At Albemarle County Public Schools' New Teacher Academy, around 135 new teachers broke into workshops to engage with the division's core values. In this activity, groups tweeted out their definition of one of ACPS's "seven pathways." Credit: Credit: Kayli Wren, Dexter Auction

Albemarle County Public Schools held its annual New Teacher Academy this week at Henley Middle School, welcoming the new educators who soon will be in their own classrooms and offices as students return to school later this month.

Through talks from division leaders, various workshops and meetings with colleagues, the two-day New Teacher Academy was designed to orient about 135 new educators to the division.

“I want to make sure by the time you finish the two days that you understand our philosophy and the way we think about students first and learning,” Debbie Collins, assistant superintendent for student learning, told a roomful of teachers Tuesday.

The core values introduced to teachers included student engagement, collaboration, communication, building relationships and the relevance and rigor of schoolwork. The division also uses seven conceptual pathways to instill lifelong learning competencies in students.

“Albemarle County Public Schools is a professional learning community,” Collins said. “It is a place where we learn together and with our students. We believe all means all. That’s all of you and all of our students, and we take risks, we push the envelope.”

Activities revolved around familiarizing teachers with the county’s values and practices, getting to know each other and laying out the resources available to teachers.

In a talk Tuesday, Superintendent Pamela Moran emphasized the power of working together.

“I happen to believe that the important glue for how we get the learning results that we want for our children in Albemarle County doesn’t come from the power of one, it comes from the power of many,” Moran said. “It’s what we do together that makes that difference.”

Moran told the story of her first day of teaching, when she inadvertently wreaked havoc among her seventh-graders by bringing a garter snake into her classroom. She thought it would engage her students, but Moran accidently dropped the snake and she started bleeding when it latched onto her arm.

Called into the principal’s office, Moran was sure she would be fired, but the principal said, “If I fired you, how would you learn to teach?” Instead, he turned the day into a learning moment.

“I’ve told that story year after year after year for the new teachers in the room, so you know that first days don’t always go the way that you think they’re going to go,” Moran said.

The snake story seemed to resonate with many teachers in the room, including Alexandra Stokes, who said she is both terrified and immensely excited to be teaching for the first time in her life at Baker-Butler Elementary.

“Just hearing that everybody fails at some point in teaching, especially starting out, and that this woman is a superintendent and she definitely didn’t have a great first day, helps me feel more comfortable,” Stokes said.

For Ouida Powe, who will be a school counselor at Burley Middle School, the story confirmed the personality, approachability and warmth of the division.

“I didn’t feel like we were being talked down to by someone,” Powe said. “I didn’t feel like she was a lofty superintendent. So that was really encouraging. I have those goofy stories, too, and now I’m not as afraid to tell them.”

Tal Thompson, who will teach fifth grade at Stone-Robinson Elementary, agreed that Moran’s accessibility and the immediate accessibility of the division as a whole is unique and valuable.

“She’s celebrating risk-taking and learning from failure,” Thompson said. “And that’s what all of us want to instill in our kids, is step out on the ledge every once in a while, because that’s where the true growth happens.”

Thompson said he was drawn to ACPS in his search for a school division that thinks outside the box and takes risks to inspire and engage students.

“I have a 9-year-old who’s been bored in school for four years. And he’s a really smart kid,” Thompson said. “So I started researching who’s doing it differently and who is being celebrated in the world for stepping outside the box, and this district just kept coming up.”

In her talk, Moran stressed the importance of engaging each child.

“We know that our kids come in as 4- and 5-year-olds and they have all the curiosity in the world, and I fear that in some cases, schools kick that out of a kid,” Moran said. “Or we can fight to keep it there. Every day, think about ‘What am I doing? How am I solution-finding to make today inspiring and engaging and have my kids be curious learners when they leave?’”

For Powe, the New Teacher Academy confirmed the unanimous praise she heard about Albemarle before applying to work at Burley Middle School. The positive energy around engaging students and the emphasis on lifelong learning for everyone in a school system especially impressed her.

“I’m just completely floored,” Powe said. “I just felt like I had this Fourth of July explosion in my head of epiphanies of, ‘Yes, this is where I’m supposed to be.’”

Clare Keiser, the Albemarle division’s director of educator quality, oversees the hiring of all teachers. She said this cohort of new teachers is a strong one, especially in that they see themselves as lifelong learners and collaborators.

“This is an amazing group of people,” Keiser said. “They all bring a passion for kids, a passion for learning, a passion for teaching. One of the things we always look for in teachers are people who are willing to do whatever it takes, sometimes even stepping outside of their own comfort zone, to do what’s right for kids. And that’s something that we heard loud and clear through these teachers.”

At the end of one workshop, teachers were asked to write on a sticky note their takeaway of an ACPS core value. Keiser collected the stack of brightly colored notes and separated the pieces of paper later, reading words such as “collaboration,” “risk-taking” and “relationships” aloud.

“They definitely got it, when I look at this,” Keiser said, smiling.