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From Edenton to Pactolus Elementary: The journey of Steve Lassiter to become Principal of the Year

If Pactolus Elementary’s Principal Steve Lassiter were applying for a job, he’d send in a resume. Whoever reviewed it would surely note that Principal Lassiter was named the 2015 Wells Fargo North Carolina Principal of the Year back in the spring. But here are some other facts about Principal Lassiter.

Bachelor’s degree in elementary education child studies from East Carolina University

Master’s in school administration from East Carolina University

Education specialist degree in educational leadership from North Carolina State University

Spent a majority of his entire career in Pitt County Schools

Taught fifth grade, sixth grade, and previously served as an assistant principal

Previously served as principal of Edna Andrews Elementary in Martin County

I sat down with Principal Lassiter for a discussion about his life, education, and what it means to be a principal. 

Where did you grow up and what was your family like? 

Lassiter: I grew up in Northeastern North Carolina in Edenton and have lived in North Carolina my entire life.

My mother is a bus driver, and she works in child nutrition. Believe it or not she has driven the exact same bus route for 34 years. 

My father drives long distance trucks, and he’s done that for a number of years. Growing up my family was close knit and was full of love. My parents expected me and my siblings to do well in school and instilled the importance of helping others in the community. To serve others is a natural part of who I am because of them.

What was the area you grew up in like?

Lassiter: It was very rural. Edenton is a small town, everybody knows everybody, and it’s ironic because my brother and my two sisters, all four of us had the same kindergarten teacher. Our teachers expected us to learn, and they had high expectations. The school system was very strong, and teachers worked together.

What was it like growing up with a mother involved in education?

Lassiter: It really was actually great to have my mother with me while I was in middle school. My life was surrounded by school. In the mornings I’d wake up and ride the bus with her. 

To me, I saw my mom as an educator because even in her role she impacted the lives of children. My mother was very passionate about her job. She rarely took days off from work. Seeing that, I too decided to become an educator and took on the same work ethic and passion. 

What was your experience like? Did you enjoy it? Dread it? 

Lassiter: I enjoyed going to school, though I was not mathematically inclined in elementary school. I was a middle-of-the-road student. I could have done a whole lot better than I did. I enjoyed the social aspect of school and the academics especially in elementary school. 

When I entered high school, I realized if I wanted a different life for myself, I had to work and study hard so I buckled down and started to get work done. When my perspective of school changed, and after having an amazing math teacher in ninth grade, math began to click for me. 

That’s interesting that it took you a while to start “getting” math. Now, we have the Common Core Standards, and some people complain about the way math is taught under them. What are your thoughts on Common Core?

Lassiter: I believe that our children do need the challenge and rigor that Common Core offers. I think the issue is that for so long in education, we have taught our children maybe one or two ways to solve mathematical problems. Or we say there is one way to think of an answer to a solution. With Common Core, it gives students avenues to derive an answer. Moving from procedural, computational, to conceptualizing mathematics has been very challenging for teachers. Teachers’ learning curves are being challenged and parents sometimes find it frustrating because it’s not the way they learned math. So teachers need professional development on mathematical instructional strategies and understanding of the curriculum, while parents need support with how to help their children with the curriculum. 

Given your issues with math, do you think you would have fared better with Common Core? 

Lassiter: I think it would have clicked earlier. When I was in school, math was much more procedural and rote memory. Common Core provides students with real-world problems and a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts. If this approach to teaching mathematics was utilized when I was in school, I have no doubt that I would have been a much better math student. 

Does your childhood experience in school inform how you do your job today? 

Lassiter: Yes, absolutely. I am a hands-on learner. Whereas my brother, he grasped information by listening. Now, as a principal, I think it’s so critical and important that teachers take a moment to get to know their children and make connections and understand how they learn information. I stress this daily to our teachers and staff.

When did you first start thinking about going into education? 

Lassiter: I knew in elementary school that I wanted to be a teacher. I knew there was no other career that I would be dedicated to and have a passion for. I wanted to be a 3rd grade teacher, though I ended up teaching 5th and 6th grades. 

What was your motivation to become a teacher? 

(Photo Credit: Courtesy of Steve Lassiter)
(Photo Credit: Courtesy of Steve Lassiter)

Lassiter: Besides having great teachers who inspired me when I was in school, I was very curious as a young guy growing up; I asked a lot of questions. I always wanted to know certain things and once I found out, I wanted to share what I learned. I knew that becoming a teacher would allow me to help others to learn, and discover new information. 

When did you decide you wanted to be a principal? 

Lassiter: It was my fourth year teaching and I was teaching 6th grade. I saw leaders in our school district who I admired. I saw how they were able to influence teachers, parents and students on a much broader scale. I, too, wanted to have that same broad impact in education. 

I wanted to have more of an impact on student achievement and in teaching teachers how to teach. 

One of the things talked about in the General Assembly and in education generally, is the notion that we need to offer better promotion pathways to teachers. The concern is that traditionally, if a teacher wants to progress, his or her only option is to become a principal. What do you think about having more options for teachers to grow in their careers? 

Lassiter: We certainly do need to offer teachers options to lead while they’re also instructing in the classroom. We know that every good teacher doesn’t want to become an administrator, but they certainly want to lead. We need to identify those teachers who have strong communication skills, who are visionary, and have a passion to lead others. Many teachers would love the opportunity to teach a portion of their day while coaching their colleagues for the other portion of the day. My school district created a great pathway for teacher leaders to assume this type of role. It was very successful. We definitely need to continue to brainstorm more ways to help teachers grow in their career. 

How has education changed during your time as an educator? 

Lassiter: Education has changed in my time with the wealth of technology available to our teachers and students. Students have the entire world at their fingertips to aid them in the learning process. Technology drives many of our schools. We no longer have to wait to communicate with others overnight. It’s immediate and fast. Technology has shaped how instruction is provided. Whether it’s face-to-face or virtual, we now have many options and tools to help children learn. 

As you have progressed in your career, what have you seen that works well in education in North Carolina? What can be improved? 

Lassiter: What I think we’re doing right: Common Core. Our curriculum is right for our children. I think we need to maintain that standard and expectation that we do want our children to be challenged. We have to be patient with Common Core because it is still new, and in order to see the outcomes and effects, we have to give it time. From what I see, our children are learning and making great academic gains across the state.

Teachers are working hard in educating our children and coming to work everyday to ensure that our children are learning.  

What we must quickly improve is the teacher shortage crisis that we are having in North Carolina. We must hold our teachers in much higher regard. The work that they do every day in the classroom is so important. Our teachers need to feel valued. We can improve this by reinstating master’s pay, reinstating the North Carolina Teaching Fellow program, and rewarding teachers who are effective in the classroom.

What particular challenges, issues, etc, have you had to work through in your time as an educator? 

Lassiter: My own personal learning curve has been creating balance. I’ve had to learn how to balance being a principal with making sure I don’t forget what it is like to be a teacher. As a principal it is so easy to transition from the classroom and forget what it’s like every day to stand in front of children and teach. Teaching is much different that it was years ago. It’s still rewarding but it is a hard job, and I acknowledge that for all teachers across the state. My main goal is that I am supporting teachers in their work 100 percent. 

A large part of supporting them is when we receive local, state, or federal mandates, I have to step back several times and ask: Is this something that our teachers have to do right now? My role is to advocate for my school and think about what’s best for our organization as a whole. 

Constant budget cuts have been a huge challenge, particularly with our teacher assistants. I believe our school has gone from almost 10 TAs to four or five over the last three or four years. It’s very difficult not to have the teacher assistants that we used to, because we relied on them so heavily.

How does a principal influence and set the tone for classroom instruction? 

Lassiter: The principal is the instructional leader, and he or she is able to provide the vision for instructional outcomes in the school. The principal also has high expectations of his or her staff and for students. 

When a principal doesn’t have those expectations and doesn’t monitor instruction to ensure continuous improvement, it puts the students at risk. 

Principals set the tone for the building, and they lay a foundation for children to come in and learn every single day. 

When I’m hiring teachers, I ask myself: Would I want my child in this teacher’s classroom? We guard our children as a principal just as if they were our own. 

How important is the role of a principal, and do you think principals are given enough attention by policymakers when considering education? 

Lassiter: I think as principals we can do a much better job of advocating for ourselves. We are so focused on our teachers, but I think we have to have the confidence that great schools are led by great leaders. 

Also, legislators must acknowledge that principals do play an important role in leading successful schools. The work of a principal is sometimes overlooked. 

What did it mean to you to be named Principal of the Year? 

Lassiter: It’s three months later, and I’m still honored to be Principal of the Year. 

It means that I’m going to have the opportunity to learn from other great principals across the state. And, I have the wonderful opportunity to advocate for children in North Carolina public schools and to speak on behalf of my colleagues. I’m looking forward to taking each moment to do just that so that policymakers can hear the voice of those who are in the trenches.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.