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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