Schott’s email revealed the positivity she brings to her work as principal of Henderson Elementary School in Prince William County, Va., an all-consuming job even before the coronavirus pandemic added to her never-ending list of tasks.
Schott arrives at school at 7:40 am to greet the children, and spends the day weaving in and out of classrooms, dropping into the cafeteria to see students and meeting with parents. She leaves the building at 5:30 pm After putting her own children to bed, she spends the evening updating the school’s social media accounts and poring over assessment data.
It sounds like a typical day for a principal. But Schott’s ability to do it with such joy, two years into a pandemic in which everyone is exhausted, has earned her the title of The Washington Post’s 2022 Principal of the Year, chosen from 14 finalists in DC, Maryland and Virginia.
Jordan Markwood, choral director of Rock Ridge High School in Loudoun County, Va., is The Washington Post’s 2022 Teacher of the Year
Colleagues have dubbed Schott her school’s “Chief Fun Officer.” She has been known to don a blue wig to dress up like a Dr. Seuss character, and to DJ school spirit night, but her happy personality belies a traumatic early childhood.
Born in Minnesota to a mother who was unable to care for her, Schott entered foster care when she was a baby. She was placed with a wonderful foster family that took in many foster children and sponsored refugees. The family adopted her, but the summer after first grade, her adoptive mother died of cancer.
Schott remembers relying on empathetic teachers to get through these experiences. “I know how impactful a teacher can be,” she said.
Schott chose teaching over her other great love — aeronautical science. Her father flew as a hobby. She loved being in the airplane with him, and she thought she wanted to become a pilot. But her desire to make a difference led her to education.
In search of opportunity and warmer winters, she left Minnesota for Texas Christian University, where she got a BS in early-childhood education, eventually getting a master’s at George Mason University.
In teaching, she found a ready outlet for her fascination with science. A self-professed “research junkie,” Schott lists “cognitive psychology” as an interest on her résumé.
“She was always researching best practices,” says Miranda Elza, a fourth-grade teacher at Rockledge Elementary in Prince William County, where Schott was principal for 13 years before starting at Henderson in September. “It was trial and error. If a teacher wanted to try an idea, if it worked somewhere, she’d say, ‘Let’s just try it!’ ”
Lately, Schott’s focus has turned to teaching social skills that children lost during the pandemic. “We are spending time explicitly teaching skills that students would have gained through interacting with friends,” she said.
[Tying shoes, opening bottles: Pandemic kids lack basic life skills]
When she’s not researching teaching methods, Schott is thinking about individual students. “We are always thinking about the kids who have unique needs,” she said.
Schott’s granular level of attention was of great comfort to Jennifer Tobin, PTA president at Rockledge Elementary, whose second child was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes five days before he started kindergarten. Tobin said her trust in Schott made her feel confident enough to send her child to school.
“It was terrifying for me to send him on that bus,” Tobin recalls. “With Amy in charge, I didn’t worry that things wouldn’t be handled right. She really made me feel comfortable as a parent. I knew if there was anything, I could go to her directly and say I need to make this change to make it safe for him to be at school right now.”
Schott is not impervious to the challenges of his job. She feels the emotional toll of worrying about children who have difficult lives. Over the pandemic, she’s lost precious hours to contact tracing and finding substitutes amid a nationwide staff shortage.
“It is so easy to think about the progress that is yet to be made,” said Schott. “You have to walk out of the building every day thinking about the wins you had.”
In mentoring other principals, Schott helps them navigate the balance between work and family. She has a husband and two children, aged 10 and 12. “One of the hardest parts of the principalship is making sure you are emotionally present for your own family,” she said. “My kids are understanding. Sometimes they say, ‘Mom, stop thinking about work!’ They can see it in my face.”
To counteract that, Schott chooses activities with her children that cultivate presence, pastimes such as spending time outdoors and playing card games together.
Although Schott has worked to create a joyful environment inside her own school, she longs for more public support for teachers. “I see as we are making our way to the other side of this pandemic that it is going to be a tempting time for some to abandon their support for public education,” she said. “I wish I could scream from the mountaintops, ‘We need the public’s support more than ever before.’ ”
The best way for people to support educators, she said, is to nurture their own children. “If you can love them and help them believe in themselves, we’ve got the rest,” she said. “In this media-saturated society, our children need attention. Even if it’s just five minutes, talk with your kids about their dreams or what’s happening in the world.”
In the email Schott sent after her interview with The Post, she mentioned something else she does as principal — perhaps the most important task of all.
“I remind students every day that ‘you belong here, we are glad you are here today, and we love you!’ ”