Jill Snyder-Mills spent Friday afternoon in a most un-principal-like manner: scurrying up and down the football field behind Esperanza Middle School trying to score touchdowns for her staff.

The kids, of course, loved it.

It was the first all-star flag football game at the school, in what is planned as an annual contest between the best of the school's students and the best of the teachers and staff members. Such is life at Esperanza in Lexington Park, where Snyder-Mills and her teachers seem unafraid to take on new ideas, such as the football game, and run with them.

"It sets the climate for the school," she said. "It's about getting excited, having fun, pulling together as a team, having school spirit."

Middle school education is a relatively new thing for Snyder-Mills, 42, who has spent most of her career in elementary and special education. But after a little more than a year as principal at Esperanza, she says this is what she has learned about middle schoolers:

* "One day they're serious and want to act adult; the next day, they're giggling nonstop."

* "They are not just learning; they're testing their boundaries."

* "They don't want to show it all the time, but they're definitely watching and listening."

She told of how one day last year a group of girls was gearing up for a major scuffle during lunch hour. So she sat the girls down in the conference room and asked them what they would think if she and Vice Principal Diane McKay started fighting in the hallway.

"We'd think you guys are crazy," they responded, laughing and getting the point. The girls settled their differences.

A few days later, two girls marched up to the principal and said: "We have to go to the conference room. We got issues with each other."

That's the joy and challenge of middle schools, she said. "There's all that drama, so much drama -- but all that excitement and growth, too."

Snyder-Mills's love for education began in high school in West Virginia, where she played basketball and ran track. The coach for both sports taught her girls discipline, teamwork and, above all, heart.

"She took our team to state, but I'll tell you we weren't all that talented," she said. "It was her believing in us, teaching us that we're not successful alone but together."

So when Snyder-Mills went on to West Virginia University, she decided she wanted to do the same for others by becoming a teacher and coach.

Those plans changed slightly, however, when her college roommate enlisted her help for a local Special Olympics. What Snyder-Mills discovered put her on the path to teach special education for the next decade.

"I just loved it," she said. "Some of these students are so unique. They have wonderful things to offer us as a society, but you have to help them unlock it. And each time you have to reach deep to find the right way to help each child."

In 1992, she became the special education coordinator for the St. Mary's public schools, moving among schools and working mostly with teachers. But she decided she missed being around the students too much and eventually became principal of Green Holly Elementary in Lexington Park.

After nine years at the elementary school, she moved just one stoplight up the road to Esperanza.

"I have a great staff and great kids," she said. "I just love it here."

Some days, she said, she finds herself looking around in wonder.

"I see the little girl across the table and think, there's the next president of United States. There's an astronaut. There's a scientist. It's amazing," she said.

St. Mary's County: Snyder-Mills hugs Jordyn Chaplin after a flag football game pitting students against teachers and staff members. "It's about getting excited, having fun, pulling together as a team," the principal said.