Growing up in Philadelphia's inner city, Audra Sydnor always wanted to be a teacher. And her parents, teachers and church were the source of her inspirations.
"My dad was strict and believed education was important," she explained. "Teachers and nurses were women's role models then, and blood wasn't my favorite thing." Eventually, Sydnor taught the neighborhood children so much that teachers began giving her materials to help.
She loved imparting knowledge and now, after a lifetime of teaching and being a school administrator — the past five years as principal of Lanier Middle School — she's principal of the new southwest county middle school opening in September on Union Mill Road.
"I put my name in the hat and was fortunate enough to be selected," says Sydnor. "I have always enjoyed challenges, and it's such an honor for a principal to start her own school, select the teachers, define the curriculum and educate thousands of students." Although she loved Lanier, she couldn't pass up the chance for a new experience and an "exciting adventure."
She's lived in Northern Virginia since 1983 and in Burke since the 1990s. She received a bachelors in English from Morgan State University in Baltimore and a masters in English from Columbia University in New York.
Sydnor obtained her administration endorsement from the University of Virginia and a Certificate of Advanced Graduate Studies in educational leadership from Virginia Tech. It's a doctoral program, and she's still completing her dissertation.
She's spent more than 30 years in education, but still recalls those early salaries. Her first job was teaching English at Arturo Toscanini Junior High in New York. Said Sydnor: "When I began teaching, I received $5,900 and, when I got my masters, I got a huge raise to $6,500."
Her husband of 35 years, Otha, a retired Army colonel, was on active duty then, so his transfers took them a variety of places. As a result, she taught in Georgia; Texas; in the Department of Defense University Program in Tirrenia, Italy; at NOVA in Chester, Va.; and in Petersburg and Richmond.
Sydnor taught for 20 years at all levels — Head Start, preschool, elementary, junior and high schools and college. Her first job in Fairfax County was teaching English at Edison High, beginning in 1983. She closed out her teaching career at Lake Braddock Secondary, where she taught AP and GT English until 1990.
Since then, she's worked in administration. For five years, she worked as an English curriculum specialist and a coordinator of secondary programs. She then served as assistant principal at Robinson Secondary before her stint as Lanier principal. She came to the new middle school Feb. 1.
Sydnor is also a parent; daughter Stefane lives in Lake Ridge and is a pharmaceutical representative, and son Marc works in the investment field and lives in Atlanta. She has one grandchild, Brandon, 1.
As a teacher, she enjoyed working with the children, "stretching their minds and watching them grow academically and emotionally." Her favorites were middle schoolers because they're "so interesting — they change so frequently. They still believe they can fly. No matter what you ask that middle-school child to do, he'll do, if you give him the wings."
Sydnor said it's a tough age, but she's pleased that those students are willing "to change, to try and to take academic risks." Besides, she said, they're sincere in their feelings: "You can always capture the truth from a middle-school child; they still enjoy adult attention."
As an administrator, she believes all students can be successful at school with the appropriate support system. "I feel that all children have gifts, but they open them at different times," she explained. "So it's important to recognize that no one size fits all; we have to gear education appropriately for them."
Sydnor also believes in parents being partners in their children's education "because they're their first teachers and know them best. You have to hold children close, while allowing them to express themselves and find their sense of independence."
At the new school, she hopes to have a special room where parents can do volunteer work. She also wants a business partner, a mentorship program and an active PTA, and she especially wants parents to be part of the school's academic thinking. For example, they could help develop the school plan, which defines its goals. They could also share their experiences on career day or talk with classes about aspects of their careers that fit into the curriculum.
Pamela Cunningham, an experienced guidance director, is the Director of Student Services. Sydnor will hire the administrative staff and assistants first, and then the teachers, beginning in March. The school will probably have almost 70 teachers, and Sydnor plans to hire ones who are child-centered and smart.
"All teachers should be instructional leaders and strong in curriculum, and my job is to lead them," she said. "They should know their subject matter [thoroughly] and how to integrate technology into their instruction so the children are getting a 21st-century education." Sydnor also wants her teachers to be good communicators and to embrace parent involvement.
And she plans to cheer them on, behind the scenes — helping them become even better teachers — by sending them inspirational quotations and stories — things to reflect on and hopefully incorporate into their teaching.
The toughest thing about being an administrator, said Sydnor, is making everything fit when there aren't enough hours in the day. Her focus now, she said, is "juggling all of it and making sure the school is up and running in August — because the children will be here then, and I want to make sure things are special."
She said the most satisfying part of her job is "being able to mold the thinking and touch the lives of so many young people. When I was a teacher, I had 150 children a year. As assistant principal, I had 500. Now, as a principal, I have thousands, and I'm the person who can make a difference in their lives educationally — and I love that piece."
At the new school, Sydnor plans to emphasize a strong foreign-language program and the use of technology to enhance the students' computer literacy. "I look at what skills they need to be successful in high school and to be productive citizens," she said. "That's my charge."
Most of all, she wants a strong academic program for all students; she believes in setting high expectations and helping children achieve them. Said Sydnor: "I love children, and I love being a principal because principals are still teachers — and my lifelong dream was being a good teacher."