Sometimes that’s good.
This is not where Robert Carter expected to be at 31.
“I didn’t think I was going to be a principal at 31. If someone had asked me what I’d be doing at 31, it would probably be ‘Hanging out with the guys. Playing (basketball) in an over-30 league. Maybe being married, but not having kids yet.’ ”
Instead, Carter and his wife, Jing Chen, have three children and he is the new principal of Aldie and Banneker elementary schools. Carter reflected on the personal and professional journeys that brought him to this juncture. Those journeys wouldn’t have even seemed possible to him as a teenager.
“To think ‘I’m going to be married to someone who is not from this country and I’m going to have kids with someone who is not from this country and the kids are going to be raised in a household where they have grandparents on two different sides of the world.’
“It’s definitely not what you pencil in in your life. It quickly became that. Once you take the first step, the rest fall into place.”
That proverbial “first step” took place during Carter’s junior year at Shenandoah Valley Christian Academy in Frederick County. A group taking students to Shanghai to teach English came to the school on a recruiting mission. “I decided I wanted to go on this trip.” Carter reached out to family members and anyone else who could help and got enough money to make the trip to Shanghai. The teacher he was supposed to be helping as an aide became ill and Carter ended up teaching the class. “I just fell in love with teaching. I was on my way to being a physical therapist. I loved sports; I wanted to be something in the physical therapy/sports management world. That trip rocked my world. ‘This is what I was meant to do.’ ”
Carter made a second trip to Shanghai as a high school senior. He made a third trip while attending Bryan College although he was advised not to. “I really wanted to go back when I was in college, because I really decided to go to college in elementary education based on those trips. But everybody said ‘If you stop progress in college, you won’t come back.’ ”
Carter was determined to continue his education. “I said ‘This is going to be my mind-changer. This is what’s going to decide where I am supposed to be and what I’m supposed to be doing.’ ”
On his third trip to Shanghai, Carter met his wife, whose English name is Elsie. (“It’s just a name she picked out of thin air; it doesn’t translate very well.”)
Elsie Carter was accepted to – and graduated from – William & Mary’s School of Law. The couple has three children; daughters Cadence and Penelope and son Kingston. “I have no idea how it ended up working out that we ended up together and that we ended up in Virginia,” said Carter. “…It all worked out somehow.”
Carter’s teaching career began at Clarke County’s Johnson-Williams Middle School in 2005. In 2008, he decided to become an administrator at the urging of his principal, Evan Robb. (Carter earned his master’s degree in administration and supervision from Shenandoah University in 2009.)
Carter was going to go back to teaching science when an assistant principal’s position at tiny (199 students) Berryville Primary became available. He quickly learned how unpredictable the life of an assistant principal can be. “When you become an assistant principal, you do all these jobs; right now you’re just a school manager, some years you’re an instructional leader, but some years you’re a toilet bowl cleaner. Some years you’re a truancy officer in a small county. You’re always aspiring to ‘What’s the next thing?’ and that’s a principalship.”
Carter said he got three pieces of advice on how to become a principal.
“One, you need to look outside of the county that you’re in and be available to go to other counties.
“Two, you need to look for any principal institutes you can find…
“The third thing you highly need to consider is going over the mountain (to Loudoun). I did and it ended up working pretty well.”
Carter’s first job in Loudoun was as an assistant principal at Emerick Elementary. (In an odd twist, his principal at Emerick, Dawn Haddock, also was his fifth grade teacher at Winchester’s Virginia Avenue/Charlotte DeHart Elementary.)
Carter said it was always his goal to be an elementary principal.
“My mentors have been middle school and beyond principals and have tried to recruit me for that. Someone told me a long time ago ‘If you want to be an elementary school principal, you want to do everything in your power to be an elementary school principal. Don’t take high school (assistant principal) job offers. Don’t take high school dean offers. Take elementary school assistant principal and elementary principal offers. If that’s where your heart is, don’t waste your time on other things.’ ”
Carter won’t be wasting any time as he oversees two schools. However, he said his staff is well-versed in the dynamics of a split principal and will pick up much of the day-to-day functions of an administrator. “The schools are small enough and understand how the process works.”
Carter said he will be on a fixed, alternating-day schedule between Aldie and Banneker with the exception of Friday, which he’ll split between the schools.
“I want to be at each school on spirit days. I think it’s important for kids at both schools to see me on spirit days. I’ll be dressing in clothes they’re dressing in. So many things, like parties and events, happen on Fridays. It would be a shame for me to choose to be at one school on a Friday when so many fun things are going on.
As full as Carter’s résumé is, there’s one line he emphasizes.
“One of the things I hesitated about putting on my résumé – because I didn’t get every job I wanted – is I always end my résumé with ‘father.’… The reason I want people to know I’m a father – and proud to be a father – is because they’re sending kids as young as just turning 5…into a building with me… One reason I always stress parenting and being a father is because I want parents to know I’m going to take care of their kids like I take care of my own kids. I care about their kids. I’ll grow to love their kids and their kids will probably grow to love me.
“It’s pretty powerful for parents to know that it’s not just a job.”