As a child growing up in Edenton, Steve Lassiter says that math “was not my strength.” But his 9th grade algebra teacher Shirley Powell inspired him through hands-on learning and after-school support.
“I knew then that I wanted to be a teacher. That was the year it clicked,” said Lassiter, now principal of Pitt County’s (N.C.) Pactolus Elementary School and North Carolina’s Principal of the Year.
While juggling his many professional responsibilities, the 34-year-old Lassiter is also completing his doctorate in educational leadership at NC State University’s College of Education. His research will focus on literacy education.
As Principal of the Year, Lassiter makes many trips from Greenville to Raleigh, where he serves as an advisor to the State Board of Education and to State Superintendent June Atkinson. He is also on the board of N.C. Public School Forum.
One of the perks he received for his honor, in addition to a state car, was a six-day education tour of Switzerland, where he attended a conference on “design thinking,” education through creative real-world problem solving.
Lassiter earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at East Carolina University, but he always had NC State on his mind for advanced education.
“NC State has always been in my educational trajectory. I wanted a different experience in becoming a school leader,” he said. “I wanted to choose a doctoral program that was innovative and that catered to the needs of the student. I found that in the NC State Educational Leadership program,” he said.
Lassiter’s research project will focus on the experiences of teachers who teach struggling readers. As an undergraduate student at ECU, Lassiter took courses in reading education that changed him. “I immediately fell in love with the reading process, understanding how children learn to read,” he said.
For his graduate research project, he wants to investigate how teachers work to help struggling readers learn. He plans to survey reading teachers, asking questions like, what strategies and approaches do they use? What are the qualities they believe that make them effective? What professional development and support do they need? His focus will be mainly on teachers of early readers in kindergarten through second grade.
Lassiter began his education as a teacher in Pitt County Schools, and he has been principal of Pactolus, a K-8 school, since 2012. At Pactolus, teachers are empowered to influence their own classrooms through professional learning communities, teacher leadership opportunities and relevant professional development.
Professional learning communities provide teachers in similar curricula or grade levels with dedicated time to examine their instructional practices and to plan how to raise student achievement. Lassiter’s teachers say they wouldn’t change anything about the practice.
“Teachers absolutely love the professional learning communities,” Lassiter said. “They have 90 minutes a week just to talk about instructional practice.”
Instruction rounds are patterned after medical rounds that doctors make in a hospital. Instead of visiting sick patients, a group of trained teachers visits classrooms in their own school to watch teachers teach. With the wide range of grades at Pactolus, teachers who participate appreciate the opportunity to observe what classrooms look like at different levels.
“When does an eighth grade teacher have the opportunity to visit a kindergarten classroom and see where it all begins? Or vice versa, when does a kindergarten teacher have the opportunity to visit an eighth grade classroom and see where his or her students are, from when they were in kindergarten?” Lassiter said.
Lassiter is also committed to celebrating his teachers’ accomplishments, from acknowledging their success to bringing hot Krispy Kreme doughnuts the day after staff meetings. Though Pactolus is considered a high-needs school with 92 percent of students receiving free and reduced-price lunches, Lassiter is proud that the school was recognized in Pitt County for having the second highest growth rate for student performance and was recently named a “Model” Positive Behavior Intervention Support School. The state Department of Public Instruction will recognize Lassiter’s school on November 17 in Greensboro’s Koury Convention Center.
“I am consistently praising teachers for what they do, acknowledging areas where they’ve excelled. I’m constantly reminding them that I’m appreciative of all their efforts, simply acknowledging their work, and teachers love that,” he said.
Once he earns his doctorate, Lassiter would like to advocate for better educational policy and school governance. Improving teacher morale is one challenge facing education that needs attention, he said.
“Educators in North Carolina need to feel valued for the work and energy they put into educating our children every day – we can do this by increasing pay, including their voice in legislative decision-making and changing how we present North Carolina public schools to the general public ,” he said. “I would work on changing that perception of teachers in North Carolina.”
Though Lassiter became a principal early in his career, he still considers himself a teacher. “I am a teacher who just happens to be a principal, because as a principal, I’m still teaching; I’m still learning. My impact is broader, and I have the opportunity to influence beyond the classroom,” he said.
The year ahead will prove to be a busy one for Lassiter, as he works to complete his dissertation and carry out his duties as N.C. Principal of the Year. He is proud to hold that title, and equally proud of his role as principal of Pactolus School.
“I love Pactolus School, and it is an honor and a privilege to be their principal. I share this honor with the staff and students because it is for them that I am here today as N.C. Principal of the Year,” he said.