Dr. Susan Atherley
Principal, Alexander W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach, Florida
WeAreTeachers: You won the Magnet Schools of America Regional Principal of the Year for Regent 4 this year. Congratulations! How’d you do it?
Dr. Atherley: Thank you! They had a lot of criteria that we met including creativity, involving the community in the school and enhancing the academics and the arts at an already highly performing school.
WeAreTeachers: Tell us about your career path.
Dr. Atherley: My first job was as a high school chemistry/biology teacher. Then I became a guidance counselor, then assistant principal in an elementary school, then principal of an elementary school. I then had the incredible opportunity to build both an elementary and middle school as principal. And now I’m going into my seventh year in my current position at the high school level.
If you would have told me back when I was a teacher that I would be a principal, I would have said you were nuts! I never planned to be a principal. It just kind of evolved.
WeAreTeachers: How did it evolve?
Dr. Atherley: When I was a guidance counselor I was given a lot of administrative duties and found I really enjoyed them. A principal at the time said, “You’re really good at this!” I thought, “Really?” I decided the next step was to get certified as an assistant principal. I went back to school to get my Specialist Degree in Ed Leadership from Nova Southeastern University. I didn’t get an AP job for two years because there were no openings. But when an opportunity opened up, I was ready and had the needed credentials. Eventually I got my doctorate in Ed Leadership from Nova as well.
WeAreTeachers: Was it hard to get your advanced degrees and work at the same time?
Dr. Atherley: For me it was great! I went to school at night or on Saturdays and was still able to do my job during the week. I loved it because I could take what I learned back to my school and try to incorporate it and grow from it.
WeAreTeachers: What are the best things about being a school leader and what are the worst?
Dr. Atherley: Working with the kids and making a difference in their lives is the best. The second best is working with the staff. You have to be the leader and keep the staff positive and happy. Teachers today have a lot of demands on them. I’ve always said if you have happy teachers, you have happy kids and happy parents.
WeAreTeachers: You also make more money as a principal.
Dr. Atherley: For me it was never about the money. Of course it’s nice to make a bit more, but when I started 14 years ago the money wasn’t that good. I don’t think any of us get paid enough for what we do!
WeAreTeachers: What are the biggest challenges you face as a principal?
Dr. Atherley: Keeping up with the trends is a challenge. Everything is computerized and goes at a much faster pace than when I first started.
School safety is another huge challenge. When Sandy Hook happened I made some changes to secure the campus. We have a 20-acre campus. I looked and said, “We’re too open, too loose.” So we made some changes. My biggest challenge is making sure my staff and kids stay safe.
WeAreTeachers: What personal sacrifices does it take to be successful in your position?
Dr. Atherley: I think the biggest sacrifice any successful principal makes is time. School is your first priority and it takes a lot of time to do it right. You sacrifice time with your family and many people in my position don’t take the time to take care of themselves. I do yoga and I make sure I go three times a week. You somehow have to save time for yourself and do something that fulfills you, whether that’s going to church, the movies or playing tennis.
WeAreTeachers: What first steps should a teacher take toward becoming a school leader?
Dr. Atherley: Get very involved in your school. Take initiative and get on as many committees as you can to get the experiences you need. You need to learn it all! And get a degree of course!
WeAreTeachers: What is your advice for someone who wants to be a principal?
Dr. Atherley:It’s all about the desire to do it. You have to have the drive to want to do it.
And make sure you go into the right kind of school environment. I’ve always been in high performing schools with high parental involvement. Not all people want that much contact with parents, but I enjoy it. I’ve always had well-behaved kids. If I was in an environment that required I spend most of my time on discipline, I wouldn’t be as happy. Your personality has to match the type of job you want to do. You have to find the right fit for you!