LEWISTON — Jake Langlais, who was promoted to principal of Lewiston Middle School in January, can’t wait for school to start Wednesday.
“We’ve been busy this summer. But what I love about this job is it feels whole to have all the staff and kids in the building. There’s an energy to it no one can deny.”
Langlais was promoted from assistant principal to principal after Shawn Chabot became Lewiston High School principal. Taking over in the middle of the year isn’t ideal, but it went smoothly “because of everybody else,” Langlais said. “We have a lot of good leadership here.”
Langlais, 36, lives in Lewiston with his wife, Allison, and two children. He grew up in Sanford, a Franco mill town similar to Lewiston in a lot of ways, he said. He spent much of his childhood helping his father run a youth athletic association in Sanford. “Football, basketball; it was a lifestyle,” he said.
In high school he was asked what he wanted to do. He said coach and teach.
After graduating from the University of Maine at Farmington, he and his wife worked as therapeutic foster parents in a Spurwink home for behavioral needs youth in Lewiston.
“It’s challenging having a 15-year-old kid screaming at you in a residential setting,” he said. “You have to stay patient and try to figure out what caused it, work with them to understand this is not appropriate social interaction.”
That job helped Langlais develop more patience and understand. “I really grew a lot.”
In that job, some of his students wanted to play freshmen football. Langlais spoke to high school administrators about letting some students play and became a football volunteer himself.
That led to Langlais being hired as a Lewiston Regional Technical Center teacher, then middle school assistant principal and principal.
While some might see middle school students as challenging, Langlais said it’s a wonderful age. “It’s a time of great, exciting changes. They change socially, physically. That level of independence is changing from asking parents what should they do to almost pushing parents away.”
There’s also a level of innocence, Langlais said. “They’re wonderful to work with. They pick up on everything you say.”
At this age students haven’t had much pressure on what they should do when they grow up. “They are open. They’re not jaded, their perceptions are still building. I love that.”
In middle school youngsters transition from elementary students to starting to plan for college and careers. “What an amazing opportunity we have to show them as much as we can about those different pathways,” Langlais said.
Ages 12 to 14 are the two years students will experience things that will change their lives, he said. “For a lot, this is when the light turns on. Things start to make sense about their autonomy, that ‘these are my choices.’”
It’s also a key time to teach about choices, Langlais said.
He offered a common example: A student sent to his office after being kicked out of class for telling jokes aloud after the teacher asked the student several times to stop.
“I take a calm approach,” he said, adding, “all behavior has meaning.” A student could be making jokes to build friendships (everyone likes to be around funny people) or for attention. He asks a student sitting in his office: “When is it appropriate to do ‘blank’,” or whatever behavior they were sent down for — disrespectful comments, misusing a pass or acting out.
“Students often say, ‘It’s really not ever appropriate,’” Langlais said. “It’s a teachable moment.” Some learn quickly, others need more time.
He said he tries to get to know students and understand their “baseline behavior.” That way he notices when they are off, that something may be wrong. One student acted up after spending time with a parent the student doesn’t live with. When that student goes home, “the transition is rough,” Langlais said. So is the following school day on Monday. “We can keep working that way or pay attention that she’s on edge.”
Langlais handled that by greeting the student on her way into school Monday morning. He asked her how her weekend was and they talked. He shared coping strategies. The student felt better.
“It took 30 seconds,” he said.
In a school of 700 students, it’s tough to know each student individually. Langlais said he uses a number of strategies. One is being with other administrators outside when students enter the school each morning. “I challenge myself to learn their names and use their names, not just say ‘hello’,” he said.
Another challenge is managing when something happens like a fire drill or bomb scare. Word spreads on social media. Parents get anxious.
Keeping students safe is his first goal, Langlais said. “I hope the community understands we treat these kids like they’re our own.” He would never put students in harm’s way.
“These are my kids,” he said.