Cultivating Hope: It's Never Too Late

Dr. Dana Stiner, Principal, Pine Tree Elementary, Kent SD
Apr 01, 2024

Hope Stories Dr. Stiner post

This article is one of three in our "Stories of Hope" series written by outstanding Washington state school leaders. We hope they inspire you! Check out our blog for the other two articles in this series.

Elementary School was extremely challenging for me. I was a square peg trying to fit into a round hole and it wasn’t working. When I think about those early years, I felt tremendous embarrassment that I would be “found out.” I struggled in all basic education skills. I couldn’t read or spell basic words, math was impossible and don’t get me started on science. I was a latchkey kid from a broken home in a small rural town. I was different, and I felt it. 

I got the message early on that I was different. I vividly remember my 1st grade class performed a play by Beatrix Potter. It seemed like everyone in the class had speaking parts, cool costumes, and fun skits to act out. Not me, I was the fence. That’s right, the fence! I wasn’t even the gate! At least the gate got to swing open. I was forced to stand still and watch everyone else perform. No reading, no moving, just standing still while my classmates performed to a room of proud parents. This might be a bit dramatic, but it was how I remember it. The following year, in 2nd grade, I was identified as being twice exceptional. I had a learning disability, and my IQ was above average. At the time, my school had no idea what to do with me, so they put me on a bus and sent me to a different school that had both special education services and a gifted program, making me feel like an even bigger outcast. 

When I attended elementary school, there was no differentiation. Teachers didn’t pull small groups or reteach concepts that students didn’t master. They taught, we received. We sat in rows, no collaboration, no teamwork, no connections, no explanations, no manipulatives, just drill and kill. I fell further and further behind. This is a huge contrast to where I am now. Now, I hold two master’s degrees (one in multicultural bilingual education and one in educational leadership) and a doctorate in Educational Leadership. I am the proud principal of a Title I school, and I was named a Washington State Principal of the Year. How did that happen? One word, I was taught the power of hope. 

By the time I ended my elementary journey, I had been dismissed from both special education and the gifted program. I wish I could say that I was a proficient student, but I wasn’t even close. I was dismissed because having a disability or being identified as “gifted” in middle school was embarrassing. I wouldn’t have had classes with my friends. I would have had remediation classes that set me behind in graduation requirements. Worse yet, I might have landed in honors classes, and I would have never passed, and everyone would have found out the truth, I wasn’t smart. 

As the years progressed, I became good at compensating and figuring out how to navigate the system. I learned how to take tests and I asked a lot of questions. As my senior year quickly approached, everyone started talking about plans for college. In my family, there wasn’t really another option. If you were successful, you went to college, and built yourself a career. There wasn’t any other option presented to me. I was petrified. I clearly remember the Saturday that I took my SATs. Sweat dripped down my back as I agonized over each question. “Don’t screw this up” played in my mind on repeat. What was even scarier was, what if I passed the SATs and I had to actually go to college? What would I major in? How would I pass and not let my family down? My stress was palatable. 

One year later, I found myself in college studying elementary education. Why? First, I love working with children. Their innocence and imagination inspire me. Second, I couldn’t think of a single thing that I was good at, academically. I thought maybe, just maybe, I could teach little kids their letters and numbers and that I could turn that into a career. Then, I attended “Teaching Math to Elementary Learners.” It rocked my world. Everything we did was hands-on. We used manipulatives, we talked about how and why the math worked. I learned more in that elementary math class than I did my entire life. I learned that I could do the math like everyone else, I just needed a different approach. For the first time in my academic life, I became hopeful. 

The realization that I wasn’t stupid and that I simply learned different, hit me like a ton of bricks. For many, college is about having fun, getting to know who you are and easing into adulthood. Not me. I attacked college. I consumed it. I threw myself into learning and I graduated with honors with my BA in elementary education and a minor in psychology. Teaching Math changed the trajectory of my life. 

After graduating from college in 2000, my fiancé and I moved across the United States to Phoenix, Arizona, where we both became teachers. I had found my passion and I poured everything I had into teaching and loving my students. Often, however, it wasn’t enough. My students struggled and I knew the educational system wasn’t doing enough for them. I met with the superintendent and pleaded my case. I can still remember sitting in the library, looking him dead in the face, and telling him with very loud and boisterous voice, we needed to do better for our kids. My principal was sitting beside me, with complete shock on her face. I made an impression. 

Thankfully, I didn’t lose my job, and this superintendent saw something in me. He tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to join his cabinet which quickly led to me taking on leadership roles throughout the district. For 13 years, he mentored me and showed me the power of hope. He taught me that hope is a skill that can be learned and that everyone deserves it—no exceptions—even administrators who have learning disabilities or swear too much. Through his leadership, caring heart, and dedication to all students, he showed me that all students and staff are capable of success—no exceptions. He allowed us to visualize a better future for everyone. He taught us how to create a path and plan to achieve the work and that when you care enough, you can accomplish anything. His gift to me is endless. 

Now, I strive to share the gift of hope with others. I want my students to visualize their future selves. I want them to imagine what their home and family looks like. What hobbies and recreation activities they enjoy as adults. What education and career path they choose to pursue and how they will give back to their community. When we do this, when we teach kids to time travel to the future, envision what the future holds, and then show them how to create a path towards that vision. We fill them with hope, and there is no better gift than that. 

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