Many McKay School graduates leave BYU campus and have a fulfilling career of classroom teaching. Others enjoy some years of teaching but decide to extend their talents to teaching in a different role.
Cheryl Ashdown graduated from BYU in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in zoology teaching. In September of 1987 she spent a semester as a substitute teacher before finding a permanent position at a middle school in Burbank, California. After teaching there for seven years, Ashdown returned to BYU to complete her master’s degree, also in zoology. A year later, she moved to Portland, Oregon and taught for nine years in a middle school.
During these classroom years, Ashdown found she also enjoyed the administrative side of teaching. As she served on district committees, she had a desire to work directly with district leaders and policy makers to create new procedures and directions for the students in her school district. “Every so often the district will say, ‘Guess what? We’re all getting on this boat.’ And I kind of wanted to help design the boat,” she said.
Ashdown had an opportunity for more administrative experience when she accepted a position as an eighth grade science teacher at Stoller Middle School. Before Stoller opened, “I was on the planning team, so I got to design the curriculum and program of the school,” she said. Her transition to administrative work was completed as she left Stoller to become assistant principal at Westview High School, also in Portland, where she has spent the last eleven years as an assistant principal. Some of Ashdown’s duties include creating the master class schedule, supervising teachers, and intervening to meet student needs. “I didn’t realize the job was as much management as it is,” she explained. “I just thought, as a teacher, that things just magically happened. It didn’t occur to me how much of the administrative job would be management . . . I have to really work to make time for instruction and working with teachers.”
During her transition from classroom teacher to administrator, Ashdown most valued her experiences building relationships. Developing trusting relationships with her students, their families, and her colleagues prevented everything else from falling apart. “If kids trust you and parents trust you, they’ll do anything for you,” she said. “Kids want to please, and if they feel like you have a genuine interest in their success, and sometimes you have to prove it,” you can win them over.
Forming these relationships has been essential to some of Ashdown’s most rewarding experiences as an assistant principal. About a year ago, she called a once outstanding student into her office. This student’s grades had gone down dramatically during her junior year, and she was frequently skipping classes. Ashdown, who had never met the student before, wanted to speak with her to find out what was going on.
“[The student] started to talk, and she was saying things like ‘It doesn’t really matter; I won’t be here next year,’” Ashdown explained. “I asked her, ‘Well, where are you going?’ She responded, ‘I just won’t be here next year.’ And I started to have this feeling that she wasn’t talking about moving; she was talking about something more permanent.”
Ashdown began to ask questions, and when the responses became extremely evasive she tried to describe what she thought this student could be feeling. Ashdown related to the student and connected her with a counselor specializing in teen psychology to help her work through her dark feelings. In June 2014 the student completed her senior year and headed off to college.
“A couple of months later, she came back and said, ‘I want to thank you. If it weren’t for you, I don’t think I’d be here right now,’” Ashdown recalled. “There are opportunities for a little moment to turn everything around, and [it’s important] to be really sensitive to what those are.”
At this point Ashdown does not see herself returning to the classroom. She enjoys her administrative position and hopes to become a principal some day. The opportunity recently became available, but she was unable to apply because of unexpected medical issues.
“One thing I’ve certainly learned over the years is don’t plan too far into the future because you never know what’s in store for you,” she said. “Every year I know more and more [ways] to support teachers in their work. I want to do more with the community and work more with parents and organizations to get them to be part of the school system also.”
Regardless of her future career aspirations, Ashdown knows that her position as an assistant principal is important because it gives her opportunities to influence the lives of everyone who comes through the school doors. If she were to return to the classroom, her experiences would make her reconsider her teaching methods.
“If I went back into the classroom after having been an administrator, I would be a very different teacher,” Ashdown said. “I’ve seen things that I never had time to see as a teacher. I see patterns now. Administration is what really helped me get to that 30,000-foot level and see the whole landscape.”
Ashdown currently lives in Portland, Oregon. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, cooking, and spending time with her nieces and nephews.