A Time to Be Silent

By Cindy Hansen, President-Elect of Southeast Division and principal at Pine Island Elementary

Years ago, one of my mentors encouraged me to use silence in difficult conversations. When a student or adult says something insulting to me, it is not necessarily my job to ease the tension in the room by responding. It is okay to let the discomfort of their words hang in the space. Often the result is backpedaling or admission of guilt or personal confession that is far more helpful than a verbal sparring session.

As I am learning to use silence in difficult conversations, I am also starting to use more silence in my personal growth as a principal.

Life is busy. Noisy. Always a crisis to be solved, always a task to be performed. As principals, the constant demands for attention fuel many of us. We are good at dealing with noise, managing crises, prioritizing tasks, wearing hats, and keeping plates spinning.

I spoke with a principal several years ago who said of our jobs, “You could work as much as you want. You could never go home.”

Ouch. I did not want to become that.

Part of my solution? Silence, even in small doses. Taking a minute to think instead of do. Slowing down on purpose and remembering to breathe. Letting go of my need to be busy as a way to seem relevant. Stopping to look, really look, into the eyes of the student sitting in my office because he, again, got in trouble in class. Remembering that he is human. Remembering that I am, too.

Small quiet moments have the power to remind me of who I am and why I do this job.

I know you have a lot to do today. Your task list is probably overwhelming, and you will leave school to go home to even more tasks. But if you get the chance somewhere along the way, sit in silence for just a minute. Breathe, look, notice, remember. You will be glad you did.


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Unsettling Times and Leadership

By Lori Lockhart, Central Division President-Elect and Principal of Roosevelt Elementary School, Willmar, MN

lockhartThe last few weeks have been turbulent as we all personally and professionally wrestle with what we hear and see in our news media. The Coronavirus or COVID-19 has put this country in a tailspin. It’s affected our national, state, and regional areas with wonder, excessive amounts of communication, and potential misinformation. Who and what do I listen to? Who and what source is accurate? How do we react? As a leader, how do I respond, what do I say, what action(s) do I take? From the questions comes a need for clarity and ultimately balance, which comes from what we as leaders do each and everyday day: seek solutions. For this and other unsettling things we respond to daily as leaders, we can use the same formula. Here is a formula I’ve become accustomed to using for my 20+ years in education.

First, be clear about ‘the what.’ What is the problem? It would be best if you had clarity around what it is you are grappling with. You also need to be clear about is ‘it’, the problem, an action item, does it need a response, or does it just need time to evolve and present itself with more detail? For example, on March 6th, we did not even consider closing schools, but as the issue evolved over time with more evidence and information gathered, as of now, March 18th, schools are closed.

If it needs to be responded to then, do your homework, read the research, and find the evidence; what’s been done before? Second, and a close second, surround yourself with knowledgeable people, like our staff and other colleagues in the field. Seek out their expertise and listen, take notes. Hear their insights, ideas, and the pros and cons they bring to the table.

After hearing all voices and ideas, anticipate and talk through the unintended consequences of each course of action so you can get as close as possible to a win-win for all parties involved. An unintended consequence is the result of a decision that is not favorable, like canceling school due to the Coronavirus, but knowing a consequence of that is children not being guaranteed breakfast and lunch, or to offer E-Learning but not all homes have internet and devices. So here lies the balance, how to weigh the information and find the middle ground.

Finally, make a decision. Trust yourself, the work you did, and the input from others. We’re never going to call them all right, but we’re going to get close. Like with all unsettling situations, once we make a decision, we need to be done and let it simmer. We’ll need to circle back to monitor and or tweak, but at least we can say in good conscience, and by using good judgment, it is done.

I end with a note of harmony, remember the wonderful camaraderie we all experienced at MESPA back in early February? We’re all still here, lean on one another, now’s the time.

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Now, where are the testing kits, I have a bit of a cough. Should I get the latest on that from Fox, CNN, or MNSBC? Let me know at lockhartl@willmar.k12.mn.us……cheers!

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Echoes of a Student’s Voice: Education in an Emerging Country

By Tracy Reimer, Central Division member and Program Director at Bethel University

This fall I had the privilege to partake on an adventure in Southeast Asia to learn more about education systems in emerging countries. To be transparent, it was the call to move further along the cultural responsiveness continuum that inspired me to pack my bags for the 17-hour plane ride. My travels exceeded my expectations for a high learning curve and resulted in stories that could fill a dinner date. The first story I want to share focuses on the voice of a fifth-grade girl in Hanoi, Vietnam. I have replayed her comments in my mind and desire for this black ink to reflect the imprint she left on my heart.Reimer1

One of our school visits was to Gateway International School (GIS) in Hanoi. The school is revered as the fastest growing school in Hanoi, almost doubling in size each year. GIS is opening a new campus in the upcoming school year with capacity for an estimated 3000 students.

A few steps into our tour at GIS, the respect and desire for the Western education model were evident. There was a large banner highlighting the importance of a liberal arts education and STEAM curriculum. A few feet further down the corridor was a display of the school’s values of excellence, integrity, respect, sharing, cooperation, and creativity and pictures of Students of the Month who represented those values.

A large portion of the school was dedicated to Kindergarten. Our guide explained that Kindergarten included children ages 18 months to 5 years. She referred to Kindergarten as daycare. My deep appreciation for early childhood education brought a rebuttal to my tongue, but I reminded myself to listen, learn, and withhold judgment.

Each elementary grade level was assigned a country and each classroom a major city in that country. Grade levels were ability grouped by students’ English proficiency. We started our tour on floor one with first grade, eventually reaching fifth grade on the third floor. Grade five was North America and the top classroom was Chicago. Three of our 13 team members were from Chicago, surely a sign that we should request to speak with the class. It was a bold request since GIS typically did not allow tours during student contact hours. Fortunately, the teacher graciously opened his doors.

Our entry ignited a buzz amongst the students, which was quickly squelched as the teacher stated, “Class. Class. Class.” To which students responded, “Yes. Yes. Yes.” followed by silence. Immediately, a student hand raised and he asked, “Why are you so tall?” I smiled. As a six foot, white female with blond hair, I stood out in Southeast Asia. Whether it was inadvertently catching the eye of someone who thought I was looking the other way or feeling the piercing burn of a stare, my physical stature was an anomaly.


The next student to speak was Jackie, who quickly became the class’s spokesperson. She asked with bewilderment, “Why did you come here?” As we attempted to explain the purpose of our visit, she interrupted, “But, why did you come here? This is a corrupt society.” Her remarks caused us to pause and ask why she said that. Jackie responded, “Like, people get kidnapped all the time.” Her accusation brought chills down my spine; I had debated running solo in the morning but my teammates warned against it in fear that I would be kidnapped. I had scoffed at their over-cautiousness.

We had time to ask the students one question. A teammate inquired, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” In America, I would have been disappointed with the cliché inquiry, but in the context of a private school in a Communist country, I was eager to hear from the youngest and brightest. Jackie, without skipping a beat, responded, “I’m going to be a lawyer and sue the government for horrible education. All they have us do is memorize.”*

Jackie’s spunk, articulation, and leadership left an impression. Her remarks and demeanor were mentioned multiple times throughout the remainder of our time in Southeast Asia.

As I reflect, I wonder what happens to a bright, feisty female who harbors resentment toward the government at age 10.

If I were to make a prediction, I anticipate Jackie will become a brain drain statistic. Brain drain is the movement of skilled individuals from a less developed area to a more developed area. A country or area loses its most talented and educated workers due to a poor job market or oppressive social conditions.reimer5

I have since filtered Jackie (what Jackie stands for…she has become iconic) through my lived experience and schema. I would like to have a cup of coffee and converse over the questions that have surfaced. How do we capture the voice of underserved students in our K-12 schools? Is the population movement from greater Minnesota to suburban communities an iteration of brain drain? How do we keep well educated, diverse citizens in urban settings?

*Local Vietnamese citizens explained that the Ministry of Education and Training of Vietnam (MOET) had strict curriculum and instruction guidelines for K-12 schools and post-secondary institutions. One local claimed that specific books were required and specific pages were assigned to particular days. MOET assessments were administered.


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By Corinna Erickson, Western Division President-Elect and Principal of Breckenridge Elementary School

As I sit in my quiet office over the holiday break, excited to have completed a TON of those things that just don’t get done when the office, halls, and classrooms of the building are a buzz with all sorts of other activity most days of the school year and pondering about what to write, I am actually wishing for an interruption. When I signed up for this president-elect gig, no one told me I would have to be writing a blog! I love learning, reading, and sharing with others, but let me tell you verbally about my learning and experiences (those that worked and those that didn’t) instead of having to write about it, PLEASE!!

My next thought after that was that I didn’t really even know where to begin. What should I write about? What have I read lately that I want to share with others? What have we done at Breckenridge Elementary that I want to share? It is a new year…Should I be writing about a New Year’s resolution? I would have to come up with one then – I am not much of a resolution maker!

Then, I decided that now would be a perfect, quiet time to check into other’s blogs. Those that I didn’t get a chance to read (but always wanted to) because of the “buzz” of the school day, life in general, and family that kept me from finding the time to do so. I dug into those to find some great reads and a variety of topics to explore. I’d suggest you make some time to read some yourself!

So, with all that said and a couple custodians that just happened to pop in to ask a question or two… I need to recalibrate and focus again on this blog! Hey, that’s it – RECALIBRATE! That reminds me…

Some of my more recent reading and discussion with staff (and students in a way) has been about finding balance, especially, and making goals. It has taken me a long time to be able to practice what I preach about finding balance in life. I am kind of a workaholic and driven to be better than I was yesterday, last week, or last year, in my career especially. After reading Balance Like a Pirate by Jessica Cabeen, Jessica Johson, and Sarah Johnson, one of the biggest take-aways was the idea of the need to recalibrate. In the book, they take the life-work balance idea beyond just work and life. They break the balance equation into four areas:  Personal, Professional, Positional, and Passions. They also talk about how you will never find and keep all four quadrants balanced consistently over an extended period of time. Sometimes, one area just has to take precedence over the others for the time being. The important thing to remember is that you need to recalibrate often and continue to seek a balance.

This leads me to think about the “resolution” work I have done with staff and students using a book and technique this summer called One Word by Jon Gordon, Dan Britton, and Jimmy Page. Just this last month, they released a student version of One Word which I have already shared with our 6th graders and will share with 4th graders after we get back from the holiday break. During workshop week, staff made a one word resolution for the school year. In a sense, this approach to goal setting using one word has also helped me continue to find a better balance in all four quadrants of my life when I pause to recalibrate using my word. (Sorry, MDE and SPED folks, it isn’t written in SMART format!)

Whatever your thing is for keeping your head above the water (some days more than others!), it is important for you to do so. Find something that works for you and continue to remember to recalibrate, balance, set new goals or whatever it is that works as we head into the new year, decade or maybe even as soon as next week to continue to find your passion for all you do in life and work! May you have a great start to the calendar year and great wrap up to the 2019-20 school year! It will be here before we know it!

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The Principal’s Journey — Getting Out of the Quicksand

By Toni Jo Stamer-Baartman, Principal at Hill and Brown Elementary and MESPA Southwest Division President-Elect

When I was teaching, the thought of being a principal never crossed my mind. It was not until a friend said something to me about it and stated how good I would be at being a principal that I decided to look into administration. Funny how life happens; enter in a huge life change and reflecting on what I would like to do in life and so I decided to go for it, I mean, why not?

Therefore, the journey began—school, interning at a private school while being a principal, district employee, assistant principal, and finally head principal at an elementary school. My DREAM!  Now granted, this wasn’t a dream I have had my whole life, just one that came to fruition while reflecting on what I really wanted to do in life. I always knew I wanted to be in education because of what teachers and coaches did for me while growing up in a dysfunctional family, and because I have a passion for kids and I wanted to make a difference in their lives too, just like those people did for me. Being a principal just allows me to be more of an influence to so many more! Elementary has always been my place of comfort, as I love hugs and the unconditional love that you receive from these littles. I was in heaven.

Now, let me set the stage. I am an elementary head principal, community education director, title coordinator, homeless liaison and I have two buildings, a Hutterite colony, and my preschool is in a church basement. At the time of my “collapse”, if you will, I also had a preschool in a small town south of Pipestone.

Believe me when they say that year one is a honeymoon phase. I thought, I got this, this is going to be great, and thought yes, although there is always work to do, it will all fall into place. WRONG!  The second year came and I thought to myself, what happened? What am I doing wrong? Why is this happening? HELP ME!

Here is what my second year looked like.

  1. I had some health problems that were sucking the energy from me and making me tired and I didn’t feel well, ever.
  2. I lost my grandma – she was my rock and my angel on earth.
  3. I was in and out of a terrible relationship that was also sucking the life out of me.
  4. My staff was testing me, as they should and will do.
    • Someone told me they didn’t feel welcomed in my building and so I talked to my teachers individually and the things they said to me were shocking!
    • I said something on twitter that I did not mean how it sounded that offended my teachers and they were upset and lost trust in me, I apologized for saying it at a staff meeting.
  5. We had behaviors coming out of the woodwork with students and I was running back and forth like crazy and this was stressful as teachers were frustrated, I was tired already and then adding running back and forth made it harder.

I was in a fog… I felt like I could not make anyone happy and I was sinking in quicksand with no way out. I was suffocating. Do you get the picture? All of the places and people that are my responsibility and all I was going through… I was ready to throw in the towel and quit! I didn’t need this, I felt alone and hopeless! I felt like everything was falling apart in my personal and my professional life and didn’t know what to do. Was I alone in feeling like this? Who do I talk to? Where do I go? It was a quicksand conundrum and I didn’t know where to go or who to turn to.

That year I went to my third MESPA Institute hoping that I would get some relief and insight, as I always love going because of the relationships and networking that happen. I was able to talk and relate to people that were just like me going through some of the same things or had gone through the same things at some time. They were people that have the same stresses and triumphs. When someone asked how things were going, I wasn’t afraid to tell them that things were falling apart and I got ideas and was told to hang in there and that it would get better. It seemed that every key note, every session I went to, every person I talked to had a story and related to what I was going through. I also won the registration to the NAESP conference in Florida, which was exciting and gave me the boost I needed. It was as if I was supposed to be there. It gave me hope.

I also had to make some personal changes like, getting rid of my toxic relationship, which I did the December before Institute, so I had that heavy off my shoulders. This was one more thing I didn’t have to think about and know it was over. Even though it was hard to do and it wreaked havoc on my self-confidence, I knew it wasn’t my fault and did the things I needed to do to rebuild that confidence like read books, go to therapy and do some reflecting through journaling and devotions. In April of 2018, I called my doctor in tears when I was at my wits end with my health and what was going on with my body. They scheduled the surgery for the beginning of May and I have never looked back. I feel great and I feel back to “normal”.

In the next year after the school year was over and I went to the national conference, I did some deep reflecting on how I was going to start the year. A song came across the radio called “Unstoppable” by Sia and the light bulb went on! I am unstoppable, my staff is unstoppable, and my students are unstoppable! That is it! I then started the hashtag for our school of #unstoppable. I made intentional relationships with my staff. I check in with them every day, even if it is only for a second. I talk to them, I’m transparent with them, I love them and the people they are and what they bring to the table. They know they can talk to me and I listen. When it came to the new school year for 2018-19, I decided on being vulnerable and transparent about why I was the leader I was and shared some personal events from my life with my staff at the first meeting of the year. This helped them to understand me and showed true transparency of who I was and why I believe in what I believe. These are all things/strategies that other people were doing, but I tweaked them to be my/our own.

Furthermore, I needed to rely on other people for help. I realized that I couldn’t do this alone. I used resources like SPED directors, SPED teachers, specialists, other principals in my division or ones I have connected with at other PD or at Institute, and teachers I trust. There are a plethora of people and resources out there to help me, I just needed to use them!

In 2019, I adopted the word “complete” as my word of the year and decided that I needed to have outside match my inside. I got back into the gym again, a place I have always enjoyed and started working out (lifting weights and running) to help my mental, emotional, and physical health. I eat healthier, but I also don’t deny the good things I love to eat, and I get in the gym for myself 3-5 times a week for at least an hour. That is my time. I jam to great music and work the stress of the day or week away.

After doing all of this, I have never felt clearer. The fog is gone and if I feel I am sinking in quicksand, I have lifelines to help me get out of it. However, quite honestly, I don’t have that desperate sinking feeling like that anymore. I approach things differently, use my resources, and take care of myself.

The bottom line is, YOU ARE NOT ALONE!! We all feel this way at one time or another. I know I am where I belong and I need to keep persevering and being resilient while fighting and moving forward to be who I wanted to be as a person and as a leader. You are also where you belong. If you have a passion for kids and making a difference, you are right where you need to be. There are people here to help and to support you. Don’t give up! We have all been there and I know there are some of you right now that are going through something like this. Find your lifelines (I can be one of them) and don’t forget who you are and what you are here for. You can do it! I believe in you!!

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Context Matters!

By Bret Domstrand, Principal at Lake Marion Elementary and South Suburban President Elect

The role of a principal is complex and full of difficult decisions. It is also one that brings tremendous joy and fulfillment. One of the best things I’ve learned about being a principal is how much of an impact the kids have on us. A day doesn’t go by when a student doesn’t greet me with a hug, high five or a joyous, “Mr. Domstrand!” as I walk down the hall. In fact, last week I was coming in from bus duty when I heard a student yelling my name repeatedly. Normally, I am quick to respond with a wave or return greetings and continue on my way. This time, I turned around to see a student giving me “double birds” while smiling ear to ear. He kept yelling my name from down the hall Flipping bird.jpegwhile walking toward me, birds still flying.

Now all my principal warning bells were ringing loudly as I saw the student approach. I’m thinking, “There is no way this young man could be giving me the finger. Why is he smiling?” None of this was compatible with what I knew about the student. As he got closer, I could see how happy he was the entire time but yet those fingers never went down. Now he was telling me to watch as he moved his thumbs up to those raised fingers and made a snapping motion. “Look Mr. Domstrand, I can snap!” He was thrilled to be sharing this joyous moment with me. It made me realize what an honorable position we are in when students share those monumental moments of snapping, whistling or losing a tooth. It’s a big deal. 

It brings me to the idea of context. If a 5th-grade student was walking down the hall, yelling my name and doing the same motion, would I react the same way? We are tasked with making split-second decisions that can impact our students. Whether it’s a parent who comes to talk about an issue in the classroom, managing and developing teacher relationships or helping students work through friendship struggles, we are tasked with making quick decisions using only the context clues in front of us. Our reactions in all of these situations serve as the model for others. We want our students and staff to see us thrive in situations where all the information may not be known. Do we always act our best when confronted with something that doesn’t fit with our thinking?

As I look back on the moment when my student called my name, I wonder if I had been in a stressful situation right before it, would I have reacted the same way? We are in such a human job that does not offer a playbook for how to respond to many situations. We are trusted with our roles to always respond in a professional, welcoming manner no matter how our day is going. Whenever I think I might not be at my best, I will keep this situation in mind. It serves as a reminder to think before acting. I want to wait before making judgments that can impact others. 

What’s your double bird story? What could have brought out your worst then turned into the story you love to tell? I’d love to hear about it! Email me at bret.domstrand@isd194.org. Our stories make us better!

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YOU Make A Difference

By Jason Luksik, Lincoln Elementary Principal, MESPA President Elect

Hello MESPA family-

Every month our communication team will be sharing an article for you to read and gain information about the role of a principal. Each division president elect will submit an article sharing how they have been successful in their building or a strategy that works well. I am fortunate enough as President Elect to start off the year with the first communication. I wanted to share with you about how you make a difference.

Every day I come to school to make a difference. When I walk through the doors it is my choice to make a difference in the lives of our students and the staff in our building. There is an  expectation for principals to come through those doors with big smiles, high fives and hugs ready to give out each and every day to as many students and staff as possible. We are the principal we know everything and can do everything!

But, sometimes, I just don’t feel it! We are human too! As administrators we struggle with our own personal lives from running our kids to activities, taking care of family members or just needing time for ourselves as we give so much to those around us.

I want to tell you that it’s ok. When you feel overwhelmed reach out to those that are in this role and lean on others who experience the principal life. Each day we run into so many challenges that it can take its toll on you as a leader. MESPA is our family that can help us to be successful. Too many times we are too proud or we forget about the great resources that are provided through MESPA. It’s not just professional development and support from a great staff at MESPA, but it’s a really a group of people that are living the role of the principal that can share insights and listen to your challenges.

Over my years as a principal I have watched as principals lead with so much passion and care for those around them. Always remember, taking care of you is a necessity as your school community needs you each and every day. There will always something else that needs to be done or someone that needs to be talked to. So, pause for a moment, take a step back and find what brings you balance in your life.


Believe in you! 

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