Arkansas Elementary School Principal of the Year

By Dwain Hebda

Steven Helmick will always remember the day he was announced Arkansas Elementary School Principal of the Year. Not just for the prestige of the award itself, which is considerable, or that it put him in the running for national honors.

It also doesn’t have anything to do with the fact the award was presented in recognition of his service to parents, faculty and students, or that it was announced during a surprise assembly of the entire student body at Don R. Roberts Elementary in Little Rock, complete with a video tribute and dignitaries from the State Department of Education.

No, what will always stand out to the 15-year educator and sixth-year principal is what came next, what he considers the perfect metaphor in the life of a principal.

Photo by Mike Kemp

“They had me blindfolded when I was walking in,” he said. “I opened my eyes and I’m surrounded by thousands of people cheering. The students and the staff are celebrating and my family was there and it was a tremendous surprise and super awesome experience.

“Then less than 45 minutes after that, we were sheltering in place because that was the day the tornadoes hit. Literally, I was doing interviews and photos and I was like, ‘I’ve got to go.’ That was probably around 1:30, 1:45, and we had some students in our building until about 6:30 that night because parents were having a hard time getting here to school.

“That’s kind of the life of a principal; you never really know what you’re going to get. Every day is different, and that’s one thing I love about the job is just that every single day I walk in here is a new experience and definitely keeps me on my toes.”

Every chapter of Helmick’s professional journey has likewise been subject to the winds of fate and circumstance. Born into a family of educators, he originally set his sights on the corporate world after college but soon found that unfulfilling. He’d find his calling on the other side of the world.

“My wife and I took an exploratory trip to Rwanda,” he said. “She’s an RN and we were considering moving over to an orphanage there in Africa, where she would be a nurse and I would be a teacher. When we came back, that’s when I determined to get my teaching certification, and I was placed in my first teaching job at Stephens Elementary in Little Rock. 

“That opened my eyes to the tremendous needs of kids in our own community. I fell in love with teaching and the rest is history.”

From Stephens Elementary, where he taught fourth grade, he went to Watson Intermediate in Little Rock as a fifth-grade teacher. From there, he came to Roberts, where he taught fifth grade for three years before moving into administration.

“My master’s is in middle childhood education and I am certified through eighth grade,” he said. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do upper elementary or middle school, but I fell in love with fourth- and fifth-grade kids, specifically fifth grade. I just loved the kids at that age, where you could just do really amazing things with them. It’s just a really cool age where the students develop and figure out more about themselves as kids, but they’re old enough to where you can really just go deep with them and have some really authentic learning experiences.”

After three years as assistant principal, he took over as principal and quickly earned a reputation for humor, kindness and empathy for the students. During his tenure, he’s issued any number of challenges to the student body, always with a wager he’s glad to pay up. Thus far, he’s shaved his head, been taped to a wall, run for miles and perched on the roof of the school.

His is not the stereotypical stern principal image that keeps students on the straight and narrow out of fear. Which, he will tell you, is exactly the point.

“First of all, that’s just not me. I’m not this stuffy, strict person,” he said. “If I tried to be that, I’d be a terrible principal because that’s not who I am. I try to be authentic; I don’t try to create something that’s not true. It’s not a show, it’s not a skit. It’s just, hey, we love your kids. We know parents are trusting their family member with us, and we value that, respect that, appreciate that. So, while they’re here, we’re going to do everything we can to make it memorable for them.

“I believe, as an elementary school, we have to help kids learn to love learning. If we can help them learn to love learning and give them memorable experiences, stuff to laugh at, then they see me in a different light. I’m entering their world, I care about them, I care about what they’re interested in. Then, when we have to talk about things that aren’t going well, they know I’ve got their back. They know I care about them as a person.”

Helmick is now among 36 principals in the running for the 2023 Nationally Distinguished Principal Award, presented by the National Association of Elementary School Principals, to be handed out later this year in Washington, D.C.

Dwain Hebda
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