ROCKINGHAM – As summer break is dwindling away and students and teachers alike are preparing to return to the classroom, Rockingham Middle School is welcoming in its third principal in as many years.
Dr. Theresa Gardner, a longtime staple in the Richmond County Schools community, takes over as the new administrator upon the departure of Dr. Wendy Jordan.
“When they (RCS) approached me with the possibility of being a principal, I couldn’t help but jump all over it,” Gardner said. “I love to do this, I love to serve Richmond County schools. I love interacting with people. I am excited and very honored to have been chosen for this position.”
Gardner, who has a decorated career in academia, moved to Richmond County as a seventh grader from Virginia, attending Rohanen Junior High School. She then went to Richmond Senior High School her sophomore year, picking up enough credits to skip eleventh grade. Upon graduation from Temple Christian School in 1983 at the age of 16, Gardner attended Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., where she dual-majored in anthropology and sociology, earning a Bachelor’s of Science degree in 1987.
In describing herself as a person who “loves learning,” Gardner returned home to Richmond County on spring break during her senior year at Liberty and met her eventual husband, Vic Gardner, while buying a car. They will celebrate 30 years of marriage in October. The Gardners have two daughters, Andi and Alex, both of whom are educators at Hamlet Middle School.
As her family’s roots are originally from this area, Gardner decided to stay in Richmond County to pursue her post-college career. She has dabbled in a variety of careers before settling on being an lifelong educator.
Gardner got her first taste of teaching in the summer of 1984 when she served as a student missionary in American Samoa. She taught third and fourth grade from May to August that year, using her prized talent of ventriloquism to discover herself in the classroom. Upon returning to college, Gardner began working with the preschool program during her summers at Temple Christian School from 1985 to 1987.
In September of 1994, after a seven-year stint as a medical and children’s protective social worker, Gardner began working for Richmond County Schools as a social worker. She took a hiatus to open her own scrapbooking company in 1998, and owned that before returning to education at Ellerbe Junior High school as a counselor and truancy office in 2003. While working at Ellerbe, Gardner continued her education with Liberty University, earning a master’s degree in education in 2006, and added to that with a master’s as an educational specialist in 2008. Gardner completed her doctorate degree in educational leadership in 2013.
After getting an administrator’s license in 2010, and working nearly 10 years with Ellerbe, Gardner was asked to be an assistant principal at Fairview Heights Elementary in Hamlet under then-principal Julian Carter. Creating a dynamic duo with Carter as an administrative team, RCS moved both to Rockingham Middle at the start of the 2013 school year, adding Kevin Wallace as an additional assistant principal.
RCS saw Gardner’s leadership potential and promoted her after just one schoolyear to act as the district’s Exceptional Children’s Director, where she has been until accepting her first principalship with Rockingham Middle, the second largest school in the county.
Admitting that she has “big shoes to fill” in the wake of the successes of the previous two principals (Jordan and Carter), Gardner is emphatic about returning to the halls on Wall Street and interacting with her Rockets family of roughly 700 students. As with any new job, Gardner is feeling a mix of emotions, but she’s very positive and confident that the upcoming schoolyear will be a success, despite “all eyes” being on her.
“I love being in the school, being with the teachers and students,” Gardner said, adding that she is going to be her biggest critic in this journey. “There are a lot of emotions… becoming a principal is a huge job. It’s all about the kids and the teachers. It feels overwhelming, but I’ve got a great mentor and support system.”
Gardner expressed that her biggest strength in entering her new position will be her ability to build positive rapports with her students and staff. She plans to be actively involved in the day-to-day activities and offer every bit of wisdom and advice she possible can. She wants to make everyone feel comfortable so that each student and employee will benefit throughout her tenure.
Not planning to majorly overhaul the system left in place by Jordan (because of the proven track record), Gardner understands there will be some challenges. In acclimating her staff with her system, Gardner plans to use team-building exercises and allow for open discussion to see what will work best for the sake of the school.
“I’m a people person,” she said joyfully. “I intend to do team-building and relationship building activities.”
The education system, regardless of where one is located, is an intricate revolving door that sees teachers, both new and experienced, move from district to district. But that hasn’t been the case for Gardner, nor does she anticipate leaving RCS, despite having received offers from surrounding districts in the past. She credits the unique and satisfying quality of Richmond County in keeping her here.
“I have always loved being in Richmond County, and being with Richmond County Schools,” Gardner said. “When it comes to me, the relationships, the support, but most importantly our kids, are pretty awesome. Our kids are so polite and so well behaved. I have family here. I feel like this county is my family.”
The biggest goal Gardner hopes to achieve this year? She wants to build a strong staff to help continue the successes of what Dr. Carter and Dr. Jordan have done the past few years. Building the relationships with her pupils and guaranteeing their academic progress will take precedent above all else. Gardner also hopes to continue to build the athletic and arts programs, too.
The RCS school year begins with classes starting on Monday, August 28, 2017. And students attending Rockingham Middle are in for a real treat when they meet their new principal, Dr. Theresa Gardner.