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www.gae.org | 13 is clear that the students don’t just get the lesson from posters, but also from the leadership of their teachers and administrators. To see the ease in which Mrs. Benford walks through the school, and her passionate approach to leadership in education, makes it difficult to believe that education has not always been her focus. As a college student at the University of Southern Mississippi, she majored in chemistry. Ultimately, she earned a board-certified degree in Chemistry, but the road to graduation had its share of twists and turns. Her degree program required a physical education course. The choices were gym or ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps). The leadership skills that she could gain from ROTC drew her to that course. Her natural leadership was noticed, and it was suggested that she consider staying within the ROTC program, which she was initially quite hesitant to do. Fast forward to an ROTC officer’s help with getting the courses she needed for her program, and a promise of a job post-graduation at a research lab in Maryland was the final push she needed to join ROTC officially. Post-graduation led her to that research and development lab in Maryland, and military life also took her abroad. She took a break from professional endeavors to raise her children, but while stationed in Germany, she volunteered at a learning center, where she says the “teaching bug” first bit her. Fast-forward a bit, and Mrs. Benford and her family relocated back to the United States - and back in the South. She discovered that Georgia had a shortage of teachers, specifically math and science teachers, and if you specialized in these areas, you didn’t necessarily need an education degree to teach. After serving as a paraprofessional, she found herself with the opportunity to teach at Cedar Grove High School in the early 1990s. She came in mid-year and wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The students tested her, and some even questioned how long she would last. But she didn’t quit. She continued teaching, with some time spent at other schools, and then her career in education came full-circle when she became Principal of Cedar Grove High School in 2010. Under her leadership student achievement has been on the rise. Cedar Grove High School was recognized by the Georgia DOE as a Title I High-progress Reward School for two consecutive years in 2013 and 2014. This is awarded to the top 10% of Title I schools in the state that show the most student progress. In addition, Cedar Grove has been named a top high school for progress and growth in the DeKalb County School District in both 2013 and 2014. The school boasts six career pathways, giving students a head start into professional development. And in 2014 and 2015, the school had the highest percentage of students in the DeKalb County School District to pass the End of Pathway Assessment. Mrs. Benford is quick to mention that the achievements of students are not strictly academic. She talks in length of the artistic and athletic abilities of her students, and knows the specific wins her students have accomplished. She speaks of the boys’ and girls’ track teams, who won their respective championships in 2014 and 2015, and the student athletes that were selected to play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in 2012, 2014 and coming up in January 2016. The opportunity to list the extracurricular achievements of Cedar Grove High School students doesn’t end there - but the importance of a strong education is always the main focus. Mrs. Benford makes sure to remind her students of this at every turn - even calling them “Saints and scholars,” as the Saints are the Cedar Grove High School mascot. “The first thing a principal has to embrace is that she is the instructional leader in her school,” Mrs. Benford says. As an administrator and a teacher, the goals are the same - giving students the tools and guidance they need so they cross the ultimate finish line - graduation. While the rise to school leadership seems like it was an organic move, Mrs. Benford admits, “leadership found me - I never strived to be a leader.” Throughout the various professional roles and even before she officially went into teaching, she found that a common theme in her life was service, especially through helping others achieve their goals. Even as a high school student, she did what she could to help her friends and other students excel. She recounts an experience where she tutored athletes at her high school, which was orchestrated by a teacher who noticed her natural leadership ability and willingness to help. As Mrs. Benford puts it, “I really found that I am a teacher in my heart.” These qualities and experiences naturally flow into her role as an administrator. Two of her guiding mantras, “Keep the Main Thing, the Main Thing!” and “Excellence Without Excuses.” She uses these as guides throughout her interactions with students, explaining that as leaders of the school, they have to get it right and do what they need to do to make it happen. One thing she tries to instill in her teachers is that they can make a difference, and to “never let a child suffer for something you can fix.” Sometimes the solutions are simple, and at times, they are complex. Some students come to Cedar Grove High School with obstacles or struggles that may seem impossible to overcome, whether those are financial, emotional, or a result of a challenging life at home. Various experiences with students have reminded Mrs. Benford to not just focus on the lack of something - lack of homework, unpaid fees - but rather hone in on the “why.” Seeing each student as an individual, with unique skills and challenges, has been a key to success. Each student needs to know he/she matters, and that sense of purpose will keep him/her coming back to school each day and working towards his/her goals. As educators, your leadership styles may differ and the individual accomplishments of your students may vary from school to school, but one thing is for sure - you can never underestimate the power of simply being present and a constant force in your students’ lives. “LEADERSHIP FOUND ME - I NEVER STRIVED TO BE A LEADER.” – Principal Pamela Benford


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