Wherever Melanie Kay-Wyatt ’92, M.Ed. ’06 goes, she hears a familiar chorus.
Standing outside the ballet studio where her youngest daughter dances. Walking through the aisles at the grocery store. Relaxing at the nail salon. Even during vacations to Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Disney World.
“Mrs. Wyatt! Mrs. Wyatt!” they shout, excited − and sometimes even a little shocked − to spy their middle school principal in a civilian environment.
Kay-Wyatt, a Fredericksburg teacher and administrator since 1997, has made forging strong relationships with students the cornerstone of her career, chatting them up in classrooms, hallways, lunchrooms, and everywhere in between.
So when they spot her out and about, she’s only too happy to engage.
“You have to build some kind of connection with them or you lose them,” she said. “That relationship piece is key.”
Mentoring tweens wasn’t in Kay-Wyatt’s original career plan. She earned a bachelor’s degree in business at University of Mary Washington with every intention of pursuing a career in nonprofit law. She was working for a government contractor in Crystal City and taking night classes toward a master’s degree in public administration when it dawned on her: She wasn’t happy.
“I wasn’t satisfied in that type of job, and I always thought I would be,” she said. “It was boring. It was budgets and numbers − it just wasn’t for me.”
Around that same time, she was thumbing through her high school yearbook when she found a message she’d written to herself on a piece of unicorn notepaper. In it, she predicted she’d be a special education teacher.
“I said, ‘This is a sign. This is what I’ve been talking about,’ ” Kay-Wyatt said.
Within months, she’d enrolled in a master’s degree program at Old Dominion University and started teaching special education at Culpeper Middle School. The following year, she joined the staff at Hugh Mercer Elementary in Fredericksburg, later moving to the city’s James Monroe High School, where she was voted teacher of the year in 2004.
A year later, she became the assistant principal of Walker-Grant Middle School, and she’s been the principal there since 2011. Meanwhile, she earned a master’s degree in educational leadership from UMW in 2006, and she’s on track to receive a doctorate from Virginia Commonwealth University in May 2014. She recently became the Region III representative to the Virginia Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, and she’s a member of Women Education Leaders in Virginia. She’s also the mother of two teen girls, Billie, 17, and Temple, 15.
Academics are important, Kay-Wyatt said, but creating well-rounded young people means engaging them outside the classroom, too. To that end, she’s instituted a number of programs aimed at helping students resolve conflicts, positively motivate each other, and connect with mentors in the community.
Most days, the Walker-Grant principal is at the front door to greet students as they come in. She makes a point to talk with at least five of her 650 charges daily, and she’s not above being silly to get their attention. She once wore a backward cap and sunglasses and led her staff in a flash-mob performance. Next to motherhood, Kay-Wyatt said being an educator is the most challenging and rewarding job she’s ever had.
“Every day is different. Every moment is different. You’re always looking at a situation and finding a way to make it better,” she said. “Kids come to you from all walks of life. When you step into that building, you give them everything