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 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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Re-examining Student Discipline: Shifting from a Compliance Model to a Culture of Influence

By Dr. Amy Reed (@AmyReedEDU), Ramsey Elementary Principal and MESPA North Suburban Division President-Elect 

June - Reed.png

“If a child doesn’t know how to read, we teach.

If a child doesn’t know how to swim, we teach.

If a child doesn’t know how to multiply, we teach.

If a child doesn’t know how to drive, we teach.

If a child doesn’t know how to behave, we…teach? punish?”

(Herner, 1998)

As leaders, we are well aware on the research related to student discipline, particularly as it relates to how these exclusionary practices have disproportionately impacted students across race, gender, and income lines. Our staff is committed to changing this pattern through intentional conversations with all stakeholders that allows us to develop a shared understanding as it relates to our core beliefs specific to working with students while also creating a multi-tiered system of support that focuses on examining student behavior through a proactive lens.

We are currently refining and implementing our school-wide behavior plan, which supports our entire staff with furthering our understanding of proactive behavior support, with a focus on Tier I interventions. Examining our collective philosophies has allowed our collective staff to implement a school-wide plan that honors all stakeholders in the process while proactively addressing lagging skills that students are demonstrating. Our school-wide behavior plan was developed by our entire staff with the support of Jacki Brickman, who is an educational consultant, trainer and coach.

School-Wide Behavior Plan Components:

Our principles-centered school-wide behavior plan involves all stakeholders in the process and includes the following components:

  • Developing Principles and Core Beliefs – All staff participated in selecting the beliefs that align best to their work with students. The results were discussed with the staff and the beliefs that were held by 80% or more of the staff were written into the behavior plan.
  • Understanding Effective Systems – This section of the plan allowed our staff to develop a common understanding that effective systems work for the majority of our students while recognizing that some students require flexibility when working within our school system.
  • Implementing School-Wide Expectations – These expectations were developed by staff and are explicitly taught to students in all areas of school.
  • Developing a Common Spaces Agreement– The staff determined consensus on the volume and independence levels for these areas during arrival, learning hours, and dismissal.
  • Creating Healthy Classrooms and Communities– Strategies for teachers specific to building relationships, supporting students’ social learning, and providing even more opportunities for student voice in the classroom.
  • Celebrating Students through Individual and Positive Recognition – Options for staff to recognize and communicate positive behavior and accomplishments that align to our school-wide principles and core beliefs.
  • Supporting staff with Behavior Management Strategies– Providing proactive classroom management strategies that support teachers with keeping students in the learning environment, with ENVoY strategies serving as the foundation to increase engagement and on-task behaviors while preserving relationships. Additional layers of support are also provided for special circumstances, such as collaborative problem solving with staff and administration, as well as the Intervention Team process.
  • Supporting Student Discipline – Clearly defining our referral process. The overall goal is to strive for discipline to be our “back-up plan” and not our “go-to plan”. Students who demonstrate an additional level of need get support through logical consequences such as problem-solving conversations, behavior contracts, check in/out, teaching and reteaching, recovery and reflection breaks, restitution, and temporary removal.
  • Family Support – Providing staff with proactive communication strategies to establish and maintain proactive partnerships throughout the school year.

To support implementation, we have developed a student success team that meets monthly to review our school-wide behavior plan. This team consists of paraeducators, teachers, administration, and our district student conduct administrator. Each member serves as a leader that supports implementation by gathering feedback and questions from their teams and continually refining our communication process.

Please share your school-wide behavior plan strategies and questions in the MESPA Forum or on Twitter using #mespamn!

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Reteach and Enrich – Meeting the Math Needs of All Students

By Kenny Newby (@KennyNewby81), Forest Lake Elementary School Principal, MESPA East Suburban Division President-Elect


Two years ago a teacher from our school approached me and shared a video clip (watch video embedded below) she had seen online about a school in Arizona. The video shares the school’s approach to planning and teaching math intervention time. We’ve had intervention time on our master schedule for a number of years but haven’t seen the growth in our students that we hoped and worked so hard for.

Reteach and Enrich: How to Make Time for Every Student – Video by Edutopia

As a building leadership team we decided to share this concept with our grade level teams. At the time, our school district was committed to some new initiatives and once again going through tough budget cuts. We understood the importance of helping teachers find balance and didn’t want our teachers to feel that they had to do this work at this time, but that they would be supported if, as grade level teams, they were going to make the commitment to implement this intervention model.

What supports did this take? In order for this to work, we had to schedule common intervention time across the grade level. We have five sections at each grade level. It was important to us to have our intervention support teachers involved in this process as well, so we coordinated those schedules with our grade level schedules to maximize the number of teachers able to support the model. PLCs were allowed to be flexible in scheduling their meetings so they could meet the required monthly minutes outline by our QComp plan but doing so in a format that allowed them to meet more frequently than our plan outlines. Permission was given to teachers to be ok with letting go of past practices and embracing new ones. We were transparent with the need to encourage open communication about what was and wasn’t working as we went through the first year of implementation so that we could refine our practice.

One grade level in particular was on board and committed to implement this model. For the second year in a row they are seeing great growth in their students! We’ve seen positive outcomes not only in our student growth and increase in proficiency scores, but in other areas as well. With all of the teachers taking turns teaching the different levels of math groups and with the students continually moving in and out of groups based on their formative assessment scores, every teacher now knows every student in the grade level. Having students have positive connections to more staff members has had a positive effect on our building culture. The teachers have shared they have become more efficient and purposeful in the PLC meetings and the students are benefitting from that work!

Reteach and Enrich is a model that really does meet the needs of all students. Throughout the whole school year, teachers plan, assess, and provide feedback to students. It takes a team of teachers that is committed to doing the right work and embraces the importance of identifying priority standards, using formative assessments, and having productive/effective PLC meetings. None of these things are new to most educators. This is just evidence that when we do the right work and do it with fidelity, we can make positive changes in our schools!

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What a Difference a Dean Makes


By Deb Reynolds (@debprincipal), Hermantown Elementary School Principal, MESPA Northeast Division President-Elect

As I near the end of my tenth year as the principal at Hermantown Elementary School, I reflect over the increasing demands of the principal position. We have a large kindergarten through fourth grade elementary school with 760 students. Always having the best intentions for increasing student achievement, a typical day for me might consist of a behavioral incident being reported, followed by an investigation, student interviews, parent phone calls, parent meetings, teacher notifications and documentation. Following up on behavioral incidents that occurred on the bus, in the lunchroom, or on the playground could easily consume much of the day. Thank goodness we have an amazing staff that demonstrates professionalism and competency.

The addition of a full-time Dean of Students this year has tremendously impacted my role as a principal and the learning opportunities for our students. Our Dean of Students concentrates on promoting good attendance rates, identifying behavioral problems, and addressing those issues with students and parents to create positive outcomes. She contributes to maintaining a positive, caring, orderly, and supportive student culture and learning environment. She proactively communicates with teachers and visits classrooms to promote positive behaviors and mitigate problem behaviors. Our Dean of Students leads the parent drop-off and pick-up procedures as well as the recess and lunchroom procedures. We have a much more proactive approach in which students are being taught the skills that are expected.  

This addition of Dean of Students came at a critical time. At the beginning of the school year, we were identified for targeted support for reading and math achievement for one of our student subgroups. This group was also identified for targeted support for attendance. As disappointing as this was, going through the training and steps for continuous improvement this year has been an exceptional experience. Having a Dean of Students afforded me the time to focus on school improvement and work with the various leadership teams. Creating a Continuous School Improvement Leadership Team and completing a needs assessment helped us identify some root causes. These causes include:

  • Students receiving special education services for reading and math were being pulled from the regular education classrooms and missing out on being taught some of their grade level standards.
  • Because of having shared specialists, the schedule did not allow for quality blocks of time for reading, math and interventions.
  • Our classroom teachers had no common prep time for collaboration and planning.

We have developed a plan for school-wide improvement. Our school has solidified an MTSS grade level collaboration structure in which teachers meet weekly to collect and organize data, unpack standards, and align curriculum. They are moving forward with the process as our MTSS leadership team and standards team supports them. Revamping the schedule to allow more common collaboration time will enhance this process. Other improvements are increased STEM opportunities and the adoption of a new rigorous reading series. This summer we are having an assessment team trained to use FAST for our school-wide assessment tool. We realize the importance of screening, diagnostic, and progress monitoring, in order to determine the appropriate levels of student support.

Through all of this, a surprising number of teachers have stepped up to lead in all of these practices and implementations. In recognition of our students, staff, and community, we will be submitting our application for the Minnesota School of Excellence. I truly believe that without our Dean of Students freeing me up to be more of an instructional leader, much of this would not have been possible.  

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By Todd Nesloney (@techninjatodd), Author, Kids Deserve It! and Principal, Webb Elementary

This blog was originally shared at Posted with the permission of the author.

To see Todd speak in person, register for MESPA Institute 2019 and be sure to attend his keynote, Building a Powerful School Culture.


I believe in the power of a single book. That one story, or character, can empower/challenge/save a life. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

In 2016 I was asked to join the Scholastic Principal Advisory Board. This isn’t a position I get paid for but instead is somewhere that I can grow myself as a learner and be part of reading conversations with Scholastic. The last two years that I’ve been on the board have been fantastic. I have learned so much about “summer slide” (the loss of learning during the summer), the importance of even the presence of books in the home, independent reading practices, increasing book fair involvement, and so much more.

While sitting at the annual Scholastic Principal Advisory Board meeting in February, we were discussing the importance of putting books in the hands of children and how important it was that we encourage them to read over the summer. I learned about a great Summer Reading Challenge that Scholastic puts on. I remember right away making excuses of why my students wouldn’t participate (yes, even I still find myself making excuses sometimes). I tried to blame funding or lack of internet access.

But while sitting next to me, Mary Beth Coleman helped eliminate all my excuses and show that other schools, with just as high of a poverty rate, were finding great success with summer reading.

I learned about the BOGO (Buy One Get One) book fairs from Scholastic that you can bring to your school at the end of the year to help get more books in the hands of your kids.

Then my wheels started spinning….

When I came back to my district after the training, I met with my Curriculum and Instruction team as they talked with me about Title 1 money that I had available. As we talked about campus needs, I shared with them the research that exists on providing students with access to books, putting books in their homes, summer reading, and more.  Then I told them I had an idea.

I wanted to use the Title 1 money to buy books. But of course, I wanted to go big and do it differently. And thankfully, they jumped on board.

So the first thing I did was contact the manager at the Scholastic Book Fairs Warehouse in Houston. These warehouses are actually all over the country and continually have hours that educators can come and shop! It’s amazing. It’s like a giant Wal-Mart. I called Scott over at the Warehouse and told him that I wanted to bring my teachers to shop. I wanted to give each of them some money that they could spend on their students. We had a work day coming up so I was going to rent buses and have us take a staff field trip!  He was on board right away.  His team came together (and were amazing btw) and allowed my team to go shopping. But my team didn’t just shop for random books. Before we went to the warehouse they sat down with every student to really learn their likes and dislikes. Their interests and their hobbies. Because my team was tasked with buying books individually for every child that fit them. Not just buying class sets of things. And we kept this trip a complete secret from the students.

The day of the Warehouse shopping was magic. Teachers running from aisle to aisle to grab books. It was fantastic. We filled an entire school bus full of books to bring back to campus.

A week later, we revealed our trip to the students. Teachers wrapped up books like Christmas Gifts and students came outside one grade level at a time, not knowing what was going on, only to find a gift with their name on it on a table. On the count of three everyone opened their gifts and squealed in amazement. We then told them that those were THEIR books to keep. It was a magical experience.  Parents were so caught off guarded that we even got several phone calls asking if they had to pay for the books or if it was real! ha!

It was powerful too to hear from parent after parent of the excitement it built of reading in their homes, immediately. How parents couldn’t find their children because they were quietly reading in bed. Or my favorite was the parent who said, “It was incredibly moving to me to watch my child, who hates reading because of his dyslexia, come home with a handful of books excited and asking if we could read them together.” Those are the moments we live for as educators.

But it didn’t stop there…..I told you I had to do this big, and that wasn’t quite big enough for me just yet….

I then called up Mary Beth and Joe Shaw and told them I had another idea….I wanted to bring in the BOGO Book Fair to my school….but as a surprise. Why a surprise? Because we were going to give every student $100 to spend to buy whatever books they wanted.  So with the BOGO deal it was like giving them $200!

So we planned the BOGO fair for the last full week of school. Now I don’t know if I mentioned this but we have about 775 students….so I really had to work hand in hand with Scholastic to plan this because this was a book fair unlike any they’d ever done. We were gonna be setting up a HUGE fair.

After the fair was secretly set up in the Gym, we surprised the kids with the news. To hear the screams of excitement was so rewarding.

We scheduled two classes every hour for a week.  Working at a school where almost 90% of my students are on a free-and-reduced lunch, it was so heartwarming to watch them get to shop for any books they wanted! They were grabbing books left and right. Nowhere did you hear the words, “I’m not a reader, I don’t want any of these books” or “I don’t like reading, this is boring.” There was running, laughing, and kids sitting reading everywhere.

At the close of the book fair we ended up giving out around 13,000 books.

Those books went home with the students, many of which was their first ever book to have at home.

What makes this even more sweet? The last day of school a parent came up to me and said… “Thank you for giving my little boy (a 2nd grader), those books. He came home and was so excited that his 4 year old sister and his 15 year old brother have begged him to borrow the books. Now we read together as a family every night and we’ve never done that before. You helped bring us together.” Even as I type those words, tears are in my eyes.

This undertaking was no small feat. And I can’t claim the credit, because a team of people helped make this happen. But I hope the ripples are felt for years to come, and I can’t wait to see the students in the fall and hear about their reading adventures that took place over this summer.

We believe in the depths of our hearts that putting books in the hands of kids can change a life.  And not just any book, but a book they can call their own. A book they chose.  A book that belongs to them.

Reading changes lives. Books change lives.

This blog was originally shared at Posted with the permission of the author.

To see Todd speak in person, register for MESPA Institute 2019 and be sure to attend his keynote, Building a Powerful School Culture.

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