Hardly anyone can come close to pronouncing correctly Suzanne Huyke's last name. So when Thoreau Middle School principal Bruce Oliver took the time to learn it, Suzanne, an eighth grader at the Vienna middle school, was impressed.
"It's just great, because I never heard anyone say it right before," Suzanne said.
Little efforts like learning the names of students have been some of the things that the Thoreau community has appreciated about its principal. With Oliver's retirement at the end of June, parents, teachers, students, administrators and the wider community honored Oliver, 58, at a Sunday reception recognizing his 16 years of service as Thoreau's principal.
Those that spoke during and after the reception showed their gratitude for a principal known for his optimism, fairness and dedication toward the students and staff who have walked through Thoreau's front doors over the last 16 years.
"He really puts a lot of effort in getting to know the kids and being there for them," said Suzanne's mother, Mary Jo Huyke. She witnessed Oliver's dedication when she saw him showing up at many school-related student functions, including band concerts.
Suzanne agreed. "He's a great guy," she said. "He's always there for the students. He's always asking questions about the students."
OLIVER'S RETIREMENT wraps up a 36-year career, with 34 years in Fairfax County Public Schools. Oliver, who lives in Burke, taught for 10 years, served in various administrative roles for 8 years and worked in the county's central office of several years before coming to Thoreau.
At Thoreau, Oliver wanted to carry out his philosophy for a good school, which works on several levels: create an environment in which teachers want to come every day, thus affecting performance in the classroom. With enthusiastic and supported teachers, students can learn better. The children come home excited about school, thus making parents supportive of the school and its faculty and staff.
"It's what I've endeavored to do throughout my career," said Oliver in remarks he made during the reception.
To implement his philosophy, Oliver incorporated several elements. He read up and learned about educational practices that could benefit Thoreau and put those methods into practice. That would include counseling parents and getting to know the students.
"This stage of life for children can be very baffling," said Thoreau PTSA president Peggi Johnson. "This is the man that looks at you and says, 'this is normal.'"
Bonnie Brown, a special education teacher at Thoreau, witnessed Oliver's dedication when he would come into her class and take the time to learn about the cares and interests of the students.
"He's very open minded, very dedicated, and a true leader. He sees the best in every student," Brown said.
OLIVER ALSO created an environment in which students and staff were free to laugh. He enjoyed the spontaneity of the middle schoolers and the positive feedback from parents. He ensured that the candy bowl in the main office was filled with chocolate every day, and he gave teachers, administrators and support staff from secretaries to janitors birthday cards with personal notes on their birthdays.
"I always wanted Thoreau to be a happy place, because I realize there's a good deal in laughter," Oliver said.
Although Oliver leaves Thoreau at the end of the school year, he will not be leaving education behind. He will serve as a senior consultant for ASK Inc., which stands for "Attitudes, Skills and Knowledge." He will also counsel incoming principal Mark Greenfelder this coming fall and throughout the year.
"I think Mr. Greenfelder will do a fine job based on my interactions with him so far. He is smart, has good people skills, listens carefully, learns quickly," Oliver said, afterward in an e-mail.
When not working in his new position or guiding his successor at Thoreau, Oliver said he plans to take mid-day walks, read and travel. He can't wait for the ability to sleep through two-hour school delays during snowstorms.
"I am looking forward to tomorrow and the possibilities," Oliver said.