A little embarrassed, Roger Plunkett pardons himself as he grabs a pile of tissues to wipe his wet hands. He's in the middle of washing a blackboard in his new office at Atholton High School, where last month he became principal.
"I don't get to wash blackboards often nowadays," says Mr. Plunkett, a tall, trim, pleasant man with rolled-up sleeves and loosened tie.
The 38-year-old Ellicott City resident and Baltimore native has risen quickly to become principal of a high school that two years ago was named a national blue ribbon winner by the U.S. Department of Education.
"We believe he has exceptional leadership qualities and he's very knowledgeable about instruction," says Daniel Jett, director county high schools. "He has wonderful rapport with students and staff. He's very technology-oriented.
"They really have an outstanding educational leader. I know he's going to serve very, very well. I know as they get to know him, they're going to feel the same way."
An avid reader and a lifelong Orioles fan, Mr. Plunkett enjoys spending time with his family -- his wife and two young children -- and at the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Baltimore, where he writes and edits a newsletter.
And he loves his work -- "just seeing students grow, helping them to see their growth."
"When people see progress, they want to be a part of what's going on," he says. "You can still do that as an administrator."
Mr. Plunkett says he was surprised to learn last month that he had been tapped as the principal for Atholton. "So many people have said to me, 'I know you would make a good principal,' but I never knew it would be so soon," he says.
He graduated from Morgan State University in 1977 with degrees in English and education, and he earned a master's degree in education from Loyola College in Baltimore in 1982. His specialties are staff development and coordinating instructional programs.
Mr. Plunkett began his career in the Howard County school system in 1977 as an English teacher at Howard High School. Seven years later, he became department chairman. In 1989 he left Howard High to become an assistant principal at Hammond High School, where he worked until his new appointment.
Mr. Plunkett took the job at Howard High thinking he eventually would enter another profession. "Once I started teaching, I was planning to go to law school at night," he says. "I was going to use education as a backup."
But he says he fell in love with teaching and Columbia, where he envisioned raising a family. And he liked the work he was doing with students.
Mr. Plunkett expects that his biggest challenge in the fall will be Atholton's growth -- more than 1,400 students are expected to enroll at the Columbia school compared with roughly 1,200 students two years ago.
"I can imagine our halls will be very crowded," he says.
"I think [Atholton] is one of the leading schools in the county, no doubt about that," he says. "I see myself as someone who's going to promote it even further. I've always admired the school. There are some brilliant teachers here."
His peers give him high marks.
"It's a well-deserved promotion," said Marshall Peterson, principal at Hammond. "He's a consummate educator, totally 100-plus percent committed to education as it is defined in its finest -- excellence."
Mr. Peterson says Mr. Plunkett is a role model for many students.
"He very much embodies the work ethic that has made America the great country that it is," Mr. Peterson says. "If you want a role model for young people with regards to hard work and perseverance, he's certainly that."
Mr. Plunkett received two bits of advice from Dr. Jett when he was appointed an assistant principal: listen more than you talk and learn more than you teach.
It's advice that Mr. Plunkett has taken to heart. He plans to "listen to staff members, listen to the students," he says. "The principal is more of a facilitator of a high school. I'm very supportive. I'm a hard worker. I'm very accessible. They can come to me."