Just recently, Elena Ashburn received an email from a former student, one of her first when she was teaching at Southern Durham as a part of the Teach for America program. The note “from out of nowhere” thanked Ashburn for helping bring the student to a college-ready writing level. The student just graduated from Fayetteville State University.
That kind of reward prompted Ashburn to stick with teaching beyond her two-year commitment. She had not been sure she would in 2007, but that decision to pursue a career in education has led her to become the next principal of East Garner Magnet Middle School, replacing Cathy Williams who retired.
And despite the relative youth of the Fuquay-Varina High School assistant principal, her former boss and current area superintendant Ed Mc Farland said he’s “excited for the Garner community” because he believes it’s getting a unique talent.
“She’s truly exceptional,” said McFarland, who was principal at Fuquay-Varina High School during Ashburn’s first year as assistant principal. “She thought like a principal, she acted like a principal. And she’s driven to be successful.”
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Ashburn remains assistant principal at Fuquay Varina High School; her start date at East Garner has not been determined. In both buildings she represents one of the younger faces, though she doesn’t believe youth presents any sort of problem. She has a collaborative and lead-by-example view on leadership and she said she doesn’t think of a principal as teachers’ boss, but an assistant.
“I view the principalship as a service. My role will be to serve students to achieve the mission,” Ashburn said. “When you view it as a service you understand that you have to get everyone on the same page, acting as collective force.”
Ashburn believes that attitude helps encourage teacher buy-in, and McFarland agrees. He called her reliable, focused, extremely organized and professional and an “incredible leader.” He also classified her wortk ethic as “unmatched.”
“She has a lot of empathy for students and staff. She’s a teacher’s administrator. She listens to the needs of the community, parents, teachers and staff. And she find sthe answer, the happy median.” McFarland said.
Finding her calling
Ashburn grew up in Chester, Va., about 20 miles south of Richmond. She majored in English and Spanish at Longwood University in Farmville, Va. There, she had her “senior moment” and didn’t know what she wanted to do, but knew she wanted to do something service oriented.
Teach for America is a selective service program that recruits “high-achieving” recent graduates who otherwise wouldn’t have gone into education. The program trains thousands each year and sends them to low-income schools around the U.S.
Some educators have criticized it for throwing students into the most difficult classrooms after an intense 12-week crash course. Some leave education after their two-year commitment while some burn out. The organization, however, maintains that test scores suggest that even first- and second-year teachers in the program produce student proficiency gains beyond what average experienced teachers produce.
Ashburn, meanwhile, provides a textbook example for what Teach for America explicitly strives toward: alumni that not only teach beyond their commitment, but rise into leadership roles. She called her experience and that of those of those she knew “exceptional,” crediting great training and support.
“It introduced me to a career I otherwise would not have entered,” Ashburn said.
She went through Summer Institute in Atlanta, and in the interview process with principals she clicked with the head of Southern Durham High.
“I went there thinking I would do my two-year service. I fell in love with it, and stayed beyond,” Ashburn said.
She described teaching as the “most difficult job in the world,” that first year in particular. But she said she didn’t think the fact that she taught at Southern Durham made it any tougher than the job inherently is.
With her experiences pushing her commitment to education, Ashburn earned a master’s at UNC-Chapel Hill in school administration, serving as principal intern at Holly Ridge Middle School for a year before two as an assistant principal in Fuquay-Varina. She is currently working on her doctorate in educational leadership at UNC as well.
She married a Raleigh native who also went to UNC, and she is raising her four-year-old daughter in the capital city. But East Garner provides more than a shorter commute. The promotion gives her the opportunity to lead a magnet school – one where she knows she has tough shoes to fill.
“I’m really humbled by the excellent work that has already been done at East Garner,” Ashburn said. “Dr. Williams has been an excellent leader.”
Ashburn said she hasn’t gotten a chance to be introduced to faculty, but expressed no concerns about adapting to her new role. For that she credits the principals she’s encountered in her career. She described McFarland as particularly instrumental. The former WCPSS Principal of the Year finalist was promoted to area superintendent in 2013.
“I’ve worked for some particularly exceptional principals,” she said. “I’ve learned the value of building capacity in people, building a culture of mutual trust and understanding and respect.”