In the Principal's OfficeThis is a weekly series shining a light on principals in Charlottesville’s and Albemarle County’s public schools.
With three children, and a full-time job as principal of Clark Elementary School in Charlottesville, Anna Isley’s schedule is packed.
But she still finds time around the clock to pursue her doctorate in curriculum and instruction at the University of Virginia.
“I am usually rocking and rolling until midnight,” Isley said.
Isley said she doesn’t know exactly what the future holds, but her heart is in curriculum and instruction.
She added that she enjoys giving feedback, helping plan and developing instruction for students and developing learning experiences for teachers as well as teacher leaders.
Before becoming principal of Clark, Isley has held several jobs in education. She served as a long-term substitute and fourth-grade teacher for Roanoke City Public Schools and the Hays Consolidated Independent School District in Texas.
Her role at the Charlottesville City Schools included a teaching gig and serving as assistant principal of Clark. She became principal three years ago.
Q: How did you get into education?
A: I wanted to be a teacher for a long time, since I was in high school. I was definitely inspired by a couple of my teachers. My teachers also taught us life lessons outside of just the content of the class. I decided in high school that I wanted to be a teacher.
Q: You taught first and then became a principal. Do you miss teaching?
A: I do sometimes. There’s this great quality — this great feeling of having your class. You really get to know students — having 15 to 20 students that you’re responsible for. You see them throughout the course of their day.
You see all of their development. You become such a tight-knit family. So, I also love instruction. I’m getting my doctorate in curriculum instruction. There’s that instructional piece that sometimes I miss.
I don’t always get to see the ‘aha’ moment of a student learning something new that I don’t always get to see [as a principal].
It's hard. It's definitely challenging. The only reason I can do it is with the help of my husband, who is involved and is such an equal partner and encourager. I have a very supportive family.
Q: Why did you choose elementary over middle or high school?
A: I was planning on becoming a math teacher and wanted to be in the secondary math program at the University of Virginia. I had a significant back surgery after my first summer of college and wasn’t able to work.
So, I was volunteering and doing a lot of work with some summer camps with elementary-aged students. [I was just] volunteering as much as I could while recovering.
After working with that age group of students that summer, I called the school and asked if I could switch into the elementary program.
Q: You’re also currently getting your doctorate while working full-time as principal. You have children. How do you balance your workload?
A: It’s hard. It’s definitely challenging. The only reason I can do it is with the help of my husband, who is involved and is such an equal partner and encourager. I have a very supportive family.
I don’t have babies. My children are in elementary school. They’ve become a little bit independent. Getting my doctorate has been a goal of mine for some time, and it seems life just gets busier the longer it goes on.
I’ve figured I better get started. I try to balance and be present wherever I am in the moment and really be efficient with my time.
Q: What was your journey like after you graduated from UVa?
A: I got my bachelor’s and masters’ from UVa, so I finished a semester early in December. I went back to Roanoke city and stayed with my parents and did a long-term substituting for the second half of that school year. And then I moved to Austin[, Texas,] with my husband, who’s a sportswriter and publisher.
We lived in South Austin for about a year and a half and then we came back to Charlottesville. We came back because we love it. I have two siblings who live here, as well. My husband also went to UVa.
It felt like home, and we wanted to be back closer to our family. It sort of worked out. My husband got a position here, things fell into place in Charlottesville.
Parents can expect continuous improvement for sure. You lay a strong foundation, and you put things in place. Year after year, you start to see these fruits of those investments.
Q: You’ve had some great educators while in school. What’s the greatest advice you’ve received?
A: There have been some really key people in my life; my own parents for sure who have instilled a sense of independence and drive from the time I was really young, especially my dad.
I learned that no matter where you’re from, or what background you have, you can achieve great things. Nothing is impossible. I definitely learned that from my parents.
My mom has taught me to be a caring person and treating anybody that I encounter in whatever situation the way I would want somebody treating somebody in my family. I’ve really carried those two things with me.
Q: You’ve worked as the assistant principal first before taking the reins as principal. What’s on your wish list?
A: Parents can expect continuous improvement for sure. You lay a strong foundation, and you put things in place. Year after year, you start to see these fruits of those investments.
We will continue to grow and expand our social and emotional learning and our understanding of supporting children from diverse backgrounds and making sure that we’re meeting the needs of the entire student, while maintaining academic excellence.
Q: I’m glad we’re talking about meeting the needs of every child. Let’s shift gears a little. How’s the newly designed gifted program?
A: It’s going great. Our gifted specialists are pushing in and augmenting what we’re already trying to build as a strong Tier I program for students. So, they’re pushing in and engaging students in critical thinking.
It’s been great going to classrooms and seeing all students getting access to the [concepts]. We had started some of that last year. It’s great to kind of built on that and have the support of the division to offer those experiences for our learners.
Q: Part of the new gifted initiative was to hire more gifted resource teachers. How’s having two teachers in the building helpful?
A: It’s great. One of our specialists is primarily supporting kindergarten, first and second grade and the other, third and fourth grade. Obviously, you double the people, you’re able to serve more students far more than we were serving previously.
Anna Isley, principal of Clark Elementary School, said developing existing staff can help retain teachers.
Credit: Zack Wajsgras?Charlotesville Tomorrow
Q: You did some work around gifted children before coming to the division; talk a little bit about that.
A: When I first graduated, I was a long-term substitute in a gifted program. It was essentially a magnet school. I had the great fortune of teaching third, fourth and fifth graders. … This was a great opportunity. I taught them social studies each grade level, and I had a home room that I taught reading for.
They were students who came from all over the city, who were identified as gifted students to attend this magnet program. It was a unique experience.
I didn’t stay because we were moving to Austin. It was really neat to bring students together from all over the city and also support some exceptional learners and some challenging work.
Q: How did that experience help you later on in your career?
A: It helped me to think about in terms of what is possible. I saw all the great things we were doing for those students.
I think certainly that helped me as a classroom teacher to think about different ways to support gifted learners and those experiences we want all students to be able to experience, not just those identified with being gifted.
One of the things that I believe in is developing the people that we have, making sure that we have strong hires. One of the roles as an administrator is to set the very best conditions that we can — not just for students but also for teachers because when teachers feel like you listen to them, they feel like they have a voice at the table.
Q: The division is making these changes to diversify the number of students in the gifted program. As an educator, what would you like to communicate with parents?
A: I hope that all parents know that we’re working to ensure that all students have access to some of the types of learning experience that maybe certain students who were identified as gifted were having. All students are held to high expectations.
I hope that every parent knows that we’re holding high expectations for all students, and we’re providing rigorous instructions. That sometimes take the form of observing the types of questions that are being asked. [We’re] also making sure that all students are receiving high level questioning and are engaged in our lessons.
And if someone is not, we try to figure out why. A lot of effort has been taken to try to make sure that all of our learners are engaged in these learning experiences.
Q: You keep a very busy schedule. What should we expect from you after completing your doctorate? Do you see yourself doing other things?
A: I have a lot of things that I want to do. I don’t know when I finished it what exactly that holds. I know that my heart is in curriculum and instruction.
I love giving teachers feedback, helping plan and developing instruction not just for our students but developing learning experiences for teachers and teacher leaders as well.
So, I certainly gravitate towards those things. At some point, I would love to be an adjunct at a school of education — even that’s just teaching a class here and there.
That’s just one thing on my bucket list. I will definitely be in education for sure, but I don’t know exactly what the future holds.
Q: I know there are a lot of talks around teacher shortage. What can be done as a division to rectify or remedy the situation?
A: One of the things that I believe in is developing the people that we have, making sure that we have strong hires. One of the roles as an administrator is to set the very best conditions that we can — not just for students but also for teachers because when teachers feel like you listen to them, they feel like they have a voice at the table.
When you take time to develop teacher leaders, they’re really invested in the mission as well. They’re able to sort of rally other people.
One of the things that I try to work on is developing teacher leaders. Here at the school, we do have a leadership team. We don’t only handle tasks of the school. We try to develop, whether it’s me [or] the instructional coach, we try to develop teachers as leaders to support their teams as well.
I try to develop those who want to pursue [teaching] or support instructional assistants. That’s another thing. We have some instructional assistants who are in school and are working to be able to be a teacher and get their certification. We’ve been able to hire several of them as teachers.
So, when you can develop the people that you have, and you set high expectations and you also set strong conditions for the work and a very collaborative space, you address a lot of retention issues.
Having been a long-term substitute for half of a school year before I then took over my full role helped me. I encourage a lot of student teacher interns that we have, if they’re graduating early in December, to try to take on a long-term substitute role because you get a chance where you’re kind of in charge.
Q: As a young teacher, what do you think helped you?
A: My first full year of teaching, I was in a very large school [in the Hays Consolidated Independent School District] — extremely large. We had about eight teachers on the grade level . It was a great opportunity, great job.
There was another first-year teacher on my team. And we kind of connected with each other. We sort of built each other up. We had an instructional coach in our building, and we checked in with her. We each had our mini professional learning community, and I just really felt supported.
The other first-year teacher and I were kind of supporting each other, and I really felt supported by the instructional strategist or coach as well. I think experience is the other thing.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: Having been a long-term substitute for half of a school year before I then took over my full role helped me. I encourage a lot of student teacher interns that we have, if they’re graduating early in December, to try to take on a long-term substitute role because you get a chance where you’re kind of in charge.
It’s a little bit more of what you did as a student teacher intern, but you’re taking on an already established classroom for teachers and lessons. You can kind of have your spin on it, but you’re also not starting totally from scratch. I think that gave me a little bit of a leg up than most first-year teachers.
Q: You’ve worked for other school districts. What do you enjoy about Charlottesville City Schools?
A: It’s been great to come in as a teacher, assistant principal and then principal in the same division. I’ve really enjoyed being here. It’s small enough where a lot of people know each other. You feel very connected versus working in a large school, or large school division, where you don’t necessarily know all the people in your building.
The diversity, for sure, has been a huge piece for me. The division aims to work on equity and celebrating our diversity. That has been a great important piece for me here.
I feel really supported. Some of the folks who came before me did what I’m trying to do. They saw the leadership potential in me and worked to develop me and are some of my mentors. That’s what I’m trying to do here. It’s developing and growing some of our own leaders. It is a tight-knit community and feel. It feels like family here at Clark. It’s like another home.
Whatever happens outside of school we know can have a significant impact on our students, ranging from anything that happened in the morning before they came to school, a loss of someone, to a hardship, whether they have enough food and more.
Q: You’re obviously very successful. You were a teacher, and then became an assistant principal to becoming a principal. What challenges have you faced, and how were you able to overcome that challenge?
A: One of the greatest challenges is that there are a lot of competing priorities. If I could, I would spend all day and every day just in classrooms and giving feedback, observing instruction and supporting teachers in that way.
But the reality is there are a lot of other tasks. You have to be deliberate with how you spend your time. The way that I found to best support that is developing capacity. Building capacity in the building so that you have other folks who can step in to do the work, or initiate things without needing you to say anything.
That’s one of the challenges, and it is as a teacher. Any teacher that you would ask here if they could have anything more what would it be. And they would all answer time.
Everything is a priority, including reading, or a student’s social and emotional learning. So, there are a lot of competing priorities. It’s hard when there are things that you know you cannot control you know impact a student.
Q: What are some things you cannot control that impacts the students?
A: Whatever happens outside of school we know can have a significant impact on our students, ranging from anything that happened in the morning before they came to school, a loss of someone, to a hardship, whether they have enough food and more.
There are so many things that can happen to all students that impact their experience, and you don’t have any control over. What we try to do is we understand the circumstances. We work on the part that we can address here at school, and we try to connect and build strong relationships with families to be supportive and connect folks with resources when we can.
Q: You have a lot of things going on during the day. How do you do you shut down at night?
A: I don’t shut down. I’m up a lot. [Laugh] Yeah, I do get some sleep, but it depends. I probably on average get about four to five hours of sleep. My kids are elementary-age students, and when I come home, they have needs.
They’re involved in activities, like dance and sports. Once we have dinner and get everybody taken care of, often in the evening, I’m doing work as a principal or for my own schooling. I am usually rocking and rolling until midnight.
Q: Do you get to read for fun?
A: Unfortunately, I don’t get to read for fun because I have so much to read for school. Definitely, I do a lot of things with my family on the weekend. All of my kids play sports and do different activities. My kids are all in sports on separate teams. [So, I attend three football games for my three children on Saturdays.] My husband coaches them. We go to a lot of UVa sporting events.
Anna Isley, principal of Clark Elementary School, is pursuing a doctorate at the University of Virginia.
Credit: Zack Wajsgras/Charlottesville Tomorrow
We're reimagining local news in Charlottesville
Reimagine with us
Our free, no-commitment newsletter delivers our latest local only headlines directly to your inbox, ad-free and paywall-free, giving you news on local topics you can use, share, and discuss. You'll also get invitations to Coffee Conversations and other in-person events on topics of local interest where you can interact directly with our journalists, local policy makers, and stakeholders. You care about local news - reimagine it with us.