School Leaders Make Kindness Count for Summer Gift Exchange

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A classic trip to the Principal’s Office captured by Norman Rockwell. | Image courtesy Puzzle Warehouse

Show of hands — who was afraid of the “big, bad Principal” when you were a kid? Growing up, I think we all had an innate fear of being sent to the dreaded Principal’s Office (and even worse, being singled out over the loudspeaker for our misdeeds in the process). Like a scene straight out of the classic tale of The Principal from the Black Lagoonwe contemplated horrifying rumors about the “monster” behind that office door. Just saying, but I think Principals may have been given a bum rap.

Leaders Who Make the World A Better Place

When my kids arrived at school on day one of Kindergarten, they were greeted by high fives and encouraging words from someone who immediately stole everyone’s heart — a Principal affectionately known as Buzzy to us parents. His enthusiasm never wavered all year long. The students felt loved and safe. Every teacher in the building was honored to be part of his staff. This amazing leader proved to be the biggest advocate for every single person in that building. A trip to his office meant nothing but a positive and corrective conversation, and perhaps a few minutes of play time with the action figures and games that filled his office. With 45 years of serving our school community behind him, Buzzy shaped the minds of thousands of students and created a legacy of kindness and compassion.

In fact, shortly after his retirement, school district residents overwhelmingly voted to dedicate a brand new, cleverly-designed elementary school in his name (beating out the likes of Joe Biden for the naming rights). My youngest now attends that school and he can vouch for the fact that Buzzy has achieved rockstar status in that building, too! These days, Buzzy enjoys his “retirement” not on the golf course, but in the halls and classrooms of that very building bearing his name, feeding his life-long passion to inspire teachers and students alike.

But being a leader is certainly not a solo mission — it’s creating a well-oiled machine that gets that job done.

Team Spirit Starts at the Top

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Motivator, Principal & blog author Melinda Miller | Image courtesy The Principal Blog

One school leader who is certainly passionate about her role in helping others grow is Melinda Miller, who has been an Elementary Principal for 15 years and “can’t imagine doing anything else.” As author of The Principal Blog, Melinda offers practical tips, leadership strategies, and professional development for school principals primarily focused on motivating her teaching staff.

According to her website, she “love[s] connecting with other principals and collaborating online. Teacher’s work really inspires me and I strive to help my teachers grow. Technology integration is my strength as a leader.”

The Principal Blog is a blog I started over 12 years ago. It has evolved into many things, but most exciting are two Facebook groups for Principals. [Another principal] and I started the Facebook groups together and they took off like wildfire!” Melinda explains. “The reason they are so popular is because they are very specific to the topic of the group and we have rules we enforce so it doesn’t get off track like most groups. Over the past 3 years word of mouth and principals sharing at conferences has grown our groups tremendously. We are at almost 6,000 members in one group and 3,000 in another.”

“The work we do is rewarding enough, but who doesn’t love a gift every now and then!”

The halls are calm and the buildings are quiet now that it is summer, but school business never takes a vacation. Just ask any Principal who may enjoy the slower pace of summertime. That’s why Melinda thought it was the perfect time for a motivational “Secret Princi-PAL” Gift Exchange with her “Principals In Action” community as a virtual high-five to celebrate a year well done.

Nearly 500 Secret ‘Pals’ from all over the country (and a handful of international folks) took part and connected to get to know one another on a more personal level and share generous gifts meant to inspire.

Gifting: A Love Language

“The idea came out of the realization that Principals, or any leader for that matter, do not necessarily get positive feedback very often,” Melinda explains. “The work we do is rewarding enough but who doesn’t love a gift every now and then. After reading the book The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, the language that speaks to me are gifts! I LOVE GIFTS and I love giving gifts. But I just want to celebrate principals and give them something to celebrate at the end of the school year when things get so hectic. It’s not necessarily limited to Principals but the majority of our participants are Principals.”

“The gift exchange is promoted on all social media channels and Voxer. There are quite a few Voxer groups of principals. Voxer is a walkie-talkie type app where principals can talk to each other on their own time,” she adds.

An Online Gift Exchange Helps Make Meaningful Connections

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Bring on the summer fun, even in the school office. | Image courtesy Melinda Miller

Melinda has become quite an Expert Elf since this is the third time she has taken on this role of Gift Exchange organizer, one of the many (pointy) hats she wears.

“One of the biggest challenges is when someone cannot figure out the tech. Even though Elfster is super easy there are always those people who just get overwhelmed,” Melinda says. “They message me and we work on it together. This year I created a screen recording on my phone and shared it with the group and I think that helped.”

“Since everyone has to sign up with their email, I can email them with reminders and updates and directions through Elfster. I like that it keeps a log of all that. I emailed last year’s group and asked if they’d like to do it again and to please reply ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Most wanted to, of course, but there were some that didn’t want to which is to be expected. But being able to email past participants is great!” she says.

“Each year the exchange group has about doubled in size,” she adds. “This year about 500 people joined the Facebook group AFTER the 1st drawing and they saw the pictures in the Facebook group. Then they wanted to participate. So I just told them they could still sign up with the same link,” Melinda says. The more the merrier we say!

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Happy notes from a new ‘Pal.’ | Image courtesy @MrsKristenPaul via Twitter

Melinda’s expectations for participants is based on the honor system when it comes to gift giving and she likes to keep it positive.

“I know in years past that some people sign up and don’t send a gift,” she admits. “I try to presume positive intentions and just assume something came up and it didn’t work out. For me, it’s not about receiving anything. If I get a gift, that’s great, but if something comes up with person I completely understand.”

“This year we have had some international participants and have had to think outside the box about gifts because shipping is almost as expensive as our $30 limit. Even though the limit is $30, I think there is a variety of price ranges as I see the gifts,” Melinda explains. “I do not stay under that just because this is a big deal to me. This year we are posting pictures in our Facebook groups, so it has made it even more fun to see all the gifts. I do think it is creating a connection. When you see your Secret Pal post in the groups now you have a connection with them.”

So What Were The Best Gifts Exchanged This Year?

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Principal wardrobe essential! | Image courtesy Melinda Miller

“I think the favorite gifts are the funny gifts and the principal t-shirts,” she says. “There are also a lot of office supplies and books shared. I really try to promote just using the wish list and sending the gift straight to their person from Amazon. It’s the easiest. However, I have all my stuff sent to me because I want to wrap it and package it really cute.”

And Melinda says the tradition of the Secret Princi-PALs will continue next summer:

“It’s kind of for selfish reasons because I learn so much from other principals that this just connects me with more of them so we can collaborate and share ideas for our schools!”

What a great team-building effort!

Singing the Praises of Their Generous ‘Pals’

Here’s what participants are posting to say “Thank You!” for the generous gifts they received from a new ‘Pal’:

  • Dear Secret Princi-PAL, Thank you SO much for my gifts! I was having a nerve-wracking day at work and then to come home to a gift of such kindness really meant a lot. I have already put my headphones and lipstick to use. Love the shirt! Thanks!! — Jena Damiani
  • Julie!! Thank you so much for my gifts!! What a fun surprise when the mail came today!! The bowl looks awesome on my desk and the stickies and library book cards are going to be so handy! THANK YOU SO MUCH for making my day brighter!!!!! — Jordan Dickey
  • Thank you so much for the Wonder Woman Wallet! I will feel like a true WARRIOR as I proudly wear it around town. Your thoughtfulness made my day! Enjoy your summer break and thank you for brightening my day! — Kim Hek

Organizers all over the world are busy not only connecting like-minded gifters, but building community through these acts of generosity using our platform. We love to highlight their work and dedication, so we hope putting a “spotlight” on individuals in our Community Spotlight posts inspire you! The Elves would love to share your own community’s Elfster success stories too! Just drop me a line at or find us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

About Meghan L 212 Articles
Meghan L has been elfing it since she joined the team in 2009. She enjoys coordinating exchanges, talking to organizers, and all things Christmas. Join her for an eggnog latte anytime at