Photo & Text by Gabby Bass-Butler
It was on a fifth-grade field trip in Texas when Joel Henneke first knew. During the lunch break that day, he was watching his teacher grade papers when he thought, “How cool it would be to do that as an adult?” Pursuing a career in education always stayed in his mind, even when he was serving in the Marine Corps, and into his tenure teaching and in administration with Homewood City Schools. Now he’s transitioning from serving at the helm of Homewood Middle School to Homewood High School as principal this fall. We chatted with him to learn more about his past and what lies ahead.
What are you looking forward to as you step into this new role as principal at HHS?
I’m most looking forward to getting back to normal and the way we traditionally did school. I’m very proud of how we were able to make the past school year work and thankful for the efforts of the faculty, staff, community, parents and students.
You’ve worked with middle schoolers the past couple of years. What do you think makes them unique?
I think middle schoolers are amazing because they are in a transition of leaving elementary school and not yet fully secondary, but also ready to step out into the world. Watching that transition and those years is remarkable. There’s still an eagerness to learn, and they do not seem quite as set in their ways. Middle schoolers want to be fully grown but recognize they are not full grown yet, although they are on their journey there.
Before getting into education, you served in the U.S. Marine Corps. What principles did you learn in that time that you apply to how you view education?
In the Marine Corps, they break it down into two main goals of mission accomplishment and troop welfare. My mission accomplishment is to provide a safe environment that is student-centered and student-focused. Troop welfare is taking care of people. It’s not enough to say I care about my students because if my students and faculty don’t feel like they’re cared for, then it’s just lip service. I want students and faculty to feel noticed, recognized, appreciated and supported. I believe that fits in well with Homewood because our mission is to empower every student to maximize their unique potential.
What was the 2020-21 school year like in the midst of a pandemic?
To think back a year ago on the conversations we were having in July and August with so much unknown and trying to figure things out, it was remarkable and surprising. I was impressed how our students responded to what we asked them to do—not only with wearing masks, but also in everything where we said, “This is what we have to do,” they just got on board. That’s not to say it was easy or simple, but I feel like everyone rose to the challenge. To me that was rewarding. The credit also goes to the community.
What is something that you enjoy outside of school?
I love to plan a trip for my family. I enjoy family connectedness and that time away with them is special. Another thing, which is one of the things we stressed the importance of this year in light of the pandemic, is wellness and self-care. For me it could be something simple, like quiet time, since I’m a bit more introverted.