Tall, slim and accomplished at 47, with an easy sense of authority and a quick intellect, Susan Brown Griffith remembers what it was like to be a quiet, bookish youngster who endured years of malicious teasing by louder, more popular girls.
Griffith, principal of Mayfield Woods Middle School in Elkridge, went on closed-circuit television last year to recount her painful experience growing up in a small Wyoming town to sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.
"Have you ever done that -- made fun of someone thinking it's entertainment?" she asked her television audience. "Do you let it happen?"
Griffith, who was participating in the school's annual event "Building a Respectful Community," figured her personal revelation was a teachable moment.
"Kids will not take risks [to improve] in school if they don't feel safe, cared for by teachers and cared for by each other," she said.
Griffith's emotional investment in the school helps illustrate why she was chosen as the Howard County principal who will receive this year's Distinguished Educational Leadership Award from The Washington Post. She is one of 17 Washington area public and private school principals being honored by the newspaper's educational foundation.
Following the foundation's guidelines, School Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin selected Griffith from a dozen nominees. Mayfield Woods guidance counselor Mary Mesterharm led the effort to nominate Griffith, who has been at the school nine years -- three as assistant principal and six as principal.
"She has moved our school from what was an okay, mediocre-performing school to a school that has been very inspirational to all of us," Mesterharm said.
The middle school draws its 575 students from wide-ranging ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.
"It's diverse in every way you can think of," said Barbara Holden, whose three children attended Mayfield Woods. "You have to manage the building so everybody gets what they need."
When Griffith became principal, student test scores were lagging and students were sometimes rambunctious. She told the staff that the school had engaged in "random acts of improvement," rather than working toward an overall goal.
"If it doesn't support the instructional program, it doesn't happen," she said.
That message played out in many ways, including the adoption of a school dress code about five years ago that Griffith instituted because students came to school dressed "provocatively" in tight, short skirts, low-hanging jeans and skimpy tops.
"That's not conducive to school being a place to work for all of us," she said. At first the dress code was controversial with students and parents -- one parent went to the school board to complain -- but by the second year, resistance had evaporated. Students even made a video for incoming sixth-graders showing them the right way and wrong way to dress.
To address its large number of students reading below grade level, Mayfield Woods four years ago became one of the first U.S. schools to adopt a method of auditory training to help readers master the sounds of the English language. The students' improvement on state standardized tests was quick and dramatic.
Griffith has nurtured even as she has pushed. The media center's reading corner is abundantly stocked with plush, fuzzy bulldogs, the school mascot. In Griffith's office are more stuffed animals -- bears, all of them wearing collegiate sweaters.
"It's done to challenge them to think ahead to what's down the road for them," she said.
She has sewn large, colorful banners for the school atrium that list the names of high-achieving and most-improved students. She hands out tiny bulldogs to staff members to celebrate accomplishments. Her voice catches as she talks about head custodian Robert Jackson, a random victim at an Ellicott City drugstore shooting last year. Although he had been seriously wounded, Jackson insisted on coming to school on opening day three weeks later, she said.
"It's an honor to work with him," she said.
According to Griffith's five-page resume, she has been at Mayfield Woods longer than at any other school or institute in her 26-year career.
"I would choose to be nowhere else," she said. "Every year is a gift."