Living by the lake suits Swegles

Lakeshore Middle School Principal Jonathan Swegles stands next to a bulletin board that was inspired by a core mindset of The Positivity Project – Other People Matter. Swegle started bringing the program to the school when he was the assistant principal last school year.

A job at Bangor Middle School brought Jonathan Swegles to Southwest Michigan from the east side of the state.

A slower pace of life and Lake Michigan have kept him here.

“I relocated over here and then life happened,” said Swegles, who was raised in Linden, a small town between Detroit and Flint.

He said his first job on this side of the state was in 2006 as a sixth-grade social studies teacher at Bangor Middle School.

“In 2007, I met my future wife, who had relocated down to Kalamazoo from Traverse City,” said Swegles, the father of a 6-year-old boy and 3-year-old girl. “We just kind of planted roots in Southwest Michigan. With the exception of one year going back to Linden to teach third grade after getting laid off from Bangor, we’ve been in Southwest Michigan for going on 13 years.”

He said it’s hard to explain how life is different in Southwest Michigan.

“People who never grew up on the east side or haven’t spent a significant amount of time there don’t understand that,” he said. “I definitely think there’s a more relaxed way we go about things on the west side. It’s difficult to describe. One silly example – we don’t take the expressway everywhere. We travel county roads. It’s just a relaxed vibe. We’re not in a hurry to go from place to place.”

Swegles started working as vice principal at Lakeshore Middle School during the 2017-18 school year. He was named the school’s principal in August after the former principal, Jason Messenger, took a job as principal at Portage West Middle School in Portage.

Swegles sat down recently with Staff Writer Louise Wrege to talk about his journey.  

When you took the job as vice principal at Lakeshore Middle School, did you know you would be named the principal so soon?

It was part of a longer-term plan, but it definitely wasn’t part of a one-year plan, that’s for sure. Jason is in a really good situation. He’s closer to home, and he got about five extra hours a week with his family. 

How did your switch to Lakeshore Middle School go? 

It went well. It was an adjustment to a larger building and larger staff. The population of Pullman (Elementary School), where I was principal before I came here, could have fit in the seventh-grade hallway. Pullman had about 225 kids. Here, we are at 644 (students).

What’s been the most memorable thing that has happened so far?

The first day when I was a brand-new principal, I’m sitting in a classroom down the eighth-grade hallway, which is the furthest classroom from the office, and the fire alarm goes off. We didn’t have a fire alarm planned that day. I’m like, “What is going on?” I’m sprinting down to the office. What ended up happening is we had a faulty smoke detector that triggered the alarm. Since it wasn’t planned, we didn’t have time to call the alarm company to put us in test mode. So, here comes the fire trucks. Our facilities director is calling me. That was the most memorable thing and it happened on the first day. 

In what ways have you put your stamp on the middle school?

We’ve implemented the Positivity Project. We’re trying to get kids to recognize that they have certain character strengths within them but at the same time, other people have character strengths that they can fall back on. If they don’t have the strength of creativity, let’s say, but my friend over here does, they can support me and vice versa.

Throughout the year, we talk about the 24 character strengths. Kids took a survey, so they know what their top ones are and what their weaker ones are. Part of the whole tenet of the program is this idea that other people matter. It’s not just about us in our own little bubble. Every decision that we make has an impact. We want to try to instill in the kids that what they do at Lakeshore Middle School not only affects them, but affects everyone around them, whether it be students or staff. Potentially, even outside the school building.

How is it going?

It’s going pretty good. I see the character strengths on kids’ lockers. It’s fun to have conversations with them about those character strengths. Teachers are talking about them at their Lancer Time classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays and just facilitating the conversation. It’s fun to pop into a teacher’s room and see certain things on the walls that have stemmed from this program. I’ve seen things that we’ve done outside of Lancer Time that are an extension of a character strength that we’re trying to get across that week.

We want them to interact. We want them to build positive relationships with their peers.

Have there been any interesting projects?

One teacher did the character strength of bravery. In an act of bravery, a lot of the kids wanted to try new foods. Mr. (Jim) Tetzlaff brought in some pretty exotic things to eat. One of them being these mini-octopuses that are so disgusting. Not like what you would order from a restaurant. It was a straight-up mini-octopus completely intact marinated in this like teriyaki sauce. It tasted like a really textured mushroom. 

You ate one?

Yeah. Only because a seventh-grade boy ate one, and I felt compelled at that time that I had to do it. It wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t great, either. It’s good enough to do it one time, but I wouldn’t do it again.

Any other neat activities come out of the Positivity Project?

Gratitude was a good one. Right around Thanksgiving time, one of the activities the kids did was write a letter to a current or former staff member that they were grateful for. Seeing those come through and being able to sent them to past teachers the kids had was pretty cool. It went beyond our school district. I even sent a letter to a teacher at E.P Clarke (Elementary School in St. Joseph). It’s always fun getting that type of mail. Those are the little things that keep teachers going. We hope to keep it moving forward next year – make it a little bit bigger, a little bit better. 

How do you unwind?

Running. It’s a great time just to reflect and get away from things. I’ve run four or five half-marathons.