In the Principal's OfficeThis is a weekly series shining a light on principals in Charlottesville’s and Albemarle County’s public schools.
This piece has been edited for length and clarity
While a student at Western Albemarle High School, Megan Wood worked with children in camps during the summer and realized how much she enjoyed the work.
Although her first choice in college was history, she realized she still had a passion for children. After going to North Carolina for college, Wood, who played basketball for two years there, said she kept her passion for her home. And she wanted to come back to contribute in a positive way.
She said Albemarle County Public Schools makes it easy to be a part of because everything is centered on programs that support children, and those concepts align with her values in education.
Before becoming principal of Sutherland Middle School, Wood held many positions in school system. She taught at Jack Jouett and Henley middle schools, served as an instructional coach and worked as assistant principal at Albemarle High School.
Q: Do you feel like the education field is everything you thought it would be?
A: Yes. We look at how we can best support kids, and that’s why I went into education. If it’s an issue with a student struggling with peer relationships or academically, personal issues, it’s still about supporting kids. I love my job. Every day is different. So, it has worked out.
Q: Talk a little bit about some of the work you’ve done around culturally responsive teaching, which is a big initiative in the division?
A: The county has done culturally responsive teaching training with all of the teachers over the summer. There are three characteristics that the county has identified with regards to culturally responsive teaching, and Sutherland is focusing on the second characteristics, which is about how to differentiate instruction for students, like getting to know their background and designing instruction relevant and meaningful to them.
That’s been our main focus this year, which is getting better at designing learning experiences that bring relevance into the classroom for children from all backgrounds.
Q: Talk about why culturally responsive teaching is important.
A: It’s about recognizing who we are as individuals and designing learning experiences that bring people’s backgrounds and experiences and help us tie and make meaning of the curriculum. In an English class, for instance, we can pick out texts that have characters from diverse backgrounds, so that children can see themselves in the experiences that they’re learning about.
Q: How has the training changed your perspective?
A: [On a recent morning] our equity team had a meeting. Every time we have meetings and discussions about culturally responsive teaching, it brings back to the forefront that my experiences are different from others. It brings more meaning and awareness to the things that we do.
Success looks different for everyone. Being a successful educator means you've given someone the opportunity to pursue what he or she is interested in and you've opened doors.
Q: You’re clearly accomplished a lot. What are you most proud of as an educator?
A: I don’t know if it’s necessarily proud, but it’s my hope that the students that I interact with truly understand how much I care about them. I would hope that if you talk to the kids that I worked with at the high school when I was an assistant principal, they recognize that I really care about them. I’m hoping to make a difference for them, so that they can be successful in whatever they want to pursue.
Q: And what does success mean to you?
A: Success looks different for everyone. Being a successful educator means you’ve given someone the opportunity to pursue what he or she is interested in and you’ve opened doors. That’s what success looks like as an educator. You’re opening doors for people, and you’re giving them access to opportunities that they may have not thought were possible for themselves.
Q: What’s your favorite part about the field?
A: My favorite part is working with children. When I was at the high school, it was working with children to develop plans for them in the future as well as transitioning from high school to maybe a secondary, etc.
I enjoy listening to children sharing their stories about their goals and then helping them achieve those goals. Sometimes, it’s sitting down and problem-solving, or going in the cafeteria to have a conversation about what books they’re reading. It’s interactions that let children know that they matter.
Q: The teaching field is facing a shortage. One of the reasons teachers are leaving the industry is because of low-paying salary. What can the division do?
A: A lot of it is recognizing the work that the teachers do. There are all types of systems in place to look at: salary and compensations. There are also things that we can do in the building that recognize all the hard work that teachers do and honoring their work.
Like this year, I’ve been so impressed by the staff and the work that they’ve done with regards to differentiating. They work really collaboratively. Building and creating a culture in the school that is supportive and positive also contribute to teacher staying in the field.
Make sure that they feel safe to take risks and try new things. That allows you to build camaraderie among each other, so that they feel supported. It can be lonely to be a teacher if you haven’t built a strong team. Building a strong team contributes to people staying in the field because people recognize that they’re not alone.
The response that I get from people who are not in the middle school is when they find out about what I do, they feel sorry for me. I tell them not to feel sorry for me — middle schools are great places to be.
Q: What was it like growing up in the area?
A: It was in Crozet. Now, Crozet is much different than what it was when I was growing up because it was a lot of farmland. It was definitely more rural than it was it was suburban. But I always enjoy my experiences. I have fun memories of my teachers. I feel like it was supportive. I had a really good experience as a student in Albemarle County.
Q: Who was your role model?
A: I had several role models. It’s hard to just pick one. I had a phenomenal basketball coach who taught me so much more about life and perseverance and not giving up. When I was in high school, I had a wonderful PE teacher.
Q: Maybe you could talk about the best advice you received?
A: I was a captain in the basketball team, and it was interesting. I’ve never forgotten this. It was a leadership lesson. He looked at me because we were talking about a situation, and it didn’t go well. And he said, maybe that wasn’t the leadership role that was needed at that time.
I carried that with me into this job, and into other situations, like maybe that’s not what the group needs at that time. And it just made me pause and think. If I’m going to be a leader, that doesn’t mean that it’s [only] my way. It means that I’m responsive to the group and helping facilitate, rather than forcing a direction.
Q: You’ve been at this building for two years; what should parents expect from you?
A: Parents should expect responsiveness, attention to their needs, hard work and dedication.
Q: I know working as a principal can be hard. Have you ever felt overwhelmed?
A: This job is really busy. I had a meeting with a group of teachers in the morning, and then I had to meet with parents. Soon enough, I have to meet with a student. So, you have to shift pretty quickly, from one thing to the other. As you do that, you have to take a deep breath, and ask yourself what’s the purpose of what you’re doing. You also have to remember the core of the job, which is to support children.
I go to every conversation with that lens. You’re here to support children, so what does that look like in the situation? I get emails all day long. It’s a very busy job. So, it’s hard to shut it down. One of the things I do to deal with stress is to run and exercise. That’s how I do it. I hang out with my children. I have three.
Megan Wood, principal of Sutherland Middle School, said parents should expect responsiveness, attention to their needs, hard work and dedication from her.
Credit: Billy Jean Louis/Charlottesville Tomorrow
Q: You have to go to several meetings, and you still have to make decisions that affect a building as an executive. How do you balance your day?
A: That’s when it’s important to listen. It’s important when you’re in a conversation to really listen to what people are saying and try to work collaboratively towards that everybody can come to a census on. Not all my decisions are going to necessarily be what everybody wants, but if you’re listing and you’re communicating well about the purpose, then people listen.
Q: You’ve worked as a teacher before. Now, you’re a principal. Do you miss teaching?
A: Yes. There’s a different type of interaction that you have with students as a teacher than as a principal. I miss those types of interactions. I miss seeing kids on a regular basis and celebrate small successes.
I miss that, but I sneak the teaching in with the staff. When I do faculty meetings, or we do professional learning with the staff, that’s when my lesson design and my curriculum development comes because I like to do that. I like to say, this is a big idea, and then how do all these pieces fit together, and kind of have that conversation.
Q: You certainly enjoy teaching. I’m sure you’re enjoying working as a principal. Why did you accept the role?
A: When I was a teacher, I ended up being on all the committees that worked on bigger ideas. I was asked if I would consider working as a principal. That led me to think about it, and that set me on to this path. And it was a great suggestion.
As much as I love teaching, I love this job, too. I really enjoy the variety of things I get to work on. I like to build a master schedule. I like to look at how things are fit together. So, it really is a good balance of all the work that I enjoy doing.
I didn’t do a five-year program where I came out with a master’s in teaching. That part was intentional because I knew I was [going] back and get my master’s but I was not sure if it was going to be in curriculum and instruction, or in administration and supervision. So, I spent a couple of years in the classroom and then I went back to the University of Virginia and got a master’s.
Q: Your record shows you’ve been successful. You’ve worked as a teacher and now a principal. But in every field, people face challenges. How have you overcome a challenge?
A: We face challenges every day. And I think that the hardest part is when I feel like I’ve failed somebody for whatever reason, whether we don’t agree on a strategy in which to approach a situation or whether they didn’t feel supported by me. When I feel like I’ve let somebody down, that’s the hardest part of the job. I’m more than happy to extend an apology if I didn’t handle a situation the way they hoped I should’ve handled it.
Academically, I was a good student. The support that I needed was more along the lines of social and emotional support because I have the tendency of being hard on myself. I got that support through my teachers.
Q: What do people not know about middle schoolers?
A: The response that I get from people who are not in the middle school is when they find out about what I do, they feel sorry for me. I tell them not to feel sorry for me — middle schools are great places to be. In the middle school years, children are still figuring out who they are. And then you have 600 of them in the same place.
Middle school is the best-kept secret in education. It’s one of the places to see because you get to see kids. The changes that people experience between sixth and eighth grade is incredible, and I get to see that every day.
You see sixth graders come in one place, and when they leave in eighth grade, they’re completely in a different place. That’s phenomenal what we get to see every day.
Q: What should we expect from you professionally?
A: I don’t know what’s next, and that’s weird for me because usually I am a planner and look ahead. But I feel I like I just got to Sutherland. So, to be looking at what’s next for me right now is just not even in the books yet.
So, I’m not looking forward to any changes for a while. In terms of what’s next for Sutherland, we really want to focus on honing our ability to refine our instructions. So, that we’re differentiating and meeting the needs of all the children and being culturally responsive. That’s our goal for the next couple of years.
We're starting to be really responsive to social and emotional needs for the students. Last year, I know the board approved extra funding for more staffing to support and increase in school counselors.
Q: I want to shift gears a little bit. The achievement gap has been a big topic in education. Experts argue preschools can help. What are your thoughts?
A: I think that the earlier students can receive support the better, but that does not mean that there aren’t things that we cannot do to support students when they get to middle school. Just because students didn’t get what they needed earlier, doesn’t mean that now their experience in middle school can’t be positive, and they can’t grow.
I think it’s being really thoughtful and deliberate in how you support students that makes the difference. It does not matter where the students are and their age. We can always help students grow.
Q: I’m glad that we’re talking about opportunities. Do you feel like the division gave you all the resources you needed to succeed?
A: I do.
Q: How did your education shape the person you are today?
A: Academically, I was a good student. The support that I needed was more along the lines of social and emotional support because I have the tendency of being hard on myself. I got that support through my teachers.
They taught me how to be kind to myself, and how to forgive myself when I made a mistake, like you’re not going to get every question on the test right. And that’s OK.
There were other students who needed academic support, not so much the social, emotional support. And some of those were my friends. I’ve witnessed them getting the support that they needed.
Q: In terms of emotional learning, what’s the division doing?
A: We’re starting to be really responsive to social and emotional needs for the students. Last year, I know the board approved extra funding for more staffing to support and increase in school counselors. We’re starting to really recognize the importance of that and doing things to move in the right direction.
Megan Wood is a graduate of Western Albemarle High School.
Credit: Billy Jean Louis/Charlottesville Tomorrow