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Principal Earns Celebrity Status

Stephen Hockett, McNair principal was an educational celebrity before recent Principal of the Year award.

Walking through the white halls of McNair Elementary School, it is easy to see that newly appointed principal Stephen Hockett is already a celebrity in the eyes of his students.

As he steps into the school's noisy cafeteria the first two tables of children closest to the door stop what they are doing to get his attention.

"Hi, Mr. Hockett," scream the 5- and 6-year olds.

"Sit next to me Mr. Hockett," they all say.

Bending down to sit at the tiny table — meant for a 5-year old and not a grown man — Hockett immediately starts talking to the children about the special Thanksgiving lunch they are eating.

Standing a little more than 6-feet tall, Hockett towers over the tiny children. Often wearing pastel or brightly colored neck ties — usually with a complimenting shirt — Hockett is quickly learning all the students' names at McNair.

On the way out of the cafeteria, after visiting with other students and talking to staff and even a mother and her baby sitting nearby, Hockett says hello to the students walking through the halls — knowing most by name.

Immediately it is apparent why Hockett was recently given the Fairfax County Public Schools Principal of the Year Award — he loves these children; he loves his job.

And, he loves being in a place where he never has to grow up.

In his office a stuffed orangutan sits on the top shelf of his book case next to other toys. Children's artwork adorns the walls and large birthday cards — made by students earlier this month — lay on his desk. Another colorful card is posted to his bulletin board congratulating him on his recent award with children's tiny hand prints inside.

"Contrary to popular belief, children do not age you," said the 52-year-old who doesn't look a day over 40. "They keep you young at heart."

INITIALLY WORKING for a bank in San Francisco after college, Hockett realized, while in a meeting with a company executive, that he was in the wrong business.

"The reason I wanted to teach is because I wanted to make a difference," said the southern California native.

Taking his company's first-ever educational leave, Hockett went back to school to get a teaching degree from the University of San Francisco. Teaching for the Mount Diablo Unified School District in California, Hockett began to learn the "out of the box" teaching techniques that he uses today.

Because the school district was in a disadvantaged area, Hockett and fellow teachers began taking bits and pieces from differing lesson plans to address the specific needs of every child in the 32-member classes.

"I have high expectations for every child," he said. "I think the worst thing you can do is put ceilings on children. I also do not want staff to feel like there are ceilings on them, I want them to feel like they can create and discover new teaching ideas."

After living in California his whole life, Hockett decided to take another risk. In 1989, he quit his job and moved to the Washington, D.C. area with friends, but no job, waiting.

"It was the best thing I'd ever done actually," said the blond hair, blue-eyed educator with rosy cheeks and enough energy to keep up with his young students.

Seventeen years later Hockett has created a reputation that he humbly declines any credit for.

Even though his experiences have shaped his successful teaching philosophy, Hockett is steadfast that he would be unsuccessful without the children, parents, staff and teachers in his life. Or the credibility of the FCPS reputation and its leaders who allow him to try new things.

"Being an educator I also understand that learning comes from de equilibrium," he said. "If you know what you're doing you're not learning."

HOCKETT'S ABILITY to connect with individual children is one of the many reasons why parents, staff and students at Hunters Woods Elementary School in Reston nominated him for the principal of the year award earlier this year. A former teacher, assistant principal and then principal at Hunters Woods, Hockett shaped the school to what it is today.

"He really is a true leader," said Kathy Uhrig, Hunters Woods PTA president. "He encourages others to also lead; he doesn't control everything."

Uhrig has known Hockett since 1999, when he was first promoted to principal and the first of her three children enrolled at the school. Over the years of PTA involvement, Uhrig began working more and more with Hockett.

When he first came to the gifted and talented, art and science magnet school, Hockett taught sixth grade. After two years he was promoted to assistant principal and then principal three years later. But, even with an administrative position Hockett could not stay out of the classroom.

When the school was short-staffed for one of its fourth grade math classes, instead of splitting the children up, Hockett taught the class until a suitable teacher was found, said Dee Nebert, office assistant at Hunters Woods.

"His sense of humor and his genuine caring for people is what is so great about him," she said. "He is a lot of fun."

WHILE AT HUNTERS Woods, Hockett gave staff and students the freedom to pursue innovative learning styles, while creating a fun environment everyday.

Implementing Hawaiian shirt days — because he loves Hawaiian shirts — crazy hair days and monthly spirit Fridays, Hockett created a fun learning environment. He also established Sunshine Emergency drills, where the school is required to read outdoors for 20 minutes on sunny days.

"He doesn't connect by books, but by the heart," said Nebert of his teaching style.

The list of Hockett's accomplishments within Hunters Woods is endless, according to Nebert and Uhrig. Although the school was sad to see him move to McNair, staff and parents knew it was time for him to move on to the next school, the next challenge and to connect with more students.

"I'm delighted to work with him," said Phyllis Sledge, McNair assistant principal. "He really does put children first, socially, emotionally and academically. When he goes into the classroom to read with the children, they love to see him. He just has a warm, loving way that brings out the best in all of the children."

"I'm really looking forward to being a part of the community and the community being a part of us," said Hockett of his position at McNair.

Also recently awarded with the Washington Post Distinguished Educational Leadership Award, Nebert said it is no surprise that Hockett joined the select 18 Washington area educators recognized by The Post.

"He has performed in our talent shows," she said of his involvement. "The kids really do treat him like he is a rock star — they love him."