Last Tuesday, Leadership Anderson County participants were school principals for a day all over Anderson County.
A little more than 100 students are enrolled at the rural school where I shadowed.
The school is situated in one of the most scenic areas of Anderson County. In order to get there, you start in Clinton and turn, then turn again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and then stop somewhere between two farms, across from another farm.
Stephanie Sherwood has been principal at Dutch Valley Elementary for five years.
I’ve met her a few times before, including when my kids went to school at Andersonville Elementary, where she used to teach.
But I’ve never seen her as “in her element” as she was in her role as principal.
“Putting out fires” was a phrase other classmates used when they described what it was like shadowing the principals, and that definitely applied to Sherwood.
A number of unrelated things stood out to me that day.
One, she knew every single student. Not just the student — she knew their families. She knew why one child was having a rough couple of days because she knew where he had been that weekend.
She knew that three boys at the school were about to have another baby brother (which made a total of six boys!).
She knew the struggles each teacher faced, and she knows low standardized test scores are not an accurate reflection of the school as a whole.
Which leads to the second thing that stood out to me. I already knew that test scores are no way to judge a school. But there were a few things I didn’t know.
For example, the flood of children born addicted to drugs over the past decade is having a serious impact on local schools. Devastating, in some cases.
These kids often have learning disabilities, and because children with special needs are streamlined into traditional classrooms, they all take the same state-mandated standardized tests. So in places like Dutch Valley (and most of the region, really), where addiction issues are rampant, that has an impact.
And low test scores have a direct impact on teacher evaluations, which could impact their jobs.
That’s tough, especially if there is only one teacher and one classroom per grade. If a classroom at Dutch Valley Elementary has a higher than average number of students with special needs, there is no waiver or letter of explanation. It just reflects poorly on the schools and teachers. There’s a lot more to say about that, but not here.
Third… well, I’ll just describe the situation. An announcement was made over the intercom that Principal Sherwood was needed in a classroom. She said she had a feeling she knew what was going on, and then proceeded to head to the classroom, where a little boy was not having a good day.
Three other teachers were already involved, and the poor little guy looked pretty dejected.
Sherwood walked up and sat down on a small stool just outside the classroom.
She stretched out her arms and he came over and sat on her lap. She gently put her hands on his little face and softly asked, “What’s wrong?”
Everything immediately deescalated. You could feel the tension evaporate, and within a short period of time, the student was back in his classroom.
He continued to have a challenging day, but he won’t remember that. He’ll just remember that he was safe, and loved, during a moment that could have been much more conflicted with a differently-tempered principal.
The students and teachers all know Sherwood, but more importantly, they trust her.
They trust her wisdom to make the right judgment call, her strength to deal with a challenging situation, and they trust in her love, knowing that she will act out of compassion.
We need to do more for our schools. Really.