High-stress jobs in education? Been there. Managing and leading others? Done that. Juggling a career while being a dad? Welcome to Jim Millsap’s life.
Good Dads’ new Strong Schools Coordinator has seen it all. A Springfield native, Jim attended Missouri State University to earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. The retired educator spent 39 total years in education as a math teacher and later as a principal—principally at Billings High School, about 20 miles southwest of Springfield.
We sat down with Jim, who accepted the new position of Strong Schools Coordinator last month, to honestly discuss work-related stress: how to combat it, and ultimately, how to live in harmony with life’s inevitable stressors. Jim’s answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Question: Which of your previous jobs has caused you the most stress? Why?
Answer: I’ve been a teacher and a principal, and each is a stressful job in its own way. In my first year of teaching, I was a giant ball of stress because of my inexperience. I had yet to make any meaningful connections with others, so I had no mentors or helpers I could confide in. I also found teaching to be stressful because I couldn’t plan for every contingency.
Being a principal was also very stressful, especially when I was young and inexperienced. When I first began as a principal, I was 29 years old, the youngest high school principal in the state at the time. I constantly looked to others for approval, weighing my actions as successes or failures based on the reactions of teachers, other administrators, parents and the school community.
Unlike teaching, wherein you start the day having a vision of what you intend to accomplish, as an administrator you may think you have a plan, but unforeseen circumstances may require you to pivot. The unexpected was stressful for me, although I suppose some folks really thrive on variety. Another stressor inherent in administration is being in the unfortunate position of being responsible for a lot but not possessing the ultimate authority to carry out actions.
For a brief period of time, I did a stint in sales, which was also a big stressor. I was always worried about making ends meet. Out of all these jobs, being a principal was the most stressful.
Q: As a principal, you probably had to manage many moving parts. Was it stressful being in charge of so many people?
A: To a degree, yes. One of the things that I loved about the job was that it allowed me to be a problem-solver for others. I could let the teachers worry about teaching and let the students worry about studying. I took care of everything else, from enforcing the rules (like disciplining bullies and addressing behavioral problems) to maintaining routine operations (like fixing the copy machine). I like to think of the principal as the person who can take stress off of others’ shoulders, but with that comes the responsibility to hold people accountable and manage conflict. You have to be ready to make decisions that others may not be happy with.
Like I said earlier, being a principal at only 29 years old was very stressful. At the time, I didn’t have enough life experience to accurately discern priorities and decide what was most important—everything was important! When I was younger, I was very reactive: When something came up, I hurled myself toward it. But the first dog off the porch is usually the one to get mauled. Being reactive rather than thoughtfully approaching a problem caused more stress than anything else.
Q: What does it feel like when something goes wrong at work?
A: Stress for me meant a dreadful sense of nervousness and anxiety. There were also physiological consequences to stress, including migraines. Not being able to work well through stress is likely to result in additional issues, such as depression or interpersonal conflicts. Being able to manage stress at work is not limited to the workplace, either: Folks often end up taking their stress home with them. Frustrations from work can translate to lashing out, heightened conflict, explosive anger and even retreating and isolating from one’s family.
When I married Caralyn in 1989, I temporarily stepped away from education after 12 years in the field. I had suddenly become a step-father, and I knew it was time for a break. The five years away from teaching and being a principal helped me achieve clarity. In the interim, I taught college classes in the evenings and was able to rediscover what I truly loved about teaching, reconnecting with it.
Q: What coping strategies do you use to manage stress on the job?
A: Understanding what you can control and what you can’t was a life-changing strategy for me. Stressing over something you are powerless to change is fruitless. My favorite poem, “If” by Rudyard Kipling, speaks to this very sentiment.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise
– A Choice of Kipling’s Verse (first stanza) (1943) from the Poetry Foundation
If you can’t control it, then your stress is wasted energy. Instead, you should focus on what you can control. This mindset has been instrumental in managing stress at work. It’s kept me from being the first dog off the porch—being reactive and acting without thinking.
Asking yourself, “Is the thing I’m worried about within my control?” gives you a moment to pause and analyze. Instead of leaping to thoughts about how to solve a problem, take a step back and reflect: Give yourself the opportunity to make a smart decision.
Q: Many people feel guilty taking breaks from work and struggle to mentally clock out from their jobs (e.g. thinking about work all the time, even when they’re at home). Do you relate to this?
A: I’d be a hypocrite if I said I’ve never struggled with this. My advice is to find a passion that is not related at all to what you do professionally. Almost every Saturday for 32 years, I meet up with a group of friends. We even found ways to connect during the pandemic. It’s really helped me let go of work-related stressors.
Q: As an educator and as a stepdad, you have a unique perspective on raising kids. So what can parents do to be good role models for their kids in dealing with stress?
A: Remember that nobody’s perfect. Do your best to be a thoughtful, not immediately reactive person. Try not to be a loose cannon. Always apologize when apologies are due. When kids see their parents modeling responsible communication and behavior, it instills in them the skills they will need come adulthood.
With my students and my own children, I always believed honesty went a long way. When I was having a bad day, I’d be frank with them and say, “I’m not feeling good, and I need some grace from you.” Kids react wonderfully to that. It’s better to admit you’re not at your best than to pretend to be Superman and end up lashing out at someone.
Q: What advice do you have for folks who are under a great deal of stress at work?
A: Do not isolate yourself. It’s important to have people on whom you can rely and with whom you feel safe. One of my friends struggles with depression, and it’d be easy for him to choose not to go to our Saturday hang-outs—but it’s so important to him that he not skip. When we are stressed, we may feel incapable or like failures. When we are all alone, that’s the only voice we hear.
Diana Dudenhoeffer is the communications specialist a at Good Dads. She is a graduate of Missouri State University; she studied journalism, sustainability and documentary storytelling. Diana maintains Good Dads’ online and print presence, designs curriculum and promotion materials, manages social media channels and more.