SOMONAUK – At the start of the school day, Somonauk Middle School Principal Justin Snider can be seen preparing for the day.
He’s not sitting at the desk in his office – he’s out in the hallway greeting each student by name as they walk through the doors.
He also leads the morning announcements over the intercom, fitting in a positive quote between what’s for lunch and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
Then he starts the day by teaching math to students, stands in the hallway between passing periods and routinely stops by classrooms to check in. After school, he coaches seventh-grade boys basketball.
Lisa Nelson, eighth-grader Dylan Nelson’s mother, said it’s these actions and more that set Snider apart from other educators.
After seeing an ad on Facebook, Nelson nominated Snider for the Lifechanger of the Year award, a national recognition program sponsored by National Life Group that honors K-12 public school educators and employees who are making a difference in the lives of students by exemplifying excellence, positive influence and leadership.
“Parents are so quick to complain about something negative, but we need to celebrate and praise the positive, too,” Nelson said. “He has been great at helping my daughter, Dylan, go through some tough times and conflicts at school. The one thing that really stuck out was that he said, ‘Every child that comes through the door needs to be loved. Whatever happened yesterday, that was yesterday. There’s a fresh start, every single day.’ ”
Snider, originally from Plano, received both his undergraduate and graduate degrees from Northern Illinois University. His first job after college was teaching fifth-grade math at Somonauk Middle School. Snider taught there from 2002 to ’09. He was the Somonauk High School assistant principal, athletic director and dean from 2009 to ’12, then served as high school principal from 2012 to ’15. He has been Somonauk Middle School’s principal since 2015. His two daughters, seventh-grader Riley and fifth-grader Callihan, attend Somonauk Middle School.
“I’ve only known Somonauk schools since Somonauk is the only school district I’ve been at,” Snider said. “But I believe that the kids and the staff here are the best. I have to believe that. We just created a list of our core values, The Bobcat Way. We want our students to be respectful, accountable, persistent and successful. Our goal is for them to be next-level ready.”
Fifth-graders Zach H. and Jaeda A. said Snider is a great principal and teacher.
“He’s funny,” Zach H. said, while Jaeda A. thinks he “makes learning fun.”
Ashley Morris, the school’s administrative assistant, describes Snider as “the school dad.”
“He’s authoritative but not scary; the kids are comfortable around him and respect him,” Morris said. “He wants every student to be a success story, and he wants Somonauk Middle School to be the best. I love coming to work every day, in large part because of him. If I had to choose a school principal, I’d choose him.”
Christina Skelton, a fifth-grade language arts teacher, transferred her own children to Somonauk School District 432.
“I think it says a lot that as a parent myself, I transferred my kids here,” Skelton said. “You can’t beat the culture Principal Snider creates. It does not surprise me at all that he was nominated for this award. And he’s kept it quiet, for the most part; he’s so humble. He’s just an all-around good guy.”
Snider said he was surprised to be nominated but doesn’t think he should be singled out.
“Every person in education is deserving of receiving a life-changer award,” Snider said. “[Youth advocate] Josh Shipp says that every child is one adult away from being a success story.”
A large poster inside Snider’s office attests to his educational goals. In big letters, it says, “We’re here to make good things happen for other people.”
When asked what he thinks sets him apart from other principals, Snider said it’s the way he loves his job, and he hopes everyone sees that it’s what causes the big smile on his face every day.
“I think I’m different because I try to see everything through someone else’s perspective,” Snider said. “I ask myself, ‘What will they think or respond? How will this affect them?’ I think about my audience and always see their side of things. … Strengthening relationships, forming bonds and connecting with the students are important. I want to make sure everyone has somebody.”
The winners of the Lifechanger of the Year award will be surprised at their schools during the spring, and the grand-prize winner will be announced in May.
For the staff, students and parents at Somonauk Middle School, Snider already is their winner.
“Principal Snider really is making a difference and is changing Somonauk Middle School,” Nelson said. “He definitely deserves this award. I can’t say enough good things about him. He has made middle school a completely different, positive experience.”