Loudoun County, Va. (July 30, 2014) – There are many myths about Sharon Ackerman, who retired as Loudoun County Public Schools’ assistant superintendent for instruction on June 30.
- She can make grown men cry. (She denies this, although she can be intense.)
- She worked so hard, a body part exploded. (This is true. Unwilling to leave the budget process several years ago, Ackerman stayed on the job until her appendix burst.)
- She once taught on a dirt floor. (This remains an issue of contention between Ackerman and a former co-worker.)
- One thing no one can dispute is how much Ackerman cared for Loudoun’s children.
- Her teaching career began with four years at Russell Elementary in Pine Bush, N.Y.
“When I started in that classroom in New York, I don’t think I ever saw me moving out of the classroom.”
Ackerman came to Loudoun to teach at Aldie Elementary in 1972. A much different Loudoun…
“People were kind of happy to be farmers and expected the kids to come back to the farms and work. It didn’t particularly bother anyone that we weren’t knocking the top out of kids going to college. It was just a different time.”
In 1973, she became a reading resource coordinator; a new position no one had quite figured out. In this job, Ackerman moved between several elementary schools in western Loudoun assessing the effectiveness of each school’s reading program.
“They really didn’t know what to do with us. Of course, we got in our cars and went where we were told to go. I don’t know what kind of preparation the principals were given for who we were and what we were about… This notion of having reading specialists and what do they do and why do we need them was really kind of new.”
This led to principals making some odd requests of Ackerman. She substituted when called upon and worked beyond the classroom. “We’re having an event and we need someone to serve punch,” was a typical principal request. “Anything they asked you to, you pitched in to begin building that relationship.”
In retrospect, Ackerman said her fragmented schedule and various work assignments were a blessing. “The opportunity to see that many different leadership styles among the principals. In a way, you were part of several different families.”
One “family” she was a part of was Lincoln Elementary. According to Ackerman, Lincoln’s principal, Evan Mohler, made her teach on a dirt floor in the basement under a stairwell. (For his part, Mohler vehemently denies this. This argument flared up from time to time during the decade they both served as assistant superintendents.)
Ackerman said Mohler had the area under the stairs enclosed “so the evidence has been destroyed or covered up.”
Overcoming the dirt-floor debacle, Ackerman was named assistant principal of Sully Elementary in 1976. (She also served as the interim principal of the former Round Hill Elementary after the principal suffered a heart attack.)
In 1977, Ackerman was scheduled to come into the central office as an elementary supervisor. Before she began that 12-month position, then-Director for Personnel Robert Jarvis, called Ackerman into his office to say he wanted her to become the principal of Waterford Elementary. Waterford was an 11-month position, which meant Ackerman would be taking a pay cut. “A lot of people said to me ‘I would try to sue them.’ ”
In fact, Ackerman said the 11-month contract suited her. (She had a 3-year-old at home.) She also received some wise counsel from then-Deputy Superintendent Harry Bibb. “I remember Mr. Bibb saying ‘This won’t close you out of the central office forever.’”
Ackerman served as Waterford’s principal until 1980 and as principal of Sterling Elementary from 1980 to 1985.
“I will tell anybody that the principal is the plum position of all of the positions I’ve had. In many ways, that was the most enjoyable on a consistent basis because it’s a large enough setting for you to influence a lot of people… but it’s still a closer, more intimate, family kind of thing…
“You’re just a supermom there.”
Ackerman said the role of the principal is much more difficult today than when she held that position. “I am the first one to say ‘You all have so much more you need to be aware of.’ We didn’t even have an (elementary) art program yet when I was a principal; certainly nothing like PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support). Special ed. was not the size it is…
“I never lose my appreciation for (principals). I hope I never lose appreciation for the burdens we have on the classroom teachers too.”
It was during her time as principal that Ackerman obtained a reputation for being intimidating. (Former Sterling staffers will speak about the hushed horror of hearing her high heels reverberating in the hallways.) This is not an image Ackerman cultivated.
“I’m fascinated every time I hear that. ‘People are afraid of you.’
“I’m passionate about what our work is here. If that comes off as strong and somewhat intimidating… I don’t think I am mean to people… I’m not shy about saying ‘Here is what we need to do for kids.’…
“I guess if you stand for something… It was never my intention to be intimidating. I think most of that’s a legend anyway.”
Ackerman got her chance to come into the central office in 1985 as supervisor of personnel and became director of personnel services in 1987. “I was the first female to be elevated above supervisor; the first female director.” (Ackerman was sometimes called “Ackerperson” – in jest – in acknowledgement of her trailblazing role. “If I should have been insulted about it, I wasn’t.”)
Keeping track of the school system’s personnel was much easier then. “I could pretty much name all the teachers then because we worked with the names so much. Everything was on paper and in folders.”
From Personnel, Ackerman became director of elementary education in 1990, then assistant superintendent for instruction in 1998. In this role she influenced the philosophy of Loudoun’s curriculum at every level.
“What I’m happiest about is that I had this vision that we’d be much more of an intentional learning organization. Everywhere throughout the school division what would be prevalent would be discussions about instruction; deeper discussions about instruction.”
Ackerman is proud that risk-taking has become part of the LCPS culture. “Almost everything we’ve started, we’ve started as a pilot. We’ve been very thoughtful in it; know where we’re going, know what results we want to see. The notion that it’s OK to do something different is something I feel good about.”
Equity was something Ackerman stressed, along with the philosophy that each child be known well by at least two adults in the school. “Maybe they’re not teachers, maybe they’re not the licensed staff.’ ”
Ackerman promoted many people through the career path she followed. She always had a warning, however, for those coming into the central office.
“When people come to work here – particularly if they have been principals – I say to them ‘You need to be sure if you really want to do this, because there is a little hollow place in you that will never get filled because there aren’t kids here. You have to decide if the trade-off is worth it.’…
“You have to be willing to have really delayed gratification. The kind of things we set in motion from here are going to take years to see the results of. It’s a trade-off. You have to accept you’re going to get the satisfaction here.”
Working with adults doesn’t mean losing touch with students and their needs, Ackerman added. “When it becomes an adult thing and a power struggle, we’ve forgotten what we’re all about…I did always try to say ‘What’s best for the kids?’ ”
Looking back on 48 years as a professional educator, Ackerman had some general observations.
“Kids are the same. They’re more sophisticated with their electronic devices… but what kids need from us is absolutely the same. I’m just so pleased we’ve gotten better at it… In my case I could look back and say ‘I could be such a better principal now than what I was with what I know.’ I can really say that about being a teacher. Most of us think back to that first year as teachers and think we ought to write apology letters to the parents; thank you for letting us practice. I learned so much that first year. I can think of classic new teacher mistakes and I still see some of those.”
When she began teaching, teachers showed up at school one day before the students. “We’ve gotten so much smarter with the preparation we do, especially for brand-new teachers. They’re so lucky to have that support.”
Ackerman would recommend that someone pursue a career in education if they can ask (and answer) some simple questions about themselves. “I really am a believer in that notion of following your passion. If somebody says ‘Should I go into teaching?’ I certainly hope it’s not because you found there are other things you can’t do…I hope that it’s never ‘I’m settling for it.’… What is it about working with kids that gets you excited about coming to work every day?”
Ackerman was dubious about her place in Loudoun’s history.
“I don’t have any expectation that people are going to remember me at all. Things move too fast here. By the middle of next year it will be ‘What was her name?’”
One has to believe this is wrong.
Sharon Ackerman is the stuff myths are made of and mythology is not forgotten.