Theresa earned her Bachelor of Music Education from Wayne State University in Detroit, MI in 2003 and a Master in Educational Administration (Assessment and Evaluation) at University of Michigan-Dearborn in 2007. She taught for 8 years as a public school music educator teaching general music and band starting in 2003 as well as co-directing the high school vocal music program. She also worked for 2 years as an Implementation Director at an Human Resources company until 2013. Ms. Stager has been an accompanist at St. Blase Catholic Church in Sterling Heights, MI since September 1998. She accompanied a 180-member choir at Carnegie Hall in New York City with guest artist Liam Lawton as well as performing with a host of artists at the National Association of Pastoral Musicians (NPM) in Detroit, 2010. Her biggest musical accomplishment was being asked to perform for Pope Benedict XVI in Rome during November, 2012 concert tour throughout Italy, and playing the organ at St. Peter’s Cathedral during a mass. Mrs. Stager has worked as a guest accompanist for GIA Publications and can be heard on Stephen Petrunak’s Dove Award-Nominated Album “Love Beyond All Measure”
Theresa has presented at many music, administration and technology conferences in her career. Her music education blog was nominated and chosen as one of the Top 75 eCollegeFinder Music and Arts Enthusiasts Award Winners. Theresa was featured in Dr. Spike Cook’s first book “Connected Leadership: It’s Just a Click Away.” Theresa, along with Dr. Spike Cook and Jessica Johnson have cowritten their first book “Breaking Out of Isolation: Becoming a Connected School Leader” published by Corwin Press.
Follow @PrincipalStager and mention this episode (educatorslead.com/theresastager) on Twitter for your chance to receive a free copy of her latest book “Breaking Out of Isolation: Becoming a Connected School Leader“!
Theresa shares a little about her family, background, and pastimes, and the fact that she has played the piano at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and also was part of a group that sang for Pope Benedict in 2012 (2:25)
Theresa always knew she wanted to teach, and she discusses her career path (4:40)
When and why she made the move from teaching into admin (6:58)
The biggest hurdle Theresa encountered on her path to becoming an administrator – the catch 22 of struggling to get her first admin job without having admin experience (6:55)
The absolute best way to start networking if you’ve never done it before, and why it’s an absolute necessity for educators (15:10)
The importance of collaborating with many other people; and don’t worry about your ideas being stolen – just get out there and start sharing, because everyone benefits (25:40)
A potential pitfall of networking on social media – don’t let the triumphs and positive stories you’ll be reading about give you a false impression, because every teacher and every admin faces real struggles (28:00)
How Theresa’s struggles in her career have made her a better administrator (and a favorite commercial that helps when she’s having a bad day) (38:27)
How her background outside of education helped shape Theresa’s career (44:30)
How Theresa’s impact as an administrator is different than the one she had as a teacher, why making the change was worth it, and an important word of advice for those considering making the same career change (49:00)
Some of the best moments in Theresa’s career revolve around the connections she has made with students (53:24)
The advice Theresa received before starting her first admin job that turned out to be the best career advice she has ever received (55:56)
Some of Theresa’s favorite education books (57:10)
Theresa’s advice to school administrators on working with the students that you serve (58:55)
Theresa’s advice to school administrators on working with your teachers (59:15)
Here’s the advice Theresa would give her younger self if she could travel back in time to when she was just starting out in school administration (1:00:15)
Books mentioned in this episode
Connect with Theresa Stager
[ultimate_modal modal_title=”TRANSCRIPT” main_heading_color=”#020202″ btn_size=”block” btn_bg_color=”#ffffff” btn_txt_color=”#020202″ btn_text=”SEE TRANSCRIPT” overlay_bg_opacity=”80″ modal_border_style=”solid” modal_border_width=”2″ modal_border_radius=”0″ main_heading_typograpy=”” notification=””]
Educators Lead Ep 42
The Little Things Make All the Difference
Show notes: http://www.educatorslead.com/theresastager/
Welcome to Educators Lead where we interview leaders in education to offer inspiration and practical advice to help launch educators into the next level of leadership. I’m your host Jay Willis and I want to thank you for subscribing to our show.
Intro: All right Theresa is a co-host of the PrincipalPLN and podcast which can be found at principalpln.com and on iTunes. She’s currently in her third year as building principal and lead learner at St. Mary Catholic School in Rockwood Michigan. Teresa was featured in Dr. Spike Cook’s first book, Connected Leadership: It’s Just a Click Away. The Principal PLN has finished their first book, Breaking Out of Isolation. Becoming a Connected School Leader. That’s published by Corwin press. That’s just a brief introduction, Theresa, but tell us a little bit more about yourself.
Theresa Stager: Sure. I would love to thank you for the introduction by the way. Like you mentioned I’m on my third year here at St Mary’s and we’re a small Catholic school in southeastern Michigan. I am married to my wonderful husband Brian and we have two children, Adrienne and Jacob, and they are eight. She just turned eight last week. Eight and six respectively they’re first and second grade. And they go to school here. Which is wonderful because I get to see them every day and be a part of their educational upbringing. Which is wonderful. I also play the piano. I was a music teacher before I was a principal and so I still play the piano quite often. I play at church and do some other things like that but that’s one of my… And I also like to run. I’m not very fast and not that good at it. But it helps me clear my head. And I enjoy it. So those are just a couple little things about me.
Jay Willis: Yeah. Well so what would be something interesting about yourself that most people wouldn’t know?
Theresa Stager: Well I think something interesting about myself that most people wouldn’t know is that I actually got to play the organ at the Cathedral in Rome for a mass in Italy a couple years ago and we actually got to sing for Pope Benedict so that yeah that was really exciting that kind of went on my…one of my bucket list things that I don’t pull out very often. So it’s usually something that. Something that they would know I also played on a CD or play piano on a CD. That was pretty exciting so you know a lot of. A lot of little things like that but they’re. Yeah. It’s exciting. It’s fun.
Jay Willis: Yeah. My wife plays piano. And I can play Chopsticks really well.
Theresa Stager: That’s one of my favorites. That is probably one of your wife’s favorite. (Laughter)
Jay Willis: Right. The kids love it. (Laughter) So tell us a little bit about your career path like from the time maybe you graduated from college. I mean did you kind of always know you wanted to go into teaching or was there a point where you made that decision?
Theresa Stager: You know I always wanted to be a teacher and that was kind of my…but I wanted to be a math teacher for the longest time that I could remember. And then I got into middle school and high school and I have always been a musician and music was just you know in my in my heart in my soul so I went to school for music education. And I taught in a wonderful district for eight years. I taught elementary General Music and band. And then I taught high school choir. I taught there for eight years. And then Michigan went through these big budget cuts with a new governor that we had at the time (who we still have now). And I was laid off. Like I said I’d been there eight years and I was actually the top seniority person laid off but because my degree was in music education and administration they couldn’t put me in a classroom. So I was laid off and I literally fell into a position at a Human Resources Company. It was a payrolling company. And I worked there for a little bit as an administrative assistant. And I moved into a role as a project manager. And then I became an implementation director. And that gave me a lot of really good background, you know, that was outside of education. Which at the time scared the daylights out of me but now I am so, so thankful that I had it. And then this job fell into my lap, literally. Someone I went to grad school with brought it to me and we moved and I got this job. So I was in H.R. for three years and then I got this job and I’ve been here for three years. And I could not be happier.
Jay Willis: So at what point along that path did you make the decision to move into school leadership?
Theresa Stager: You know, I would have retired as a music teacher if I could have. I know that I loved administration. But a lot of what I was doing as a music teacher was a lot of administrative work so I felt like… You know we had we had booster programs and things like that so I knew that it was something that I was using…but I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to retire as a music teacher because it’s one of the first things to be cut whenever there are cuts. And so there are a lot of fantastic music teachers without jobs because of budget cuts so I knew that I had to have a fallback. And I wasn’t sure if being in a general ed classroom was exactly what I wanted so…I mean it would have been wonderful, but I really thought that school leadership was where I could make the most…I don’t want to say “change” because that’s not the right word…where I could affect the most people. Because I could work with the teachers who were teaching the kids so. It was probably through my college career – I knew that I needed to do something – and when I went back to get my master’s I took a year off after I graduated from Wayne State to try it with my undergrad in music. And then I took a year off and I went to the University of Michigan in Dearborn Michigan for my graduate degree in educational leadership. But I continued with music as long as I thought that I could and then I tried to get a job in administration – I thought “I want to I want to get a position before I have to have a position.” You know before I get let go or laid off or for whatever reason. And it didn’t end up working out that way because I started looking for a position in leadership the year before I was laid off. So it didn’t work out that way. But it all worked out the way it was supposed to because I truly feel like every bit of experience that I got from everywhere that I’ve been has made me a stronger administrator.
Jay Willis: Yeah so kind of to dig into that a little bit like what are some of the biggest struggles that you encountered along the journey to becoming a school administrator?
Theresa Stager: I think, in all honesty, the most difficult part that I had was actually getting a job. It sounds so ridiculous but when I was teaching I taught from…my first class started at 6:12 in the morning. It was a zero-hour class but it was a high school choir class and I had that and then I taught at the high school for two hours. Then I went to the elementary and I taught at the elementary until four. And then I drove to Dearborn which is sixty miles one way. In rush hour. Through Detroit. So it would take me every bit of two hours to get to school. And then I would have my three-hour class. Leave at nine to go home and, you know I did it twice a week, for ever and that didn’t seem nearly as difficult as it was to actually get a position. Because the struggle that you’ve got when you’re trying to get a job is it’s that catch twenty-two where – and it’s with anything it’s not just in education – but nobody’s going to hire you if you don’t have any experience. There are very few people who are willing to take a chance on an administrator with no experience. Which is fair. But you can’t get experience without a job. So it’s so difficult to try to get that first position. I feel like that, in all honesty, that was the most difficult part. And I did my research!. Melinda Miller and Scott Elias had a podcast called The Practical Principal podcast. And when I was teaching, when I was doing music, I listened to that nonstop. I was on Twitter I was following these people I was asking questions. I mean, I did my research. And I asked all the right questions I thought. You know – “What are the things I’m going to run into that are difficult?”, “What is different than being in a classroom?”, “What struggles am I going to run into?”, but in all honesty it was actually getting the job that was the most difficult part.
Jay Willis: So what do you think the key was…knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently? I mean I guess what do you think was kind of the magic formula that helped you get that job?
Theresa Stager: I’m going to be a thousand percent honest here. It is all in who you know. The only reason I got this job…I would have never…because I wasn’t I wasn’t looking for a position where I needed to move. Where I had to uproot my family go somewhere else. My kids were young enough so it wasn’t a big deal. But that’s was not on my radar. And this position opened and someone from grad school reached out to me and said, “Listen – you’re a principal. I think you would be amazing for this job. Please apply.” And I was like, “No. I’m not moving. I don’t want to; I don’t even know where this is.” Every bit of me said no. But then it was like, you know, what if this is where I’m supposed to go? And the interview process went through and the school board rallied behind me and I got this position. Having no experience. But I truly believe that the only reason that I even got that interview was because I knew somebody who was helping on the search committee. It is such a struggle. Especially the thing that I’ve always struggled with and I’ve had a lot of conversations with people who do the interviewing with superintendents and things like that using the Appli-Track system that and any of those computerized systems is you know if you’re looking at…let’s say I put my resume in even though they’re asking for three years of experience and I have one, right? And I’m going to put a resume in to look for a job. They can weed out, so that the qualifications come up that they’re looking for. So it’s not like it used to be where you could mail somebody a really great resume on awesome paper in a cool envelope, you know, and it stuck out. It’s all computerized now and there are a lot of places that don’t want you to send something in the mail, even if you want to send that extra little..you’re thinking, “Maybe if I send it in paper, too, it’ll help”, or whatever. There are a lot of places where that’s not appreciated. So it’s really a struggle to find that magic formula and I honestly believe it’s who you know.
Jay Willis: Yeah. Well so what advice would you have for somebody in that situation where maybe they just completed the necessary course work and they could be a principal somewhere, or assistant principal. What advice would you give them for landing that first position?
Theresa Stager: I would say to make sure that you… It’s all about now working. It really is. And I didn’t really believe this. I mean, everyone will tell you that, but I didn’t really believe it, but it’s all about networking and having a group of people who you can talk to and converse with and talk things out. Because you know what? I created my resume and my cover letter with what I saw and I and I received samples from people and I used…you know. You go through and you go, “Oh, yeah, this makes sense” or “I wish I would have thought of that before” or whatnot but it is invaluable having a group of people that you can talk to that are either people who are the ones who are doing the hiring or people who have gone through a lot of unsuccessful interviews. It really is a lot in having that network. To just be able to talk it out and I mean it’s made a huge difference. Huge.
Jay Willis: So what would be like a way that somebody, just kind of brand new and they hear this piece of advice and are like, “Yeah, that sounds great. I think I should network. So now what do I do?”
Theresa Stager: And I think that’s the hardest part is getting started, and I do a lot of presentations about networking using Twitter and Vox or but if you’re brand new it is so intimidating. And I think the best thing for you to do is to jump on Twitter. Because a huge percentage of Twitter’s user base are educators, and there is this huge massive wealth of knowledge there. It’s just untapped. In fact, when I was looking through…I had done a Twitter presentation two weeks ago. And right as I was getting ready to present. I was looking through my Twitter feed and a post came up. Somebody was at a conference where George Couros was speaking. And he had quoted that “being isolated is now a choice that educators make.” And I thought that is so profound if you think about it. Because there’s no reason. And that’s in fact that’s why we wrote the book – Spike and Jess and I wrote, Breaking Out of Isolation. It’s a choice now. There’s no there’s no reason that you should ever feel like you’re by yourself in this journey.
If you jump on Twitter and you create your username. And if you use the hash tag which is the pound sign, and you type in principalpln, all one word, and you hit enter in the search bar, there will be a ton of people who will come up who are people who are either in administrative roles or are trying to get to be in administrative roles. And they’re all helping each other. We’ve got this Voxer Group which tracks or if any of your listeners don’t know what Voxer is it’s a walkie talkie app type thing, but you can make it in groups. So you can either speak and leave a message. You can write something and it will be there. You can send pictures. But we’ve got this huge group that’s got about fifty people in it. And they’re constantly having these conversations. About hiring and interviews and issues. Struggles on the job and successes on the job. And I learned so much from this group of people. It’s unreal and most of them aren’t even administrators yet. There’s this massive wealth of knowledge out there you just have to be willing to jump in and find it. So if you’re confused on how to do it, you can follow me and I will help you because I truly feel that this is such an important piece. For any administrator or any educator.
Jay Willis: Yeah. Yeah you know obviously. You know listening to podcasts like this one like your podcast I mean that there’s a couple ways that you can kind of learn from the experience of other people.
Theresa Stager: When we originally set up our podcast it was because Melinda and Scott had stopped doing theirs. Because Scott got a job at Apple. And I contacted Melinda and I had just become a principal and I was like, “I want to get this back going because this helped me so much when I was starting to be an administrator.” And I brought the idea to her and she’s like, “I just don’t have time. She said, “I would love to be a part of it, I want to help you with it, but I just can’t commit.” And she gave me Jess’s name. And then Jess had contacted Spike and so the three of us just kind of jumped in but that was the main reason behind it was you know we wanted to have something. for those principals who were in their first year or who were just getting started. So that they would understand that somebody else is going through this and here’s how we dealt with it. You know we’ve talked a lot about job changes and job struggles and the differences between public and parochial schools and. You know differences between the states. Spike’s in New Jersey, Jess is in Wisconsin, and I’m in Michigan. So we have differences just within where we live. You know struggles – like we have tornado drills in Michigan. And Spike was like, “We don’t have tornadoes.” You know, things like “What do you do for a tornado drill?” you know. And then, crazy enough, like three weeks later they had this huge tornado go through in southern New Jersey. And Jess and I were talking to each other going, “I wonder if he knew what to do?” And it’s silly but it’s things like that you know; we’ve shared so many so many personal stories on there that we hope will help someone and that’s what this is all about is just making sure that people know that there’s a support system out there for them.
Jay Willis: Yeah. Now is this Melinda Miller. Is she out of Missouri?
Theresa Stager: Yeah.
Jay Willis: Willard right.
Theresa Stager: Yeah.
Jay Willis: Well OK. Yes, she actually I just had her as a guest. A few days ago. So.
Theresa Stager: She’s phenomenal yeah. I got to meet her finally. She and I have been back and forth on Twitter for probably the last seven or eight years and I finally got to meet her last July. At the N.E.S.P. conference and, honest to goodness, you would swear that we’ve been friends for years. Immediately when I saw her she came and gave me this huge hug. And Melinda is – I’m a tall woman; I’m like five nine – Melinda easily has two inches on me and. She’s always wearing like, amazing heels and she’s always…She is an amazing woman and just tall in stature. And she will help anyone, she is the most supportive administrator I think I have ever met my life.
Jay Willis: Yeah. This is great. So you get networked and there’s no reason you have to feel like you’re going this alone. Learn from other people.
Theresa Stager: Yeah. I mean you can’t – there’s no reason anymore. You know there just isn’t. Now, it’s like George said, being isolated doing this on your own – it’s your own choice now. It doesn’t take any more time to be connected. I mean, it does if you want to have, you know, thirty thousand followers and if you’re in it for that then more power to you. But if you’re in it to get connected then it really doesn’t take that much time. And now I love sending Voxxes. We have a group that we went t to N.E.S.P. there was a group that I presented with, and Melinda and a couple other people. And we kept changing the name of the Voxxer group. Every time – well not every time but it felt like every time we went out to eat in California, we went to Chili’s. And there was a point that. Somebody said “Where are you?” and we’re like “Well we’re not at Chili’s.” And that became a hash tag and so now our group is the hash tag #notatChilis. And so I said. When we were sending messages to each other and it always just comes back up but you know what. These are people I met once like for like four days and. They’re some of my biggest confidants. You know it it’s really amazing what. What networking can do. And. And the people that you will meet and talk to are just the most helpful respectful. Just amazing people.
Jay Willis: Well I think in some ways it can actually save you time because if you’re trying to be the Lone Ranger and go it alone and figure out the answers to all your own problems… I mean one your resources really limited if you’re just relying completely on yourself. So you’re going to spend so much time trying to figure something out that somebody else has probably already dealt with. You know. And if you just were connected in just were willing to be humble enough to say look I don’t know the answer to this question and I could really use some help.
Theresa Stager: Yes. And you know what we have now we have a big shared folder with my #notatChili’s group and we all share resources. So it’s like you’ve got your beginning of the year staff meeting..well. Amy’s put together this amazing PowerPoint for her beginning of the year staff meeting. And Melinda created this game that she does with her teachers for their staff handbook review. These are things I never thought of before and. And how great to be able to take pieces of that I think would work with my staff. And then just adjust after that or to throw in. I mean I literally can open up the principal PLN Voxx group and say I need help, here’s my situation, and within three minutes there are eight people who have responded with something that’s worked for them. And you know what, seven of them might not work for me but one of them might right.
Jay Willis: You know and really. It’s probably eight ideas that you hadn’t thought of
Theresa Stager: That’s right. I was on a MEMSPA chat (that’s Michigan elementary and middle school principal’s association) they have a chat every Thursday night. And one of the conversations a few weeks ago was your theme for Reading in our School’s Month. And when you plan it and how you plan to reward things like that. Man, I think I have like the next seven years planned out. All these things that comes through…you know it’s crazy. And these are things that you know I could check Teachers Pay Teachers and Google until my brain is fried.
But to have somebody tell me that this actually worked or to come back and go “Oh, you know what – that was a bad idea. Here’s what happened; this is why.” Because educators are humble and they will be the first one to tell you when something doesn’t work. You know, you have to. You have to, and why would you try to do something that you know you can find someone who has a building that’s similar to yours or who has a population that’s similar to yours and they’ll tell you, “You know what? This just did not work like I thought it was going to. Here were the issues that we ran into and I just didn’t see it coming.” And there’s you know there’s something to it gives you this foresight – “Oh, somebody else did this. They didn’t see this happening so we’re going to take care of it now.” You know I mean it’s just. It really is invaluable. You know you can say it until you’re blue in the face but people really need to be connected now.
Jay Willis: Yeah. Well so what would you say to that person and maybe education doesn’t lend itself to this as much as maybe the business world but certainly I’ve got some experience where you run into some people who are kind of like idea hogs and where they’re just like, “I don’t want to share my idea because I think it’s really good and I don’t want other people trying to take credit for it so I’m just going like sit on my idea. You know let’s make sure that I get all the recognition for this wonderful brilliant idea.” Like what advice would you give to that person?
Theresa Stager: I’d say knock it off. You’re not going to make any friends that way, you know. It’s collaborative. Because the whole thing is, if I come up with something that’s really awesome and I have this one just great idea that’s going to change the education world but I’m only going to let it change my building…There are thirty thousand other ideas out there that people are willing to share with you; why would you not share back? If you’re just so focused on only your idea, then you don’t get to share other people’s stuff. You know it has to work both ways. And I feel like…when I was teaching music – this was before Teachers Pay Teachers and Pinterest. I think Teachers Pay Teachers had just come out – it wasn’t that long ago but these are things that are that are pretty new. Man, my music classroom would have been a completely different place (and I thought it was amazing.) But I got some fantastic ideas from people on Twitter and then I went back and shared other things that I was doing. Because somebody needs that great idea. And your great idea might not be…it might stem something for somebody else which I think is the more exciting part about it because it’s not…I don’t think that I’ve seen anyone use anything verbatim that they’ve received. I mean besides Teachers Pay Teachers and you know, when you can purchase a plan or a project or a theme unit or something like that. But I don’t know that I’ve seen anyone physically take information and then use it again as is but it stems so many different ideas and new things and why would you not want that? Why would you not want to help somebody have a new idea or find something that works for them?
Jay Willis: Yeah. You know one of the themes that I keep catching over and over again with this podcast is the greatest leaders really are the greatest givers and. Like they’re constantly learning. And they’re constantly just giving back to the education community anything that they’ve learned.
Theresa Stager: Yes. Because that’s how we all learn. You know I would be so much further behind where I am now without Melinda and Scott’s podcast. And I’ve told her, and we’ve told a lot of people on our podcast. I mean she and Scott were the people who made me feel like I could do this job. You know because they shared their struggles. They shared what was going on in their buildings and it was like oh… And that’s a huge part of it too, is you have to share your struggles. Nobody wants to see…I have twitter accounts that I follow that are just constant positive. And that’s tough. Even for me – like I feel like I’m doing a pretty good job. But every day there’s some sort of a struggle. And that’s normal. Right? Everybody has a struggle – with a parent, with a kid, with funding, with the state… Anyone who’s an administrator knows that you’ve got a list eight miles long of things that might go wrong in a single day. You asked me when I got this podcast when we started talking, “How’s your day?” Like, well it’s Monday, you know. It’s been a good day. But it’s had its share of challenges.
And anyone who doesn’t share their challenges, I really struggle with. Because there are a lot of upcoming administrators and first and second year administrators who are dealing with nothing but challenges. Todd Nesloney and I actually had this conversation after an N.E.S.P last year because you start seeing these, especially these seasoned administrators…Ben Gilpin and Brad Gustafson are the two that I will pick on because they are very good friends of mine and we’ve had this conversation before. Ben and Brad have been school administrators for six seven eight nine years. OK they’ve been in wonderful buildings and they’ve built these amazing cultures and communities. And so I look at that from where I’m sitting and…there are some days that Brad puts out something just phenomenal and I’m like “I’m never gonna be able to do that that. If only I could just fix X first.” But you’re not the same place. And they have their struggles too and they share that.
But there are a lot of times that you’ll see people who are only sharing positives and I promise you that is not real life. It is not. Everyone who has an up has their share of downs too. And it doesn’t matter how long you’re in this job. I have a very supportive community here. Very supportive. But there are still days that are struggles. For whatever reason. Yeah. So I think that that’s a huge thing to remember too is being connected can also have this negative effect if you let it because if you’re only looking at the positive, or you’re only following people who are sharing the positives, i can really be difficult for you because that’s not normal.
It’s like you know when you see the movie stars…the only thing that you see are their pictures with their makeup on and their hair done and they’re in these fabulous dresses. You know they go out without makeup on and in sweats, too. They struggle with things in their lives too. But when you’re only seeing the beautiful and perfect it can really cast this spell on you. You just have to know what is real and what is not and follow those people who are willing to share that and who are willing to talk about it because those are where… Those are where I’ve learned the most, I know. In my building, the days that I had the huge struggles are the days that I’ve learned the most and the ones that I remember the most. For whatever reasons, they teach you the best lessons.
Jay Willis: Yeah I feel like you know while we often think, “Man, it would be great if everything was just rosy and happy and wonderful and I could skip through fields all day. In reality though if we actually look back, when we’re in the moment it’s not pleasant at all but when we look back at our lives, I can’t deny that my biggest growth has come from my biggest struggles.
Theresa Stager: Absolutely, absolutely. My first year here was a huge struggle. I was coming in after a year they had four principals, the year before I got here. There were a lot of people who left…it was a huge…I was brought in to kind of to rebuild and kind of re-cement this community and it was a struggle. Everything was challenged and people were afraid I was going to leave and I mean it was just this…it was unreal. But we got to the end of the year and I looked back and I was like you know… I was talking to my office manager administrator and I mean I even had a new secretary partway through. Because the one who is still here one day a week she had a family reason that she had to…I mean we had, everything – if there was anything that could happen, it did.
And I’ll share one of those with you in a second. We looked back at the end of the year and it was like you know what? Even with everything that happened, I wouldn’t change a bit of it. And I still look back at it and smile. You know I still feel like this was a great year and we did a lot of really good things. We had, and I shared this on our podcast but it was when it happened and I still feel like this is one of the most ridiculous things that could ever happen when you’re in a school. It was like October, so I had been here I don’t know two months maybe and my new secretary had only been here a week or two. And the power went out. Our dismissal is at 3:30 and the power went out at about twenty-five after two. So it was still light and it was a nice day outside so we weren’t going home.
You know there’s no reason to go home. Power is out, but it’s no big deal. I said, we’ll split – our building has a cafeteria in the middle and then the elementary building is on one side and it’s upstairs and then the middle school building is on my side because we have pre-K. through eight. And so I said I’ll take the middle school building and you take the elementary and we’ll just let them know that we’re aware that the power is out. And we have because we’re in an old building. We use iMessage to contact each other because we don’t have phones in every room. So we couldn’t iMessage, obviously because there is no power. So I said “Let’s go talk to everybody.” I walked into the fourth grade classroom which is in our middle school hallway. And the first graders were in there; they were doing reading buddy. And I said, “I was going to let you know that we know the power is out. We’re not going to go home so just you know finish up your day and. We’re going to contact the parents and let them know that you’re not going home.
And one of the 4th graders looked at me and said, “Well of course there’s no power – the parking lot’s on fire.” And I’m like “What?!” And they said “Look!” and I looked outside and it wasn’t even windy outside, but we’d had this power pole just break right in half. And it fell. It broke the wire, which is still alive and the wire landed on the fence that encloses the school. So it electrified the fence. We had students that were outside of the building, they were next door at the church, preparing for mass. So we had to get them back in without touching. It was ridiculous. It was completely out of control. And it crushed the fence and then the next day was school picture day. (Laughter) And so I’m leaving school that day – we couldn’t get out of the parking lot because the fence was electrified. The parents had to come to the front. The teachers couldn’t get their cars out until they grounded the fence. It was completely ridiculous.
And so I call the Voxer group up and I send a message to Jess and Spike and I’m like, “So…..here’s what happened today.This is like my first I don’t know seven, eight weeks on the job. And we couldn’t get a hold of any parents and their parents kept calling my cell phone because the school phone was out and they were wondering why the phone wasn’t working” and I’m going on and on and on. I left like a three-minute Vox. And I get this message back from Jessica and it is just this cackling laughter. And she is like, “That is hysterical. She’s like, “Who does this happen to? Like who does that happen to?” (Laughter) But I feel like part of our job as administrators, even someone who’s only been on the job for seven weeks, is to share these ridiculous things that happen to you. You know what I mean. Who does this happen to? (Laughter) But that’s part of the thing it’s not going to be rainbows and butterflies every day – there’s going to be days the power pole falls and electrifies the fence. But, you know what, they will fix it and you’ll be fine.
But it’s so nice. You know I was so flipped out at that point. I felt like I’d kept my cool and then once I got home you know you get all shaky and the adrenaline starts you know. But I thought it was so nice to have somebody to just laugh at me and say, “That’s so funny. You have to see why that’s funny.” And I’m like, “It is funny, isn’t it?” She’s like, “Nobody got hurt. Nobody died. And it’s a great story.” (Laughter) But those are the things that we’re not going to hear a lot of. But we need to understand that they happen to everyone and the more people you connect with the more of those crazy story you get so that when it happens it doesn’t feel so enormous. Because it can feel that way. (Laughter)
Jay Willis: Because people helping you put it in perspective I’m sure that helps. My wife and I say that quite often with our three kids just, you know, this random stuff that happens, and we’re like, “You could not make this stuff up. You really couldn’t.” There’s nobody this creative that could come up with this.
Theresa Stager: That’s right. That’s exactly right. And Jess and I talk about all the time about how we should write a book like. Nobody would even believe it. They’d be honest to goodness true stories and they’d be like, “Yeah, right. “
Jay Willis: Yeah. Well so tell me this – comparing yourself now to yourself when you were a brand new administrator, how do you feel like you’ve grown through some of the struggles?
Theresa Stager: I feel like I’m much stronger now. I Feel like the enormity of it doesn’t feel so huge at the time anymore. You know when you’ve got something like that that happens you know I always think back and I’m like, “At least the fence isn’t electrified, and nobody’s going to die. We’re all going to get out of this. It’s going to be fine.” Really a lot of those struggles have now put everyday things into perspective. And don’t get me wrong. I still have my craziness – like you know, those ready to bang my head against the wall days, everybody does. And if they tell you that they don’t they’re lying. Jess showed me this Snickers commercial. And it’s called the principal meltdown. Wait – it’s not Snickers. It’s Kraft or Velveeta one of those and. It’s this principal who comes in and there’s somebody parked in his parking spot. And so he starts doing the announcements and he’s totally call. And then he’s like “IT’S MY PARKING SPOT!! I’M THE PRINCIPAL!! I’M THE PRINCIPAL!!! It’s like this five-minute-long clip and it talks about these whatever the cheese melts were and then he’s calm. But one of us will have one of these meltdowns with the three of us in our little group and we’ll have this just venting session, and the other one will send us this meltdown video. (Laughter)
You know I feel like everything is just easier to handle now. Yeah. And you know once you. You really sit down and just realize that as long as, you know, it will end and it will be OK. And you just have to take it day by day. I think a lot of the things that I’ve struggled with is I don’t like things being unresolved. And that’s been a big problem. A big struggle for me is when, let’s say when I send home a discipline. You know where I call home with a discipline problem. I’m always worried that I’ll receive an email or I’m going to get a phone call or something like that so I would, my first year and even part of my second year, I spent constantly checking my e-mail, checking my phone. I mean obsessively. Because I didn’t want it to surprise me. So I would just. And now I’ve realized how like sick that really is. It’s just it’s not a good idea. And it’s just not good in general for you. You have to take a break. It will be there in the morning.
Nothing is so…there will be things that you need to check in on, that you need to focus on. But you have to take care of yourself. Jess and Spike and I are working on another book about taking care of yourself in this position because it can really wreak havoc on you physically and emotionally if you let it. But I turn my phone off – that is a huge piece of advice that I would give to anybody. I turn my phone off on Saturday. I have a work phone that I keep. And if you don’t have a work phone, if you can’t get a second phone line you can use Google Voice or something like that or you can get a separate number and that’s what I give out to my parents. And I turn it off. I don’t look at my e-mail. And it’s hard on some days. But it’s kind of like if I don’t see it it’s not happening. And it’s not like I’m trying to escape from it but you need a break. You have to have a day that you’re with your family. My kids are little. My husband and I we don’t like having days that are full of stress; nobody does. Some people go as far as taking their email clients off their phone completely on Saturdays or on the weekends.
And I think it’s a huge thing. Now I just either leave it in my room or I just turn the notifications off because it’s so important to just take a break from that. It’ll eat you alive like any management position will. When I was in implementation when I was in payrolling and human resources it was the same way. This job can be twenty-four seven if you let it. But you can’t. Running has been a huge thing for me because you know you can clear out your brain you get rid of some of that stress. Just being outside take a walk. It’s such a huge thing but it’s so important. Mindfulness has been a big a big movement right now and there’s a group – but I can’t find it. It’s not on my bookshelf here but it’s mindfulness. And our publisher actually sent it to us when we were writing our book and they were like, “You’re going to want to take a look at this” and I’m so glad that we did. Because it has truly transformed what we do. Just taking a couple minutes and remembering who you are and what you’re here for and what you’re doing. And just meditating or praying or just being in your office for five minutes with the door closed and the lights off and just taking a few minutes to yourself. It makes you a better person. It makes you a better administrator for sure. Everybody needs a break.
Jay Willis: For anybody who has read any Stephen Covey books that’s one of the things he talks about, sharpening the saw. Because you’re so much better for other people if you spend a little bit of time taking care yourself.
Theresa Stager: I have…I’m trying to see if I took it down (I’m in my office). And I have a meme that says, “Put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others. Tired and stressed teachers are less effective teachers. Your students need you. Find a way to breathe.”
Jay Willis: We’re running low on time but there’s a couple things that I want to ask about the unique perspective that you kind of bring to the table. How do you think having that other non-education career experience. How do you think that has helped shape you as an educator?
Theresa Stager: It gave me a different…it gave me a lot more people skills I think. I felt like I had people skills to start with but it gave me an insight into a whole different group of people because you know you hear a lot of times between the business world and the education world, you hear business people say, “Well, I didn’t get vacations I don’t get time off.” I don’t…I didn’t need a vacation when I was doing payroll like I need a vacation these days. They are very different worlds and I think we need to understand as educators that, for the most part, our parents are in some sort of a business role. They’re not likely educators and that it’s a different mindset. And it’s a different outcome.
I was talking to one of my old friends that I went to high school with, actually, and we were talking about when I was going back for grad school. And he said, “You know I’m really jealous.” And I said why. He said, “You know for so long we lived in this world of you do something, you’re assessed for it, and then there’s a grade. And then it’s done and you move on and you start the next thing.” But once you get into the business world. There’s no beginning and middle and end. You know there aren’t midterms and finals and a grade and then you start over. It’s just this constant stream of Start/Finish. You know some things don’t finish. Some things morph into something else. And that can be a struggle if you’re not used to it. And I think that’s something that I didn’t realize when I started working in business was how much I needed things to end. You know I needed there to be a completion of some sort. And it doesn’t. And that for a lot of people can be a real struggle.
I feel like from where I was sitting, that is a lot of the…My husband works in business and he’s just constantly going and going and going. And there’s no relief. You know there’s no breaks, and there’s no closure. We get Christmas break where you come back, but there’s still three weeks left and then you have the semester. And then everything starts over again. And then in June the school year ends. And you’ve got some time to just relax and then you start completely over in the fall. But that doesn’t exist anywhere else. And I think a lot of people struggle with that. And so that’s kind of something that you know we have to remember too is whereas we feel these deadlines as educators (an administrator is there more year round for sure) but our teachers are feeling these deadlines like two three four times a year with progress reports and report cards and things like that, end of term. But a lot of our parents, they have twenty-four seven struggles and things are starting and things are ending and there’s just no, they don’t have that finality to it like we do. I think that that’s something as administrators that we can really help our parents with, and our teachers, too, is to understand that if a parent comes and snaps at you there is a ninety-nine percent chance that it has nothing to do with you. So it definitely gave me a very different view. Huge. And I struggled so badly for probably two years. Because I didn’t, it was like, “I don’t even know what month it is.” You know, it’s October we should be having parent teacher conferences, there should be a half day here somewhere… It’s just…when you live your life going through school, and then you go into college, and then you teach, and then you’re going for your masters and it’s your entire life is on that ten month trajectory that repeats and repeats and repeats. And then all sudden it doesn’t. It’s really tough.
Jay Willis: So tell me this, because you kind of originally because you made this statement earlier you would have loved to just teach music and would have stayed in that position for as long as you could. And I know that there are some people listening to the podcast who are considering making the transition into, as some teachers call it the dark side, right, (laughter) into administration. So like, what makes it – because you know one of the concerns is that maybe they’ll lose that connection that they had with the students and they really don’t want to lose that – so how would you say your impact is different now than it was as a classroom teacher? And then, what makes it worth it?
Theresa Stager: Well there’s so much to that question.. I do want to say…you know which is where I thought you were going to go with this question, but I’m going to say it anyway: If you are considering moving into administration what I’m going to tell you is – Don’t do it until you are OK leaving the classroom. Because there really is no going back. You can’t. I feel like it’s a very difficult jump to go back from administration into the classroom. Because if you do that then you’re in the classroom. You can’t go back and forth. So you have to – and I think that was my struggle, was that I wasn’t ready to leave. And so that became, especially not being in education at all, that became a really big problem for me. I struggled with not teaching, I struggled with not being around the kids, I struggled with all of it. So if you’re not ready to get out of the classroom, don’t.
I think you have to be ready. And there will be something that will tell you. You will know that you’re ready. I think, given another couple years, because I had a pretty tough schedule when I was teaching, I probably wouldn’t have lasted much longer. Unless there were a lot of things that changed. But I wasn’t ready. But I think that I loved the connection that I had with the kids, because you know music is such an emotional connection. And so I feel like…and I get to see them. You know I had students from kindergarten through fifth grade. And I saw them every year. And I have them every year and then I get to see them again when they were in high school so. For me that was really special. Now it’s just different. I feel like I know a ton about all of our kids here. You know I can tell you which kids play sports and who dances competitively and which kids have karate after school and what their favorite Power Ranger was or who their favorite ninja turtle is. Especially the little ones. I mean they’ll tell you anything you want to know whether you want to know it or not! (Laughter)
So I feel like it’s just a different connection. You know, I went from kindergarteners calling me a music teacher to kindergarteners calling me principal but they still tell me about their animals and you know their cousin’s birthday party that they went to. So I feel like you have a different…I feel like it’s another step for these kids, it’s another place for them to feel safe. You know it’s one more person for them to talk to and to feel that they can go to if they need it. That’s really important to me; it’s really about the connections with the kids and. I saw a meme yesterday – I’m going to try to find it here really quickly but it was somebody had just put it out yesterday and it was about the kids who go to school to learn… Here we go. It says: “Students who are loved at home come to school to learn. And students who aren’t come to school to be loved.” And that really hit me because it’s very true. You know there are a lot of kids who can’t get kinds of connections at home for whatever reason and that’s our job is to make sure that they feel like they belong somewhere. And that they are loved and that we’ll take care of them. I think that that’s a connection that every teacher can make but I feel like as an administrator, we have one more. It adds one more level for them.
Jay Willis: Well so. I have a just a couple more questions if you’re OK on time.
Theresa Stager: Yeah.
Jay Willis: OK. So first off I just wanted to ask – I know you’ve been in administration and education for a while and I’m sure you have some amazing stories to share just to the impact that you’ve been a part of. But what’s been one of your best moments as a school administrator?
Theresa Stager: Gosh, you know, there have been so many. And I honestly think that my best moments are the little ones. They’re the ones that you walk downstairs to the kindergarten table in the morning and one of the kindergarteners just runs up to you for a huge hug around your leg and tells you that they missed you over the weekend. And it’s like, “Did you really miss me over the weekend?” I had one little girl bring me in this huge handful of weeds from outside. They were outrageous. (Laughter) And I mean her little hand could not have held any more. But she was soooo proud of them. And she brought them for me, she picked them for me and she brought them in after recess and gave them to me with just the biggest, proudest…and she just shoves them out there and it was like – I thought I was going to cry. It’s those things, and they sound sappy and silly. But it’s not the curriculum meetings and it’s not the 1:1 iPads, it’s not those kinds of things. It’s the little connections that you make with these kids. It’s the ones who come back after they go to high school and they give you a hug and tell you how much they miss you and that they’re doing really well in their new environment. For me, you know, we’ve got them pre-K through 8. So when we send them out we’ve had them for a very long time. So the fact that they feel prepared – and it’s the eighth graders who are crying on the last day of school, you know, because they don’t want to go. But you know, it’s those things that I feel are my best moments. It’s the ones that you know that you have truly made a connection with somebody that are the ones that I will remember forever.
Jay Willis: Yeah. I’m sure you have a lot of stories like that. That’s neat. So I want to run through just a couple rapid fire questions if that’s okay. So what’s the best leadership advice you’ve ever received?
Theresa Stager: The best leadership advice I have ever received is: Do not change anything your first year unless you absolutely have to. It’s not leadership advice, but it’s administrative advice. You’re going to get into your new building and you’re going to see eight hundred thousand things that you think in your head should be different. But everyone who’s been there before you thinks that they should be exactly the way that they are. Because they are like that because somebody made them that way. So don’t change anything unless that becomes a health and safety issue. Or unless it’s a really, really BIG problem.
Jay Willis: Yeah. Well I think to make that applicable to any leadership, it’s, listen and learn first before offering your advice and opinion and making changes.
Theresa Stager: Yes. Always.
Jay Willis: Yeah. So what would you say is your biggest strength as a school administrator?
Theresa Stager: I would say mine is communication and relationships. I truly feel that the only way you can build a community is by relationships and people have to trust you. And the only way they’re going to trust you with their children is if they know who you are. And the only way they going to know who you are is if you let them.
Jay Willis: Yeah. So aside from Breaking Out of Isolation and Connected Leadership which, of course, anybody listening to this should definitely go out and get those books right?
Theresa Stager: Yeah, absolutely! (Laughter)
Jay Willis: Aside from those, is there a book or two that have been really influential for you as a leader?
Theresa Stager: There is a book that I am currently reading for the second time. And it is George Couros’ Innovator’s Mindset. He is a phenomenal thinker and leader and has just found all of these other people who are in my PLN that I love to listen to anyway. And he’s put them all in this big huge book about what you need to be thinking, about what you need to be doing, and it’s amazing. It’s available on Amazon; it’s available via Kindle. I actually ordered it the day it came out on Kindle and then I did a panel with George in December and he gave me a copy. And wrote a really nice note on the inside of it. He’s a phenomenal human being, if you’ve never met him or spoken with him. He really is. So that is one that I would strongly suggest. Ours, too – Connected Leadership and Breaking Out of Isolation. They’re little books. Corwin does their Connected Leader series and the books are only sixty-five, seventy, eighty pages long. So they’re quick reads, they’re like five chapters. And we try to make them more conversational so they’re easy reads and George’s book is an easy read, too, but it’s a longer book. That should give you a couple things to read through but you will not be sorry, I promise.
Jay Willis: So what advice would you have for a school administrator as far as working with the students that they serve?
Theresa Stager: You have to know where they’re coming from. You need to know your kids. You need to know their likes and their dislikes. You need to know the kids who are struggling at home and make a connection with them.
Jay Willis: So kind of along those lines what advice would you have for working as an administrator with the teachers?
Theresa Stager: Your teachers need to feel like you know that they know what they’re doing. And that you trust them to do what they’re doing. But also, on the other side of it, you need to find out what they want. For instance, I thought when I came in that it would be helpful if I gave my teachers more time. So we only had one staff meeting a month. And the other weeks I gave them either genius hour time where they could do a personal project that they liked, or they had P.L.C. time. And we have a small staff. But they did not like that. They wanted to be together every week. They wanted to have staff meetings every single week. So we had to change that back, but that was something that I needed to learn. And I wouldn’t have learned it had I not been listening.
Jay Willis: So last question I have – if you had a time machine, and you could go back to the point in time when you first made the decision to go into school administration, what advice would you go back and give to the younger version of yourself?
Theresa Stager: I would tell myself to do everything exactly the same way (Laughter) I feel like it’s such a great position. And there are so many things about it that you wouldn’t know until you got here but I feel like I learn them all in the way that I should have, if that makes any sense. I don’t know that I would change anything. I think if I had to go back and do one thing differently I would tell myself to stop being such a wuss and start reaching out to people earlier because I really struggle with social anxiety. And that was a huge issue for me and a big stumbling block when I started reaching out for jobs. Because I feel like, had I tried to connect with people that I was already networking with on Twitter, I think that my job search may have been a little quicker. But I was afraid to make that call because I was afraid of what they would think of me. You know. it was that adolescent – even though I was you know twenty-five years old or thirty years old I just had that fear ingrained in my head. And I think had I just sucked it up and done it, and just said, “You know, I’m just going to reach out and I’m gonna try”, I think that things would have been a lot smoother and I would have been a little less scared.
Jay Willis: So do you feel like you do that more now? You just act?
Theresa Stager: I do. Yeah. I do. But it’s been my husband pushing me (laughter) and too, you know, a lot of the people who I talk to have made it so easy. Whenever I need anything, if I just reach out to somebody and just ask the question… and so it just took me reminding myself that the people who want to help are not only the people that I’m connecting with right now (laughter). The fifteen people I have in my Voxer group are not the only people who want to help (laughter). So it can’t hurt.
Jay Willis: Yeah and that’s hard, too, because – especially when you’re new and there’s just all these thoughts that you have like, “Who am to reach out to his person?”, right?
Theresa Stager: Yeah. Melinda Miller, God bless her, had been a principal forever. She lives five states away. But she was so helpful. She reviewed my resume, she helped me with interview questions. I mean she didn’t have to do that, we don’t even know each other, but she did. And I can give you thirty people who would do the same thing just off the top of my head. Just reach out and ask for help.
Jay Willis: That’s good. Yeah. Just do it, right? The worst they can say is no.
Theresa Stager: Yeah. And you know what? No is not so bad. You can’t be afraid of that. You’ll learn from it. Absolutely.
Jay Willis: Yeah. So. Finally, if one of our listeners wants to reach out to you after the show what’s the best way to connect with you?
Theresa Stager: Probably on Twitter. You can e-mail me, too. But if you go to my Twitter @PrincipalStager I will be giving away a copy of our Breaking Out of Isolation book to one of your followers. So what I’m going to ask that if you follow me on Twitter – add me, follow me, and direct message me and we’ll give it probably a week after this goes out, after this is published. And I will pick a winner and mail you a copy of the work.
Jay Willis: Awesome. That sounds great. Well, thank you for doing that. Edu-leaders, this has been a great interview today. For the show notes of today’s show and other resources visit educatorslead.com and type the word Theresa into the search tool to find the show notes. Theresa, thank you for sharing your journey with us today.
Theresa Stager: Well, thank you for having me, it’s been awesome.
Jay Willis: And that wraps up another episode of Educators Lead.
This podcast is brought to you by Mometrix, the #1 test preparation company. Mometrix offers study materials for over 1800 different exams including the SAT, ACT, GED, and of course, state standards exams like the STAAR, teacher certification exams, Advanced Placement, CLEP, ASVAB, GRE, and so many more. Mometrix takes the mountain of information students could be tested on for any given exam and boils it all down to just the golden nuggets of information that are most likely to be on the exam. They get all that along with some great study tips and test-taking strategies to help students maximize their test scores. With our interactive tutorial videos and a layout that makes lesson plainly easy. Mometrix study guides, flashcards and practice questions are a great fit for individual or classroom use. To learn more about our products and our vault of hundreds of free tutorial videos, please visit educatorslead.com/testprep. That’s educatorslead.com/testprep
Edu-leaders, thank you for joining us on Educators Lead. Visit us at EducatorsLead.com for everything we talked about today, free resources and much, much more!
Educators Lead is a podcast created to help launch educators into the next level of leadership. This show is for you if you are interested in educational leadership as an assistant principal, principal, superintendent, teacher or someone who hopes to be a school leader one day. Educators Lead offers inspiration and practical advice to help you lead more effectively. Jay Willis interviews school leaders three days a week to discuss why and when these educators made the decision to move into school leadership, challenges along the journey, and stories that made it all worthwhile. Educators Lead is a great resource for any educator looking to make a greater impact.
Educate. Inspire. Lead.