Sharon Ackerman got her first teaching job in Loudoun County not long after the schools integrated. She taught fifth grade at Aldie Elementary School, where some of her students, enrolling for the first time, were as old as 14 and as tall as she was.

It was one of the toughest and most rewarding jobs of her career, Ackerman said, as she tried to meet the needs of widely different students. She recalls staying up late recording audio versions of books for those who could not yet read.

“I wanted them all to learn the same thing,” she said. Every day, the challenge was: “What are the different ways I could present it?”

Ackerman, now 68, went on to oversee instruction for the Loudoun school system, helping other teachers and administrators challenge themselves to find answers to similar questions. This month, after more than four decades with Loudoun schools, she announced that she plans to retire in June 2014.

Her departure coincides with the retirement of Edgar B. Hatrick III, the longest serving superintendent in the Washington region. Together, they have charted the course for what has become the state’s fourth-largest school system — which has a reputation for high academic performance and innovative classroom technology — without losing sight of the county’s smaller, more rural past.

“More than anyone, Dr. Hatrick and Mrs. Ackerman reinforce the idea here that you are not a number or a building, but a member of a family,” said Loudoun schools spokesman Wayde Byard.

After her first year at Aldie, Ackerman went on to become one of the county’s first reading specialists. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, she was an assistant principal at Sully Elementary and then a principal at Waterford and Sterling elementary schools.

Being a principal is the “plum position,” she said. “If you want to be about leadership, you can do that, but you are closer to kids and teachers and parents . . . and you can watch them grow.”

She was promoted to the central office in 1985, where she worked in personnel and as the head of elementary education before becoming an assistant superintendent for instruction in 1998.

She is known for her tremendous drive and for setting high standards. “If you get Mrs. Ackerman’s approval, you’ve really done something,” Byard said. “It’s a huge badge of honor in this system.”

Climbing the career ladder has had some drawbacks. When you move away from the classroom, there’s “a hollow place for kids that never completely gets filled,” Ackerman said.

She learned to find rewards in different ways. She is proud of how conversations about learning in schools have deepened, with the use of test scores and other data and by making racial and socioeconomic equity a central issue.

She cited the growing number of minority students enrolled in honors and Advanced Placement classes as a sign that more doors are opening.

“I don’t necessarily know their names now, but the numbers tell me we have a lot more kids looking at themselves and saying ‘I can do this,’ ” Ackerman said.