketball with Barack Obama. Note: He is likely the only principal in the country who has fouled a sitting president. 

Johnson also strives to lead by example, and that means he stays visible by visiting classrooms frequently and being a regular presence at arrival, dismissal, lunch and recess. He says he also helps out by cleaning the lunchroom, taking out the garbage and even putting Band-Aids on students at the nurse’s office.

“That kind of leadership is contagious, when your staff sees, ‘Oh, if he’s not bigger than any job, why would I think I am?'” he contends.

The people-centric focus is paying off academically. Johnson sees a direct correlation between students’ strong test scores and the lessons teachers are delivering. Each of the four years he’s been at the school has gotten “bright and brighter,” he says.

“When you walk into any of our classrooms, our students are focused and ready to go,” he concludes. “From K and up, when you talk to them at recess, on the playground, and in the lunchroom and classrooms, the things they say and how they articulate themselves—it’s just phenomenal.”

Matthew Zalaznick
Matthew Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.