Retiring Jefferson County Principal Shares Wisdom, Advice After Decades On The Job
Debra Corbett always loved education. Coming from a family of educators, it was something she said she always wanted to do. Her mother, aunts and uncles were all teachers.
“I heard a lot about, when the family got together, about school, about kids,” Corbett said. “It made me want to be in education … to somehow support parents and make a difference in student lives.”
Corbett retired this year after 31 years as principal of Ranson Elementary School in Ranson, Jefferson County. Prior to that, she was an elementary school teacher. She said her biggest takeaways in her career are the importance of compassion, to be gentle, to show support to teachers and students and help them see they can succeed.
As Corbett leaves her long career in education, teachers, parents, staff and students across West Virginia begin a new school year in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic.
Nine West Virginia counties started the new school year off virtually this week. The other 46 counties are offering in-person, virtual and hybrid schooling for, at least, the first week of school. That could change next weekend.
Every Saturday night, state officials will update a color-coded map found on the West Virginia Department of Education’s website. The map indicates what schooling options will exist in each county week-by-week. This is how West Virginia is tackling school this year in the face of the coronavirus – taking it one week at a time.
Corbett’s advice to teachers during this turbulent time is to offer comfort to students and be kind to themselves.
“Just take a deep breath,” she said. “We can't get everything accomplished in one day. It's just going to take some time to go through this pandemic time and do the best that we can.”
But another global event has rattled the world this year – a reckoning in racial justice in the United States. People across the country and the world have taken to the streets to protest the treatment of Black people by police. Marches and rallies have been held in recent months demanding change following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police.
Corbett, who is Black, completed kindergarten through sixth grade when schools were racially segregated.
Ranson Elementary School, Corbett said, is a culturally diverse school with a diverse demographic of students. She said many of her students are Black or English Language Learners (ELL). She said she has tried hard to create a safe environment for students at school.
“Well, being a Black administrator, it has just opened up my eyes even more,” she said. “With everything going on at this time, I do think of the kids and what they're seeing on TV, and even what they're hearing and what they're experiencing in their family and in their homes, too … [I want] to make sure that they can come to [school] and that they know that they're in a safe environment, and that they know that someone is there to just listen to them.”
She said it’s more important than ever for teachers to use education to help bridge the gap created by systemic racism.
“Systemic racism – those inherited biases and prejudices of different policies and practices, you know, that have just been handed down, generation to generation – it just doesn't go away overnight,” she said. “That's why it's so important for the teachers to expose the students [to] all types of cultures in their lessons and their reading and in class. And I think that's one way that we can come together.”
Corbett grew up in Jefferson County and attended Jefferson County Schools, graduating with the last class from Charles Town High School in 1972. Corbett earned her bachelor’s degree from Fairmont State University and began her teaching career at South Jefferson Elementary School in 1976 before teaching overseas for several years.
Corbett earned her master’s degree from the University of Toledo before returning to West Virginia and teaching at Wright Denny Intermediate School. In 1989, Corbett left Wright Denny and was named principal of Ranson Elementary School.
"This experience has truly made me a better person,” she said. “And I will miss it after 39 years with Jefferson County Schools.”