Dee Nebert, an office assistant at Hunters Woods Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences in Reston, recalls one particularly busy morning at the front desk last spring. Several people wanted a minute with Principal Stephen Hockett.

Hockett, Nebert said, asked her to schedule a meeting with two teachers who came to talk about a new technique they wanted to try. When another principal called to discuss an upcoming conference, Hockett promised to get back to her just after lunch.

Then a kindergartner showed up with a shining new soccer trophy that he wanted to show off.

"Send him in," Nebert recalled Hockett saying. And the boy, beaming, went into the office.

"That's how Steve is. When it matters to a kid, he puts everything else aside," Nebert said. "There is no time he is too busy for a little person."

Hockett, 51, who is now principal at McNair Elementary School in Herndon, is among 20 administrators in the area selected to receive the Washington Post's Distinguished Educational Leadership Award. Elisabeth Griffith, 58, headmistress at the Madeira School in McLean, a private boarding school for girls, also was chosen.

Hockett took a nontraditional route to becoming a school administrator. Inspired by his grandmother, a fifth-grade teacher, he'd always considered teaching. But when he graduated in 1979 from California State University at Stanislaus, where he studied psychology and history, teachers were being laid off, not hired. So Hockett got a job at Hibernia Bank.

He worked as an accountant and in human resources, and he helped launch the first ATMs in San Francisco. But one day, at a staff meeting, he questioned his career path.

"I was sitting around the table, seven years into it, thinking, 'This is not what I want to do,' " Hockett said.

So he became the first person to take advantage of the company's educational leave policy and enrolled in the University of San Francisco to pursue a teaching career. After teaching for a year-and-a-half in California, he came east and was hired in Fairfax County.

At Hunters Woods Elementary, the arts and sciences magnet school where Hockett was principal from 1990 through the spring of 2005, he encouraged learning about math and reading through music and art. Under his leadership, the sixth grade was transformed into an opera company, writing and performing its own production. And the school started a program in which every third-grader takes a violin class.

"He just has a vision unlike anyone else in this day and age of teaching to the test," said Lisa Foley, an art teacher. "He realizes that kids learn in different ways."

In September, Hockett started his new post at McNair, the only high-poverty Fairfax school that did not meet the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law for three consecutive years. As a result, Hockett must now allow children to transfer to other schools and must provide private tutoring.

These days the school is gearing up for the private tutoring sessions, to be held on Saturdays beginning in December. But Hockett also is considering adding more art programs and starting an after-school robotics club.

"Because of the pressures of No Child Left Behind, sometimes some people might lose focus on the need to teach the widest band of knowledge so the students can develop the skills they need to have vision," Hockett said. "I want to make sure we aren't thwarting the development of artists, musicians, inventors, writers."

Griffith, an author and historian, has written extensively about prominent women in history. She has been headmistress at Madeira since 1988.

Kevin J. Wildeman, the school's dean of students, said Griffith's knowledge of history is apparent because she opens most weekly school meetings with a brief mention of "some historical, motivational anecdote to get us going." The girls might hear about Rosa Parks or Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Ernest Shackleton and his Antarctic exploration.

In one exercise that some teachers recall, Griffith created two timelines, a blue line that showed history through a man's eyes and a pink line of events that were particularly important to women. The pink timeline included the year women were permitted to vote and the year rubber was first used to make nipples for baby bottles.

"I really think of myself as a historian temporarily employed as a headmistress," Griffith said. "I think a lot of history is good storytelling, and I want to share these stories."

Griffith, a former history teacher, has taught at the National Cathedral School and Sidwell Friends in Northwest Washington. She was an adjunct lecturer at American University in the mid-1980s.

Griffith, Wildeman said, also has close ties to Madeira's 300 students. She hosts regular lunches and dinners for small groups of students and attends student government meetings.

"She's tuned in, she listens and she pays attention," Wildeman said. "She gets to know every student."

Griffith says she sees Madeira as a place where girls can grow academically and also develop confidence. "I think young women need a place where they can be their genuine selves, hear their own voices," she said.

First-graders at McNair Elementary School in Herndon eat ice cream sandwiches while Principal Stephen Hockett reads to them. ELISABETH GRIFFITHPrincipal Stephen Hockett oversees a fire drill at McNair Elementary School, where he moved in September after 15 years at Hunters Woods Elementary.