Principal Michele Sims welcomes students and parents at the entrance to Terra Centre Elementary every single day. Her colleagues have an ongoing joke about her smile: it’s the first and last thing the children see at school each day.
“I love my kids,” said Sims, as she walked through the hallways checking up on every classroom. “I get my energy from them.”
Her smile, along with her commitment to excellence at the school, are what prompted several teachers and parents of former students to nominate Sims for the 2006 Robert R. Spillane Leadership Award last spring. Sims didn’t win, but the nomination spoke loudly to her.
“[The award] represents the commitment that we all have to doing what’s best for the children,” said Sims. “I am touched that they have this confidence in me and recognize how much I care.”
Spillane was the superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools for 13 years, said Paul Regnier, spokesperson for the school system. He left in 1998, and attends the school board’s leadership conference every year to reach out to teachers there and present the award. Sims said it’s a treat for all teachers to listen to him speak each year, because of his lifetime full of loyalty to education.
“He’s one of the great people in American education,” said Regnier, who was also hired by Spillane.
WHAT SIMS remembers about working under Spillane is his commitment to education. She said he always encouraged the teachers to “keep the main thing, the main thing,” which he said boiled down to the children and quality education.
Sims, who has worked in the Fairfax County school system for 28 years, brings humility to the job, pointing out that she stands on the shoulders of her colleagues and students in order to succeed. She said she doesn’t think of herself as exceptional, but it’s obvious her students do when they come running to give her a hug.
As she walks through the halls, or into a classroom or the cafeteria, children call out to her. They compete for her attention: “Mrs. Sims, Mrs. Sims!” She gives out hugs to anyone who wants one, which is nearly everyone. She knows each and every one of the school’s 600 students by name, because she said it’s so important to “make each one feel like they are the only one.”
“I want them to know I care about them as a person; that I’m not someone who sits in an office all day,” she said.
And that’s what she does. Sims is always walking around her school. Whether she’s visiting the children while they eat lunch or visiting them in art class, she’s constantly interacting with them on a daily basis. She said she’s “out and about all the time” because it shows the children that she cares about them.
“I like the way she greets all the children,” said Connie Mehio, an ESOL teacher at the school who was one of Sims’ nominators. “She’s a caring person.”
Mehio has worked with Sims for about nine years. She said she followed her to Terra Centre from Cheney Elementary, which has since been consolidated with two other schools to form Fort Belvoir Elementary. Mehio followed her, and helped nominate her, because of her leadership and her love for the children, she said.
“Someone who is an outstanding administrator should be recognized,” said Mehio.
During a visit to Mehio’s classroom, Tuesday, Nov. 14, Sims sat down with one student and helped him work on a computer lesson. The non-native English speaker was writing a composition and needed some guidance. She helped him until Mehio took over, and made the student promise to come into her office and read her the finished product one day. He smiled and agreed that he would.
While Sims may smile a lot and greet her students, she also spends a lot of time making sure her teachers have all of the tools they need to provide the best quality education. Mehio said that Sims advocates research-based programs and constantly gives her teachers direction and ideas.
“She’s very innovative,” said Mehio. “She provides us opportunities to participate in services so we can improve our curriculum and our instruction.”
For Sims, it’s just a part of her job to make sure children can excel. She also admits it “feels good when kids believe in you,” but she makes sure they actually have something to believe in.
“If we can provide the skills necessary for kids to continue asking questions and continue to dream, then we’re doing what we’re here to do,” said Sims.