By Stephanie Breijo ’09
In mid-December, surrounded by friends, colleagues, and former students, Sandra Powell Mitchell ’76 could feel the tears welling. It isn’t every day that a teacher’s retirement reception features profound speeches from decades of students, some of whom never even sat in her classroom. Then again, not every teacher is Sandra Powell Mitchell.
“I sat there, determined I wasn’t going to cry, but their comments did get me,” Mitchell said of the speakers recalling her 40 years with Fauquier County Public Schools. “I was mesmerized by what they remembered.”
Mitchell’s career began her senior year at Mary Washington College. The literature major did student teaching at Fredericksburg’s James Monroe High School toward her teacher certification. Interviews at an on-campus job fair yielded multiple offers, but she accepted a position teaching English at Cedar Lee Junior High School in Fauquier County.
Once in the classroom, Mitchell excelled. She was named regional English teacher of the year in 1992. She supervised the county English program for 13 years, and she was county director of instruction for two years before becoming associate superintendent of schools in 2001. In early 2013, when her boss retired, Mitchell served as the school division’s interim superintendent until a new superintendent was named.
While Mitchell, a self-proclaimed “education geek,” fell in love with English literature early in life, she fell for the study of it at Mary Washington. Though she cites her mother, a college professor who worked with the Virginia Writing Project, as her first writing instructor, journalism classes helped hone her skills, and American and English literature courses enthralled her.
Mitchell’s first teaching job at Cedar Lee lasted only two years, but her students felt such affinity that many kept in touch long after. That’s been a theme throughout her four decades in education: She’s served as a mentor, adviser, and friend. She touched the lives of thousands of children, whether they were eager kindergartners or juniors and seniors coming into their own. For Mitchell, the conversations and bonds she formed with students were just as important as the literature she taught them or the paths she created as a curriculum specialist, superintendent, and administrator.
“I believe that anyone who chooses this profession needs to know that they have to work hard, and all the things that people tell you are true: The pay is not going to be commensurate with what you could make if you were a lawyer,” said the Petersburg, Virginia, native. “But I believe that it is the most important and the most rewarding profession that any human being can go into, any human being that has a heart and a head.”
Mitchell is bringing her warmth and ability to connect with students and colleagues to her new, part-time role as the head of an education leadership program at the University of Virginia, where she earned a doctorate in educational leadership in 2011. She is on the U.Va. Falls Church campus teaching and certifying education leaders who wish to become school principals and supervisors.
She plans to end her career where she’s always wanted to: back in the classroom.