Outgoing Nelson County High School Principal Chris Sumner didn’t always want to work in education.
Sumner, 40, said in an email he came to the decision in his first year studying visual art at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“I remember thinking that it didn’t make sense for me to pursue a degree in illustration, painting or printmaking since I could already do those things.” he said.
Sumner recalled his first high school job — watching three neighborhood children after school between their parents’ work shifts.
“Realizing that I was good at art and liked kids, it made sense to marry the two and pursue education.”
Sumner said he’s taught art to students from all grade levels from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade during the span of his career, in rural, suburban and urban settings and on the Fort Lee military base in the Prince George school system from 2004 to 2011 as a teacher and 2015 to 2018 as an assistant principal.
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“I really enjoyed working with the little ones but felt that I had more to offer and could do more with older students given my artistic talents,” Sumner said, adding he moved to the middle and high school levels early in his career. He said his students have produced “amazing works of art,” won awards and pursued college and careers in visual arts.
He spoke on his artistic path during an interview, saying he started with pencil drawings, became proficient with painting and then did commission work for several battalions at Fort Lee.
Brooke Johannsmeier was in Sumner’s Art II class her sophomore year at Colonial Heights High School in Colonial Heights, Virginia.
“We always knew when we went into his classroom we were going to be greeted with a smile, open arms, and know that even if we weren’t good at art, he was going to make the class fun for us,” she said.
Johannsmeier said she felt comfortable approaching Sumner with any problem for guidance, even if it had nothing to do with his class.
“He always made sure he told me the things I was good at,” she said.
Johannsmeier now teaches preschool and said Sumner has been an influence on the way she teaches. She said she hopes to balance assertiveness with giving constant support and guidance to her students after Sumner’s example.
She said years after high school, “I know I can just pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey Chris, I’m going through this, I need your feedback,’ and he would give me the best advice.”
Andrea Thomas also met Summer while she was a student at Colonial Heights Hight School. Thomas said Sumner was involved in extracurriculars and took her and other students to CADRE and YADAPP meetings. Thomas said YADAPP stands for Youth Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention Program and the Colonial Heights CADRE Coalition is a volunteer youth substance abuse prevention organization according to the Colonial Heights website.
She struggled to find the words to describe what Sumner’s mentorship has meant to her.
“He’s just so caring and passionate about what he’s doing, especially in education. He always just wants what’s best for his students and everyone around him, really. But he is also funny and extroverted and just brings so much joy to the people around him.”
Thomas now teaches fifth grade. She said Sumner helped her with writing a resume, finding and giving interviews.
“When I first started looking for a teaching job he actually helped me and did a mock interview kind of in his free time. You know there’s not much free time when you’re an educator. He took me in and helped me a lot,” Thomas said.
“Watching him continue not only to be an educator but a learner as well, he’s someone that I look up to constantly. I’m always able to go back to him.”
Sumner said his oldest son’s birth in 2012 inspired him to return to school to pursue a master’s in administration and supervision, “so I could positively affect more people (students, families, staff and community) than I could in the classroom setting alone.”
Sumner then went on to gain a doctorate in educational leadership.
“When I think about my Ph.D, I cannot help but think of my high school guidance counselor and his wife; his wife taught me psychology. As I worked towards my doctorate, they joked (and continue to joke) that my parents were worried that I would never get into college, and eventually — they (my counselor and psychology teacher) started to worry that I would never get out of college ,” he said.
Sumner recently resigned from his position as principal of NCHS to pursue a full-time central office administration role. He described the role in a phone interview as ‘special project administrator’ and said he does “whatever they need me to do” based on his expertise. Sumner added he currently commutes an hour to Lovingston and hopes to find something “closer to home.”
“I hope I will eventually become a division superintendent; however, I am not there yet. Right now, I am just taking things one day at a time and learning as much as I can from each new experience,” he said.
Sumner served as NCHS principal since 2019, according to the NCHS Facebook page.
“I am proud of so many things that we accomplished at NCHS,” he said. He cited increases in English and Math SOL performance, students’ achievements of Career Technical Education credentials, the addition of African American Studies and Oceanography courses, reduced student discipline and clinic visits and two successful pandemic-era graduations among other division-wide accomplishments he’s particularly proud of.
“I also believe that things happen for a reason and that one of my purposes at NCHS was to help get the school through the pandemic, which I believe we did, and I reason that we did it well,” he said.
He said leading the school through the pandemic was like “building a plane while flying it.”
“For me the focus of educational leadership seemed to shift from change and continuous improvement to empathy and sympathy. I feel like I grew a lot as a leader by leading in a pandemic and certainly value a people-centered approach to leadership now more than ever,” Sumner said.
According to Nelson County Public Schools, since stepping down Sumner has been working on a variety of central office projects through the end of the school year. Sumner said he’s been working on curriculum audits, Office of School Quality documents and Title grants, experiences that are adding to his professional knowledge base and preparing him for divisional leadership.
“If or when I become a superintendent, I will aim to cultivate a place where teachers and staff come to work, stay and grow as professionals, and remain until retirement all while staying focused on helping students self-actualize. That’s the kind of school division I grew up in, and it is my hope for whichever division I might eventually lead,” Sumner said.
“His mind and his heart is there,” Johannsmeier said. She thought Sumner would want to extend the positive effect he had on her to students in an entire division, while remaining humble and devoted.
She said he would be the type of leader to say, “I have to build my team and we have to do whatever we can for these children.”
Thomas said she’ll be working in gifted education at a new school soon, and Sumner has helped her with the transition. She said some of her colleagues also sought Sumner’s guidance.
“Even if he doesn’t know exactly what to say or do, he’ll find a way to help you, which I absolutely love,” she said.