When Michelle Sojka heard she was going to be Pine Trail Elementary's new principal, it was a bittersweet feeling.
She was excited to join the Pine Trail family, but she was also leaving Manatee Cove Elementary, the school where she had first taken the role of principal. But just as she felt when she left her assistant principal position at DeLand High School to become principal at Manatee Cove, she feels she's at the right place.
"Everyone has been so warm and so welcoming, and so excited to meet me and to get to know me," said Sojka, who has been in education for 30 years. "I have to say, I'm kind of in that same situation where I felt like, 'Yeah, this is where I'm meant to be. There's a plan in all of it."
The Ormond Beach Observer recently spoke with Sojka about her goals for the next year and her journey to becoming principal.
You're the new principal at Pine Trail. What are you excited for in the upcoming school year?
I'm very excited to just meet the teachers. I've had a steady flow all this past week and even a little bit last week. They're just phenomenal teachers, and coming into a school already that is an "A" school and has been an "A" school, they are clearly very knowledgeable about what they need to do, and it's exciting — because for me, I get the opportunity to learn from them as much as to help maybe bring in a different perspective, something they haven't look at that we can build on together to continue moving in the right direction with our kids.
Why did you decide to become a principal?
Well, I had been teaching for a long time at the high school [level]. I started in middle school — actually Campbell Middle School — many, many years ago, and taught there for four years and then moved to Atlantic High School, taught high school social studies and then my path went that way. I became a teacher on assignment. I still taught a couple of periods a day because I love teaching, and then I got promoted to AP (assistant principal). I was at DeLand High School for almost 13 and a half years, and you reach that point in your career where you say, "You know, my role as an assistant principal is impactful." I am here to support the vision of my principal, who is there also trying to support the vision of the superintendent.
But at some point, I reached that moment where I thought, "I would like that to be my vision."
I needed that opportunity to really grow, and it was a really unique experience when I first stepped into my principalship. Mr. [Tom Russell] called me in and he said, "I'm going to throw you a curveball, Michelle."
He said, "I'm going to move you to Manatee Cove as the principal," and my first thought was, "I've never done anything in elementary, except be a student, and be that supportive parent as my children were going through elementary school." It was neat because I went to Manatee Cove in my first principalship with a very different perspective — I brought a high school perspective to when we looked at data, I looked at it differently. I looked at it from the lens of what do we need to be doing in elementary to really support those kids when they get to middle and high school. I knew the struggles we had with closing the gap at the high school level, and even at the middle school level.
I knew that elementary is truly the foundation. If we allow the gap to form in elementary, it just gets wider and wider. Even though it was a little scary, I was excited to be able to work with those teachers. They were phenomenal and I learned so much from them there.
What was the best piece of advice someone ever gave you?
The last thing that my predecessor said to me. She said, "Michelle, remember this. You're only one bad decision away from losing your job, and it might not be your fault, but as principal, it is all on you — what happens, what doesn't happen. You are responsible."
And it really is true. The buck stops with you, and so you have to be really cognizant of what's happening. You have to have people that you trust around you, because you can't be everywhere, but in the end, you're responsible.
What are some of your priorities or goals for the next school year?
I have an idea of some of the things that I want to focus on, but it's really a team decision. When I look around the campus, one goal that I absolutely have for the school is that I really would like to do some beautification here. I think this is a beautiful campus. I talked with PTA yesterday and so we're going to do some things to really spruce up the campus.
I'm looking forward to that, to see that change. It won't happen overnight, but that's definitely a goal that I have moving forward.
Any words you live by?
I try to live in the moment, because when I'm at work, I try to be all in at work. When I'm at home, I try to be all in at home. It's hard to find that balance because when you're principal, your phone can ring at 10 o'clock at night and I am there to answer it, so I try to do that, but I'm still working on the balance (she laughs).
What does it mean to be a Pine Trails Pioneer to you?
It really means being part of a family. When I asked the staff what was the best thing about being at Pine Trail, the answer was a resounding "the people." The people here are just so amazing. They care so much about what they do. They strive so hard to be the best and everybody helps each other and everybody wants to be there for each other.
That's exciting to come in to that kind of environment where it's so supportive and where it's just such a close, tight-knit group. There are teachers who have been at the school for 20 years. So I would say to them, "What has kept you here?" And it's the same: "It's the people that I work with." I look forward to coming to work every day and seeing the people that are working on either side of me in and around me, and the office staff is amazing.