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William Sterrett in the Watson College of Education

February 27, 2018

As a former principal, William Sterrett knows that the quality of leadership sets the tone for an entire school. For the past eight years, he has been teaching in UNCW’s Master of School Administration program, which trains future principals and other school leaders. In this role, he stresses the symbiotic connection between teaching and leadership.

“I continually tell prospective school administrators that the best principals never forget that they are teachers,” said Sterrett, an associate professor in the Watson College of Education Department of School Leadership. “Most of my students are full-time teachers, and I never want them to lose that perspective as they hone their leadership skills and take on new roles in their schools and districts.”

He keeps a reminder of his own years as a K-12 educator on a table in his office – an album filled with photos from school events and notes of appreciation from colleagues.

Not all leaders hold titles, he is quick to point out. For example, he recently worked with teachers in an emerging leaders program with New Hanover County Schools, and not all necessarily aspire to become principals. Many classroom teachers inspire from within, and a good principal understands that collaboration is necessary to motivate successful change, Sterrett said.

“One person can make a huge difference, but can’t sustain that alone,” he said.

Sterrett is an advocate of the outdoor classroom and “green” efforts that many schools are now undertaking. As an elementary school principal, he worked with teachers and staff to take learning outdoors when possible. The break from a traditional classroom stimulates students, who grow restless sitting still for long periods, he said.

In his position at UNCW, Sterrett has published research about the role of principals and other school leaders in making sustainability part of the school culture. His research allows him to examine “the principal as innovator.”

“There are some great, innovative principals out there who are fostering incredible capacity among their teacher/leaders; the school culture is thriving and students are learning,” he said. “That's why the case study model is so powerful in our field when it comes to connecting research and teaching.”

Sterrett moved to Wilmington after living in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he earned his M.Ed. and Ph.D. at the University of Virginia, taught middle grades science and served as an elementary school principal. He and his family love the coastal climate and abundance of outdoor activities. And in UNCW, he said he found an institution that puts a high value on teaching, research and, through work with local schools and school districts, community outreach.

“You look at the levels of research productivity and fantastic teaching and service that's happening, I often think we have the best of both worlds,” Sterrett said. “We have incredible faculty and staff support that makes that possible.”

-- Tricia Vance