When Donna Pasteur announced to her staff that she would be retiring as the Principal of Carl Sandburg Middle School, she told them, "I’ve had the largest support group of anyone in the whole wide world."
Pasteur is retiring June 30, after the school year ends. Pasteur has been at Carl Sandburg for the last nine years. She has been in Fairfax County for 34 years, her entire career.A native of DC, She graduated from college in 1972. Her first job was at Hollin Meadows Elementary, where she taught Physical Education and Health. Pasteur has been a teacher, counselor, and held several different administration positions in eight different Fairfax county schools. She has been a substitute principal at Mount Vernon High School and was an assistant principal at West Potomac High School’s summer school. She is currently living in Maryland.
"My entire career has been in Fairfax and it’s been very rewarding. My last nine years have been the best" She said the school’s faculty, staff, and the wider community have all helped her throughout the years. "It’s been a beautiful journey."
She mentioned Family Fun Night, a PTA and school sponsored activity, as an example of the spirit of the school and its supporters. "You could feel the energy and enthusiasm. It says ‘I want to come out to my community middle school… it speaks to who we are as a community. It’s very tight knit."
"Over 34 years I’ve seen a lot of changes in education… This county is so great because it’s moved with the demands and challenges and has always met the needs of the students and the people who work in the schools. Carl Sandburg "is a very diverse school with regard to programs and the students we serve. We’re a school that has met our academic accountability measures… It’s great because the people that work here make it that way. There’s nothing they won’t do." The elementary schools and the school do their parts as well. "It’s a really nice collaborative learning community."
"The most significant thing we’ve done is in the way of student achievement. We’ve kept pace with the academic mission of Fairfax County Public Schools."
Pasteur said the school accomplished this by planning ahead and forging close collaborations. Pasteur designated instructional coaches to work more closely with administration and teachers. The staff has meetings every week to review the how the school is working towards meeting its academic mission, students’ needs, and teachers’ professional development needs.
Besides academic achievement, Sandburg also focuses on having strong elective programs. More than half of the student population participates in music programs. "Fun in learning," said Pasteur, "that’s the key for middle schoolers," plus "structure and discipline."
CYNTHIA JONES and Eretha Williams have each been at Sandburg since it opened its doors in 1985. Jones, the Math Department Head and Instructional Coach, will also be retiring after this school year. Before 1985 she taught at both Stephen Foster and Bryant Middle Schools, both of which merged to become Sandburg. She started her career at Stephen Foster in 1974.
After so many years, people ask her, "Don’t you ever get bored with doing the same thing?" She tells them, "I would if it was ever the same." But she says the basics of job remain unchanged. "Middle school kids are just the same… Every minute is a different experience for them."
She says they are now offering more advanced math classes to Middle School students than they were when she began teaching. Educators have developed better strategies for pushing kids more and helping them understand more abstract ideas. But she says that the American school systems often focus on covering a wide breadth of math topics without encouraging a depth of understanding.
Of Pasteur Jones says, "She’s a truly able manager, very, very interested in knowing all about the workings of the school." As soon as she arrived she made an effort "to tap into the knowledge of people who had been there a while." She knows what is going on in every aspect of the school, from finances to curriculum to the custodial staff. She holds weekly meetings to ensure the school is proactive about issues on the horizon. "She really trusts her instructional leaders. She lets us know she values what you think. She may not agree… but she explains why."
Pasteur is also "very, very conscious of extra efforts." Jones says that often a teacher will do a small thing, like staying after school to meet with a student, and will find a note in his or her box the next day from Pasteur. That acknowledgment has an effect. "This staff is wonderful. That’s what keeps most of us here." "If you come by this building at 5: you’ll still see lots of cars" in the faculty parking lot… A cooperative effort makes it a pleasure."
"I’m so fortunate that I found a job, or it found me, that I love doing. For 31 years I’ve looked forward to coming back every year."
Williams teaches children with disabilities, does educational testing, and teaches high school in the summer. This is her 36th year teaching in Fairfax. She emphasized the "vastness of the diversity at our school . we have everything. We have a microcosm." There are students at all socioeconomic levels, "children coming from half million dollar homes and children coming from trailer parks… I think we blend pretty well."
Williams met Jones during "a turbulent time in ‘85" when they hadn’t decided whether to close the middle schools where each of them worked. "I teach math too and I would go to her for other resources to help my kids. She’s a super math teach. She taught my daughter algebra."
Williams has known Pasteur almost 30 years. "She has been a terrific educator in the classroom and a guidance counselor. If there’s anything a teacher wants to educate their children. She’ll find the money for it. She’s out for children. She’s a children person."
Pasteur and Jones, Williams says, "are two fun people and I’ll miss them."
WHEN PASTEUR tries to explain her personal mission as a teacher, she often refers back to the county school system. "I felt like I was bringing a broad knowledge base of Fairfax County Public Schools vision and mission as pertaining to the middle school teacher and student and wanted to work collaboratively as a group toward the vision we hold for middle school students." At first, this deployment of buzzwords sounds like a loyal employee’s effort to toe the boss’s line. However, as the conversation goes deeper, it becomes apparent that Pasteur’s deference towards Fair fax Public Schools comes from a deeply held sense of gratitude, not only for employment, or for giving her a professional start and the opportunity to advance, but beyond all this, for helping her know herself and learn what she was capable of.
"I knew when I came out of college I wanted to be a teacher. I didn’t know that I wanted to be a principal. I knew I had something to give and what I found was I was not only giving, I was receiving. Fair fax County was a good match for me. I came into this county and I saw good, strong leadership from the first day. I still didn’t realize I wanted to be a principal – but people saw things in me and made me realize" what she was capable of.
Pasteur credits family and marriage for her success. But when she says "family," it is difficult to untangle whether she is talking about her personal family or her professional "family." This seems to be because after more than 30 years she herself does not find it necessary to draw a clear distinction.
"I’ve been able to watch good leadership in a strong and vibrant school system and I’ve been able to thrive on that… Every step I made, there was always administration support and leadership I admired… You get faced with a challenge and there was always a response," from "the system, the local school, or the community… "There was always that moving forward and I was able to be a part of that. I enjoyed it.
Hours after the initial interview, Pasteur calls back, to be sure she emphasized a point she had emphasized throughout the meeting. "I appreciate the support I’ve gotten here from Sandburg and the larger community and I will leave with many fond memories… The vote of confidence was just immeasurable. Maybe that’s why I’m so driven."