Cromwell Valley Elementary Regional Magnet's principal, Cathy Thomas, inspires her staff to teach students not by stepping up, but by standing down.
"We're working to get the teacher off the stage and create a learning environment where students are driving that learning," Thomas said. "Kids are so imaginative — we need to get out of their way."
Thomas' vision for the school has drawn praise from staff and students – and, as of last week, from the county, after she was named a Principal of the Year by the school system.
"I'm just very humbled and honored," said Thomas, who has been principal at Cromwell Valley for two years.
Thomas is one of two principals to be awarded the title this year; the other is Kandice Taylor, principal at Deer Park Middle Magnet School in Randallstown.
The principals were honored at an April 25 ceremony, according to a news release. One other Towson-area principal, Deborah Magness of Cockeysville Middle School, was also recognized as a finalist.
"She's just such a good person in general — as a principal, but also as a human being," Jill Dunham Wright, a STAT teacher at Cromwell Valley, said of Thomas.
Thomas, a longtime educator, has been working in the Baltimore County school system since 1991, when she started at Bear Creek Elementary in Dundalk as a first-grade teacher.
She spent time teaching both elementary and middle school students before becoming an assistant principal at Ridgely Middle School in Lutherville.
"There's something to be said to having experience in both middle and elementary schools," Thomas said, adding that teaching middle schoolers helped her prepare elementary school students for that next step.
Before starting at Cromwell Valley, Thomas led Scholars K-8, a former public charter school originally named Imagine Discovery that shut down at the end of 2016. Thomas led the school through the closure, saying she focused on helping students prepare to transfer to other schools.
Thomas said that in her two years at Cromwell Valley, a magnet school that focuses on science, technology, engineering, art and math — or STEAM — the principal has focused on helping students learn through inquiry, asking questions and experimenting to solve problems themselves.
One area that she said lent itself to that approach was coding. Teachers had to learn to code at the same time as students did, and the children often picked it up more quickly, she said.
Dunham Wright praised Thomas for helping teachers engage students in what she called "productive struggle."
"Teachers are typically Type A people, and want to control everything," Dunham Wright said. "So it's been very eye-opening; we're baby stepping."
According to a nomination packet, the Principal of the Year award recognizes those who exhibit "visionary leadership," focus on engaging and research-based student learning, and empower others, including staff, parents and students, among other attributes.
Principals are nominated by a committee consisting of students, teachers and parents or other community members.
Heather Lageman, executive director of leadership development for the school system, said the committee that nominated Thomas also included a guidance counselor, a special educator and a library media specialist.
Four third-graders at Cromwell Valley — Anna, Ellie, Vikram and A'Ryan — wrote a short essay about Thomas as part of the nomination. The students' last names were not included in the application.
"She is caring and kind, important and selfless. She shows leadership out of her kind heart," the children wrote, adding later, "She cares about EVERY single student."
Lageman said the school system likes to recognize people who are "transforming teaching and learning to impact student achievement."
Thomas said she is not a natural leader and misses teaching. Because of that, she spends a lot of time planning curricula with teachers or co-teaching in classrooms, a trait that Dunham Wright praised, saying teachers see the principal as "right in the trenches with you."
Thomas went into administration and became a leader because former principal Debbie Klaus at one of Thomas' previous schools, General John Stricker Middle in Dundalk, "pushed me into leadership," Thomas said. Now, as a principal herself, Thomas said she works to encourage her staff to develop their own leadership skills.
"I don't think I was born a leader," Thomas said. "I think I grew into this position, and I'd like to do that for other people."
Thomas said she was "overwhelmed" by winning the award, saying "I don't really like the limelight."
A county news release said winners would receive a "variety of gifts and awards," but earlier this week Thomas did not know what those might be.
Thomas said she was touched when she arrived at school from a conference on Monday to find a banner in the lobby congratulating her, covered in hearts and messages from students, and even a makeshift red carpet through her office.
"It was just a really special feeling to know that I'm making a difference," Thomas said.