Paul Travers, 37, Principal
That’s what happened to Paul Travers, the award-winning principal of Washington Montessori.
He grew up in a military family with six kids. They lived all over the country. His dad was a career barber. His mom was a special education teacher and later a principal, and inspired Paul to pursue education as a career.
He wasn’t a natural at first. He was a young Kindergartener – only four years old. And he struggled. He repeated second grade. By fourth or fifth grade, he found more ease with academics.
“I still didn’t like school. I loved the social parts of school. I loved recess. I loved P.E. I lived for those moments. That was my time to shine,” Paul says.
Things really changed in middle school when he met gym teacher Brian Betts.
“He created a one-mile across country course and then got me into running track,” Paul says. He found his confidence. “I felt I can go to school and feel good about something. I was a bit more sure of myself. That kind of spilled over into the classroom. That was really a turning point for me.”
He excelled in math and was an athlete. He knew he wanted to go into elementary education. He was recruited to run cross country and track at UNC Greensboro.
He eventually transferred to Greensboro College, where he was good enough to play on the basketball team as well. He attributes his participation in athletics to providing him an outlet and a release that helped him succeed academically as well.
“When you have to push your body, what your body could do, when you have to work out and you’re on schedule, when you’re on regiment – I’m a person that’s really thrives off of consistency. For me that really helped translate into the classroom,” Paul says.
After he graduated undergrad, he went right into teaching Kindergarten at Jefferson Elementary School. He’d originally been hired to teach fourth grade, like his student teaching background. Just 24 and with no children of his own yet, it was a challenge to quickly be able to relate to young children, he says.
After a year at Jefferson, Paul sought out a job at a high poverty school where he could teach more children of color.
“What bothers me most about when people approach black and brown kids is, oh they know you’re gonna do athletics, they’re good at the music, right? No, we’re going to math, too. We can do all the things,” Paul says. “We have to have somebody that’s loving that’s in a position to hold them accountable. That’s it for me. That was a big component of being able to be in this space where I can hold families accountable, believing in, trusting them and show them that I expect just as much from them.”
He worked with older elementary children at Shadybrook Elementary School. Knowing he wanted to eventually be a principal, he went to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University to get his Master’s in School Administration. In 2019, he got his first crack at it as an assistant principal at Dudley High School.
Then a father of two young children, attending graduate school, and learning a new job was the “most thrilling exciting job that I had, and the most stressful at the same time.” Soon he was back in elementary school – this time as principal at Washington.
It’s a school where all students receive free or reduced-cost lunch, and about 90 percent are African American. For Paul, every day is a chance to introduce his Kindergarten through fifth graders to something new.
“That’s super exciting — providing opportunity, providing access, making sure our students have that,” he says.
He introduced a special “morning announcements” program where he travels around the city to provide new experiences. One week, the children might celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month. Another, they learn water safety at a local swim club. Another, they try Zumba. Another, they tour the Thomasville Bus manufacturing facility. So far, he’s organized more than 100 different experiences.
“Last year, I flew over the school in an airplane with Triad Aviation,” he says. He’s willing to do a lot to help the kids image how “they can impact the world with their skills and gifts.”
It was an idea he got while sitting on the front steps of the school with a kid, staring at the downtown skyline. After a little talk, he realized the child didn’t really know anything about downtown or what happened there – even though it’s just blocks away from the school and where most of the students reside.
He challenged the staff to think of a way to change that. “I said, ‘There are too many things around here for our students not to know about.’”
Paul says he has focused on effective instruction and teacher retention, and building empathy and compassion for students and families. He’s focused on building professional development and letting teachers have a specific focus to meet the goals in their classroom.
It’s the kind of thing that earned Paul a Principal of the Year nod in 2022. He says that award should be for the community, not for him. The student body exceeded performance expectations, increasing more than 10 points since Paul arrived. The school has come off the state’s low performing school list.
“The stigma that has followed has been with Washington for too long. The award, to me, it was a great representation of the amount of work that this community and this school has done,” he says. “For me, it’s affirmation and you’re doing the right work.”