September 25, 2014 By Ian Brickey WYDaily.com is your source for free news and information in Williamsburg, James City & York Counties. Courtesy WJCC Schools
Some people know their dream jobs as children; for others, that realization comes later in life.
For new D.J. Montague Elementary School Principal Cathy Vazquez, it was both. As a young girl, Vazquez knew she wanted to be a teacher like her mother.
“I was one of those kids who always knew they wanted to be a teacher,” she said.
As a student at Radford University, Vazquez studied biology and health and physical education. After graduating in 1979, she accepted a position teaching seventh grade science at what was then known as James Blair Intermediate School.
For Vazquez, the move to Williamsburg was a sort of homecoming. Her husband’s family was from the area, but she had also spent time in the region as a child. Her father’s military career caused the family to relocate often, but Vazquez stayed in Williamsburg long enough to graduate from Walsingham Academy.
“I really consider it my closest thing to a hometown,” she said.
After 10 years at James Blair, Vazquez moved to the newly renamed Berkeley Middle School. She resumed teaching seventh-grade science, a position she would hold for the next 15 years.
“I love it, I’m absolutely passionate about science,” Vazquez said. “You can really engage students with the material, with experiments, with hands-on activities.”
Vazquez said she enjoyed her time in the classroom and thought she would leave it only upon her retirement from teaching. That changed after she was asked to participate in an administrative leadership program at the College of William & Mary.
Although she loved teaching, Vazquez saw how administrators could affect a school. She received a master’s degree in educational planning policy and leadership and began applying for administrative positions. She did not have to look far.
In January 2004, she was hired as an assistant principal at Rawls Byrd Elementary, and in 2010, she was named principal. After four years at Rawls Byrd, she moved to the principal position at D.J. Montague.
Vazquez has an office now instead of a classroom, but she said some things do not change.
“You’re always a teacher,” she said. “All the decisions I make are made from the perspective of a teacher. They have a direct link with students, and I keep in mind what their responsibilities are.”
That manifests itself in what Vazquez called an “open dialogue” with teachers at the school. She said she asks for teacher input as part of a “shared decision-making process” before choosing a course of action on building issues.
Even with her additional responsibilities as a principal leading the school, engaging with parents and coordinating with teachers, Vazquez said she tries to balance them with interacting with D.J. Montague students. She said she had visited classrooms around the school during the opening weeks of the year, and planned to continue doing so in the future.
“There’s a huge importance of being visible in the classroom, of being around the students and letting them know your presence,” she said.
Vazquez said she was apprehensive about the new school year, as both she and the assistant principal are new to D.J. Montague this year. But her existing relationships with staff members at the school lowered the learning curve — becoming familiar with the staff and community, establishing a presence, articulating a leadership style — that normally comes with being a principal in a new building.
“Every building is unique in different ways,” she said. “They have their similarities and differences, and it takes some getting used to. But our parents are very supportive — I saw that at both schools — and our staff is dedicated and committed.”
With nearly a month of school completed, Vazquez said the year has gotten off to a great start, but that work still needs to be done to ensure a successful year. She said developing partnerships with parents and keeping open communications with the community would be essential. Vazquez has an open-door policy for parents, and sends out a monthly newsletter to D.J. Montague parents.
“At D.J., one of our mantras is ‘D.J. Montague is a safe place, a caring place and a learning place,’” she said. “I think that summarizes what I think a school should be.”