Surgeon: ‘My students know that I care about them’

Editor’s note: October is National Principals Month. The Pee Dee Post will publish profiles on each of the county’s school principals during the month.
Jamie Greene
Yvonne Gilmer
Ellen Mabe
Joyce McRae
Hal Shuler
Angela Watkins
Dawn Terry
Pam Patterson
Andy Reeder
Julian Carter
Susan Brigman
Michael Chapman
Keith McKenzie
Melvin Ingram
Wendy Jordan
Jim Butler

By Mallory Brown
Richmond County Schools

Willette Surgeon has a love for learning.

After 13 years as an administrator in Richmond County, she is still dedicated to sharing that love with her students — most recently as the principal of West Rockingham Elementary.

Willette Surgeon

Willette Surgeon

“I love getting to know all of my students by name and seeing what they are learning in the classroom,” she said, “having conversations with them about school and about what is going on with them each day. My students know that I care about them and I want them to recognize the leadership qualities inside of them and want them to strive to be the best they can be.”

Surgeon said she strives each year to create an atmosphere and culture in her school where students and staff cannot wait to see what is in store each day.

“When I came to West Rockingham School, I created a school pledge that students recite and hopefully live by each day,” she said. “This pledge states: ‘I came to school to learn and I will learn, I will show respect for myself and others. This will be a great day.’”

Born in Georgia, Surgeon was raised in Richmond County. After her father’s death, she and her mother moved to Ellerbe where she said her love for education began at an early age.

“My mother is a retired teacher of 37 years,” Surgeon said. “I feel she had an influence on my decision. I knew that I wanted to be a nurse or a teacher. As a child, I would play school with my animals. I had my own chalk board and would often ask my mother to bring materials home so I could use them to teach my class. She would sometimes tell me to take a break, because I would teach in my room for hours.”

Surgeon attended Ellerbe Primary and Mineral Springs School as a child, where she said she would always remember her kindergarten teacher, Janet Hogan.

“She still resides in Ellerbe,” she said. “I sometimes see her and she tells me I am where I am today because of what she taught me in kindergarten.”

In 1981, Surgeon graduated from Richmond Senior High with a class of 603 students.

“I loved school and tried to be a part of everything I could,” she said. “I was in the marching band. Back then we were known as the Pride and Joy of Richmond County. This is how they introduced us as we entered the football field. The band was 200 members strong. I was also on the school Senate, Spanish Club, African American Club — any and everything that I could participate in and learn.   I had some great teachers that made learning so important and held us to high expectations.”

Surgeon received her bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education in December of 1985 from UNC-Greensboro and began teaching only three short weeks afterward. She later enrolled in the graduate program at North Carolina A&T State University and received a master’s degree in Elementary Education. Surgeon was then accepted in the North Carolinas Principals’ Fellows Program at Fayetteville State University and earning her master’s degree in Administration.

Like many others, though, her teaching career began at her home school — West Rockingham.

“At the end of the school year, I moved back to Greensboro and began teaching at Washington School of Science and Technology,” she explained. “I taught there for about eight years and moved back home to Ellerbe where I was again blessed to begin teaching at Ellerbe Primary which emerged into Mineral Springs School.

“In my years of teaching, I taught kindergarten, first, second and third grades,” Surgeon continued. “I just knew that I would continue to teach for my career. Then one day, my principal at the time, the late Mr. Barry Ridley, approached me about applying for the NC Principal’s Fellows Scholarship. I respectfully declined. Then approximately two weeks later, my pastor Bishop Arlestor Simpson preached a sermon about Reaching your Canan. In that message on that Sunday, he called out my name and said, ‘Willette, instead of being the teacher of that school, be the principal of that school’. At that time, I knew that I needed to go ahead and apply for the NC Principals Fellow Scholarship.”

Surgeon said she would always remember the day the scholarship form and information was due because it was her mother’s birthday — and a Leap Year.

“I was elated to receive this scholarship and go through this program,” she said. “It prepared me for the years ahead. I loved teaching in my classroom so much that even after being accepted into the Principals Fellows Program, I did not want to leave my students in the classroom. I will remember that my principal told me: in your classroom you can only affect the students in your classroom, but as the principal of that school, you can affect all of the students. After this, I could not wait to start my career as a principal. That is what I continue to cherish, impacting the lives of the young people that come through the school doors every day.”

Surgeon’s path in administration began with an assistant principalship at Monroe Avenue Elementary for three years under the late Ed Ormsby.

“I was also very excited to be the first assistant principal of the new school at that time, Richmond Primary, under the leadership of a great mentor, Mrs. Marsha Porter,” she said. “I will always remember the long but fun hours we had putting the school together from the ground up. Mrs. Porter was a great mentor that shared everything with me about school administration. She even met with me one Sunday evening for what she called ‘Budget 101’ in order to show me how to work with the school budget. Every day was like Christmas because we had some sort of delivery each day… paper, books, paper clips, furniture, teachers’ personal items … Many days we worked from eight in the morning until 11 p.m. I would not change that experience for anything in the world. Every administrator should experience the opening of a new school.”

When asked about the path that led her to West Rockingham Elementary, Surgeon said it was all about seizing the opportunity.

“I have no regrets, just opportunities to be able to help students develop that great leadership potential inside of them … it is there,” she said. “I have opportunities to help students realize that their education is what will help them every day of their lives. I love what I do and try to model this for my staff every day. There are many challenges that educators face today, but as I share with my staff, ‘we are not in it for the income, but for the outcome.’”

Surgeon’s family members, she said, have also taught her many things along the way.

“I have two beautiful daughters, Andria Surgeon, 18, and Kristin Surgeon, 15,” she said. “Life is so rewarding with them. They have taught me many things … I also make sure that they are learning—even on vacation! We relax but we learn about the many sights this world has to offer.   I encourage my daughters to be young ladies and that they have qualities inside of them that will help them be anything in life they desire, as long as they put God first. I am very proud of them. Both are students at Richmond Senior High School.

“We have two pets that my daughters named when they were small: a dog named Cupcake and a cat named Puff. We live beside the best neighbor a person could have — my mother, Annie J. Buie, who is a big part of our family.”

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