It was a long and winding road that took Julie Shultz-Bartlett from her childhood home in rural Pierce County to her current role as principal at Bethel Middle School.
The journey included stops in West Africa and South Central Los Angeles, and along the way she developed a profound love for education.
The oldest of five children, Shultz-Bartlett grew up on a five-acre, mostly forested property in Gig Harbor. She loved exploring the outdoors, but reading was her favorite pastime.
To say Shultz-Bartlett was involved in school activities would be an understatement. With five kids in the family, she knew the only sure way to get a college education was to try for scholarships.
And try she did.
“I threw myself into every possible activity I could,” she said. “I swam year-round, I was in drama, I was in charge of the recycling club. I actually started it! I was involved with leadership groups and debate. If there was something that was scholastic, I was involved in it.”
All that hard work paid off with a scholarship to the University of Washington in Seattle.
Even as a wide-eyed freshman, Shultz-Bartlett knew what she wanted to do with her life. As a young child, she had three heart surgeries to repair a birth defect, which made her want to pursue a career as a pediatric cardiologist.
That pursuit didn’t last long, however. She was overwhelmed in UW’s freshman math class, which had more students in it than her high school’s entire graduating class, and she immediately knew she wasn’t cut out for a career in math and science.
It was tough realization, but Shultz-Bartlett quickly found other interests. She switched her major to international studies with the thought of eventually working in foreign diplomacy.
After graduating from the Jackson School of International Studies, Shultz-Bartlett began looking for ways to get the overseas experience she would need to work in an embassy.
She signed up for the Peace Corps, but was disappointed to learn that her degree wasn’t exactly practical for the organization. They wanted engineers and scientists, and they said the only job she was eligible for was teaching. The thought of becoming a teacher had never entered her mind, but she decided to give it a try.
That turned out to be one of the most consequential decisions she would ever make, and one that would completely change the trajectory of her life.
So she shipped off to Guinea, West Africa, to teach English to local children. She had no idea what to expect in her new life, but it didn’t take long for her to recognize that she’d found her calling.
“Once I went to the Pearce Corps, I absolutely fell in love with teaching,” she said.
After teaching in Africa for several years, Shultz-Bartlett was accepted to the University of Southern California’s Peace Corps Fellows Program, which provides funds for Peace Corps volunteers to attend graduate school.
She knew she wanted to get back to working with children, so Shultz-Bartlett took a job teaching middle school in South Central Los Angeles.
“I just fell more and more in love with teaching,” she said. “I loved lesson design, I loved having those ‘ah ha’ moments with kids, and I loved the service component of teaching. I just loved everything about helping kids.”
She taught in California for six years before moving back to Washington to become a TOSA (Teacher on Special Assignment) at the Chief Leschi School District in Puyallup.
Instead of teaching students, TOSAs are responsible for instructing their fellow teachers. Shultz-Bartlett loved the job, but leaving the classroom was difficult.
“You do give up the one-on-one connections,” she said of the transition from teacher to TOSA. “You’re not the next most important person in their lives, besides their parents, which you were as a teacher. It was hard to give that up.”
When Shultz-Bartlett got the opportunity to lead a school, she didn’t hesitate. She arrived at Bethel Middle School more than six years ago, and she treats every day as an opportunity to become a better principal.
“I view the whole school as my classroom. Between the teachers and the students, watching them develop and meet their benchmarks, that to me is really exciting,” she said.
When she’s not working, Shultz-Bartlett and her family — which includes boy-girl twins and a teenage boy — love to hit the road in their mobile home to see the country.
She describes her family, including her data analyst husband, as “super nerdy.” They all love to read, and her children collect badges from National Parks. Over the span of one summer road trip several years ago, the family visited 18 National Parks.
Even when she’s on the road enjoying her vacation, Shultz-Bartlett is always thinking about her school.
“To me, Bethel Middle is a family,” she said. “It’s a family of really hardworking moms, dads, aunts, uncles, who come together to support each and every kid in this building. What fuels me is knowing that the things I put in place for the building benefit the whole system, but it also benefits the individual kids.”