Loudoun Co. principal honored for recruiting, retention efforts

Willard Middle School teachers Damon Laabs, Jennifer Griffin and Whitney Maloy. (WTOP/Scott Gelman)

While recently interviewing a job candidate, Willard Middle School Principal Jeff Rounsley responded to the candidate’s question about his vision for the school.

Rounsley spoke extensively about the school’s philosophy, and Jennifer Griffin, a sixth grade English teacher who’s in her second year at Willard, said the candidate was so impressed that she asked to applaud Rounsley’s response. She ultimately accepted the position, and will join his staff next year.

The Virginia Department of Education recently recognized Rounsley for his ability to recruit and retain teachers and other staff, a task that has become increasingly difficult across the country in the aftermath of the pandemic. Last year, 10 members of Rounsley’s 175-person team left the school.

“I tell teachers all the time, ‘Students are going to remember your name. You ask anybody who was your teacher that you had in middle school, who was an English teacher in middle school, they know, and they either know it for a good reason or a bad reason,'” Rounsley said. “So let’s be those people who really make a positive, lifelong, affirming impact on kids.”

When Rounsley, who has worked for the Loudoun County Public School system that he graduated from for 21 years, interviews job candidates, he always considers whether the candidate is going to be someone’s favorite teacher.

He used that philosophy in hiring Damon Laabs, who Rounsley’s nephew identified as his favorite teacher at a different school. Now, Laabs is nearing the end of his first year teaching history at Willard.

Teachers at his school, Rounsley said, feel a sense of purpose. That’s part of his recruiting pitch, and he uses it often. The school enrolls about 100 new students each year, which means he has to hire for about eight more positions heading into the next school year.

However, he said, that makes it challenging for the school to build trust in the community. The school offered eighth and ninth grades when it opened in 2018, and became a regular middle school in 2020. At that time there was significant teacher turnover, because some wanted to teach high school, which the campus was no longer offering.

The school was built to hold about 1,350 students, Rounsley said. Currently, over 1,600 are enrolled.

“We are working to make a big school feel small,” Rounsley said, “[so] that students are known, that they’re seen, that their teachers know them, that their administrators know them, that they know their families, that we’re doing things to invite families in and to make this almost like a community center, where families are welcome.”

As he works to hire teachers, Rounsley said he attends as many hiring fairs as he can, but that current staff members are the best recruiters. And when he staffs a department, he works to bring together a mix of teachers from other Loudoun County schools, teachers who come from outside of the county and teachers who are new to the profession.

One of the selling points, Rounsley said, is making sure teachers have enough time to plan “really deep and encouraging lessons.”

“That means not being in the cafeteria, and not being at buses,” Rounsley said. “Those are things that administrators take on, because I think the most important thing teachers can do is have the time to do these rich, robust learning experiences for kids.”

Whitney Maloy, who is in her first year at Willard, said she commutes to the school from Frederick, Maryland, every day.

“Everybody was so welcoming that I knew that I was willing to take that commute,” Maloy said.

When teachers do leave, Rounsley said, it’s for a variety of reasons, like relocating or exploring a different career path. And when that happens, the school sets off confetti cannons at the end of the year, “because we want to thank them for the service that they provided in the time that they were here, the chapter that they were here.”

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Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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