Deirdre Lavery sat down Tuesday afternoon at Lee High School after a day jam-packed with back-to-school preparations.
Though the clock ticked past 5 p.m. the new principal’s day was not yet over. That evening, she would be welcoming parents for the first time at a fall sports meeting.
“It’s been tiring,” said the Burke resident of her first few weeks on the job. “But it’s a good tired.”
The 27-year veteran of Fairfax County schools spent the past two years working in the division’s central administration. Now she relishes the chance to return to the school building.
Lavery, 50, started at Lee on July 14, succeeding Abe Jeffers, who left the Springfield school in May to serve as an administrator for the Richmond city school system.
She comes off two years as director of the former Cluster 3. Superintendent Karen Garza announced a major reorganization of the school system in May.
Schools, formerly grouped in eight clusters, were regrouped into five regions with streamlined administrations resulting in Lavery’s position of cluster director disappearing.
Lavery said she saw the shake up as an opportunity to return to a more hands-on role and applied for the opening at Lee.
Since starting her education career as a special education teacher at Frost Middle School in 1987, Lavery has spent all but four years in schools. Most recently, she served as principal at Glasgow Middle School from 2004-2012, where in 2009 she won both the Fairfax County Principal of the Year award and the Washington Post’s Distinguished Educational Leadership award.
“Here, in a school, this is my place,” Lavery said. “I’ve been supporting schools, and that is great work, but I didn’t have ownership. I have that with Lee already — that sense of pride in this school.”
With the new school year fast approaching by the time she arrived at Lee, Lavery said she had to hit the ground running. Lavery said she laughs when people tell her that educators only work nine months out of the school year.
“The summer months can be the busiest time we have,” Lavery said. “If you falter on the opening day, it can be hard to recover. You have to start the year off right.”
Along with checking students’ schedules, filling staff vacancies and other standard summer duties for principal, Lavery also kept busy meeting with school staff, from administrators to teachers to janitors.
“I know anxiety comes with a change in leadership. People wonder, ‘Who is this new person and what is she going to do?’” Lavery said. “So I’m spending time listening to the folks who have lived and worked in this building.”
Larry Aiello, who worked with Lavery as an assistant principal at Glasgow for eight years and now works as principal at Parklawn Elementary, said getting to know her staff has always been one of Lavery’s top priorities.
“Anyone could walk into her office and name the people in her family photos, and she could do the same for all her teachers,” Aiello said.
For Lavery, taking the time to build relationships with her staff this summer is not a luxury, but a necessity.
“We expect our teachers to get to know our students that way, so I expect myself to get to know our staff that way — as whole people,” Lavery said.
Lavery said she plans to continue her mission to get to know the school community as the summer winds down — or in her case, builds to a crescendo of parent meet-and-greets and student back-to-school events.
“Gone are the days that principals can sit at their desk and shout out instructions,” Lavery said. “You need to take the time to build your vision among teachers, among parents, and — especially at a high school — among students.”
With every event, Lavery said, she gets that much more excited for the school year to start.
“There’s always some back-to-school jitters,” Lavery said. “But now I just can’t wait for the first day of school to get here.”