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Nooksack Elementary principal Cindy Tjoelker says farewell to staff, students

Cindy Tjoelker’s life has run synonymous with Nooksack Valley Schools and Nooksack Elementary. As the first kindergarten student at Nooksack Elementary and a Nooksack Valley High School graduate, it was only the first five years of her life and a short break after high school to attend college that kept Tjoelker away from the schools, where she has worked for the last 32 years.

But now is the time for a “permanent sabbatical,” as she calls it, stepping down from the principal role at Nooksack Elementary School she has held for the past 10 years.

“Really it just came down to I have been at Nooksack for a long, long time and I am ready to go out and spend more time with my family and explore a little bit more,” Tjoelker says. “It is nothing major, it is really to simplify my life a little bit.”

Tjoelker started at Nooksack Elementary as a teacher. Having taught grades three, four and five over a 22-year span and stepping into the principal role for an additional 10 years, it was a bittersweet moment to step away.

“It has been my life,” she says. “I am going to miss people. That is the sad part, I am going to miss the kids, I am going to miss my staff. It is very weird to not be planning ahead, it is a little surreal still.”

Tjoelker, who says the changes over her career were gradual, from the ever-shifting state requirements to the population swings in the school, says teaching has gotten harder over the years. “Teaching is just a hard, hard, hard profession and I admire so greatly those in the classroom every day and the support staff because it is not an easy job,” she says. “It just never leaves you.”

In the immediate future, Tjoelker plans to take a six-month break to relax and catch up on projects she hasn’t had time for in the last decade. From there she wants to spend more time visiting family spread out over multiple states, be around for them and travel. “I love to travel and have done a lot of international travel, so would eventually like to do that,” she says. “That is a few years from now.”

Tjoelker calls her decision not a retirement, but a separation from service, a permanent sabbatical. She has even floated the idea of helping in the district in the future, maybe in some small capacity. “I am taking the time right now to figure out how I want to spend the next 20 to 30 years of my life and I don’t know what that is going to bring yet,” she says.

The decision to step away from the school came quickly this spring when she started thinking about her future, but Tjoelker knew the district could easily handle the transition. “I think they have found a fabulous person in Katie (Brown) and I think she is the right person for the job,” Tjoelker says of the new interim principal. “I knew they would be in good hands with someone who could step in and do my job.”

For Tjoelker, though, the next step puts a focus on rest. “We love and respect Cindy and wish her well as she enters new, uncharted territory and opportunities in her life,” says Mark Johnson, superintendent. 

Where those opportunities take her, Tjoelker just doesn’t know yet. When she finds out, she’ll have 45 years of Nooksack Valley Schools experience coming with her.