On Being Young and Fearless

On Being Young and Fearless

Mark McDermott connects with middle school students at Seneca Ridge.

As a U.S. Navy aviator, Mark McDermott had just been deployed to the Mediterranean. The year was 1977, “one of those times when you had more guts than brains,” he said.

One of his first maneuvers — a rite of passage for new pilots — was to fly a helicopter into the crater of Mount Etna, a smoldering, semi-active volcano in Sicily, Italy. McDermott refers to that time as his “bulletproof days.”

It’s that memory, and others like it, that connects McDermott, 54, with the adolescents for whom he has been a math and science teacher, a dean, and an assistant principal at Seneca Ridge Middle School for the past 10 years. As the school’s new principal, he said he remembers what it’s like to be young and fearless.

“My wife often says someday I will grow up. But you need to think like a kid in some ways,” he said. “You have to be a little off center to be around middle school kids. They have ideas. They have a whole different take on life.”

After a 20-year career in the Navy, McDermott obtained his teaching certification, joined Seneca Ridge’s staff, and built his second career from there. “After years in the Navy and moving around, I like staying in one spot,” he said.

McDermott’s vision for the Sterling school is simple: “student achievement, student achievement and student achievement.”

“Everyone here is about kids,” he said. “We’re very child centered. They are the whole reason for our existence.”

The teachers go out of their way to ensure every child is a success, he said. “We try to make it home, a place where they feel safe.”

ONE OF McDermott’s first jobs at Seneca Ridge was to hire his replacement, Teresa Buhl, who became the new assistant principal. He said it was one of his best decisions.

Buhl said she was fortunate to have McDermott as her boss. “He is such a wonderful resource of information,” she said. “A lot of time, when you walk into a position, that person is gone.

“He is easy to talk to. He really makes you feel like there are no dumb questions. He is goodhearted, fun, and very approachable.”

McDermott replaced Sherron Gladden, who became principal of Harmony Intermediate School in Hamilton. “We thought a lot alike,” he said. “It was scary sometimes. We were a good team.”

Gladden made some changes at Seneca Ridge when she first arrived, “that only an outsider could make,” he said. “She set us on a better direction.”

He plans to enhance the programs Gladden initiated and introduce “benchmark testing,” an assessment used to gauge students’ abilities.

Gladden had adopted a FISH theme, representing Fresh Ideas Start Here. He is working on a derivative of it. Using a starfish, the theme will evolve around, “Making a Difference for All,” he said. “Sherran ran a very good program, and I’d be stupid making changes, so I’m not going to.”

In other words, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said.

McDermott said the Golden Rule will be in effect at the school. “We’re going to have a special focus on treating the kids like human beings,” he said.

ASSISTANT PRINCIPAL Sean O’Sullivan said McDermott has a rapport with the students. “He has a great sense of humor,” O’Sullivan said. “I think Mrs. Gladden got us off to the right level. Mr. McDermott has a vision of learning … to get us to the next level.”

O’Sullivan said he ascribes to the new principal’s philosophy. “I think all of us are part kid so we know how to relate to students,” O’Sullivan said. “If I were to pick one thing about Mr. McDermott it is that he listens to the kids and the kids know that. They know he will hear what they have to say.”

McDermott said he cannot wait for the students to come back. “It’s a big empty building when they are not here,” he said.

He said he loves to come to work everyday. When he is not at Seneca Ridge, he dabbles in stained glass and plays golf. A black and white poster of The Three Stooges on a golf course attests to how seriously he takes the game. “I look at golf as a social activity, and not as a sport.”

McDermott and his wife, Barbara, live in Leesburg. They have two grown sons, Timothy and Brian.