JUNE 20, 2014 – Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the consolidation of the city and county school systems. As part of that, we’re recognizing people who are a product of the school system who now work for the school system.
Tricia Spencer, who graduated from East Forsyth High School in 1987, just finished her sixth year as the principal at South Fork Elementary School.
Spencer’s family is chockablock with East Forsyth graduates. Her husband, Robert, and older brothers, Robbie and Joe, graduated from there. So did her husband’s sisters. More recently, Tricia and Robert Spencer’s two children graduated from East Forsyth – Ryan in 2012 and Megan just this year.
As it happened, Spencer was in East’s 25th anniversary graduating class and Ryan was in the school’s 50th anniversary graduating class.
Spencer started school at Kernersville Elementary. When Cash Elementary opened, she went there for third grade. She remembers that the neighborhood where they lived had a bus stop where everyone gathered and played tag and other games until the bus arrived, and, on school days, she woke up looking forward to seeing everyone at the bus stop. “It was fun,” she said.
The mothers all knew each other, and, if a mother saw a kid misbehave, everyone understood that she could correct the child even if the child wasn’t her own.
In the sixth grade at Cash, Spencer had a teacher who meant a lot to her – Carolyn Greenwood Flynt. (These days, Flynt teaches at Sedge Garden Elementary School.) By then, Spencer’s parents were going through difficulties that eventually led to divorce, and Flynt did what she could to encourage and support Spencer.
“She cared about me and helped me have a connection at school,” Spencer said. “She was the kind of person you just wanted to be around…She was a lifesaver for me.”
Spencer started junior high at Walkertown Junior High. A family move put her in the Glenn Junior High district. She went to Atkins High School for a year, and, when the school system went to four-year high schools, she was off to East Forsyth.
In junior high, Spencer played softball and basketball and participated in track. In high school, her sports became swimming and soccer.
Spencer knew her husband-to-be in high school. He was two classes ahead of her - in the same class as one of her brothers. They all ran around in the same group. It turned into something more her senior year. She was throwing a New Year’s Eve party. He was off at college at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC), and she hadn’t thought to invite him. That didn’t keep him from showing up. “We had that midnight kiss,” Spencer said.
They began dating, and today is the 22nd anniversary of their marriage.
Growing up, Spencer didn’t envision herself as an educator. She pictured herself playing with dolphins as a marine biologist. She headed to the University of North Carolina at Wilmington with that in mind. Once she was there, she realized that she was surrounded by people who imagined playing with dolphins for a living and that only a few of them were going to be able to do that.
Another path might be in order, she thought. Along the way, she had taught swimming and been a camp counselor at Laurel Ridge, the Moravian church camp. On breaks in college, she would come back to visit Flynt and end up helping her out in such ways as overseeing the students tie-dying T-shirts on Field Day.
“I had a love of kids,” Spencer said.
She decided to switch her major to elementary education and ended up transferring to UNCC. After she graduated from there in 1991, she found a job teaching fourth grade in Salisbury.
Other teachers along the way – including French teacher Montine Bryant Scales and history teacher Janice Freeman (both now retired) – had also meant a lot to Spencer, and, when Spencer became a teacher, she worked to be like the teachers she admired.
“I wanted to make a difference to kids as they made a difference to me,” Spencer said.
Those good teachers had worked to build strong relationships with their students based on trust, and Spencer wanted to do the same. “To me, relationship is key to everything I do,” she said.
After teaching in Salisbury for four years, her husband’s work as an electrical engineer took them to Huntsville, Ala., for a time. When they came back this way, she found a job in Guilford County as a lead teacher. She enjoyed the leadership role and decided to pursue a master’s degree in school administration at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She earned that degree in 1999. In August, she will complete a National Institute for School Leadership program that will serve as groundwork work for a doctorate.
Being an elementary school principal is work that Spencer enjoys. She likes knowing that every day is going to be different. “You never know what you are going to get when you walk through the door,” she said.
She likes watching the light bulb go on with the younger students as they learn such basics as reading. With the fifth-graders, she likes watching them become ready to make the leap to middle school.
With the teachers, teacher assistants and other members of the staff, she works hard to make them feel appreciated. “We are very lucky to have you here and look at the difference you make in kids’ lives,” she tells them.
“I wouldn’t trade my staff,” Spencer said. “We are a family.”
And, in turn, everyone at South Fork works to make the 525 students who come through the doors and their families feel as if they, too, are part of a larger family.