After 34 years of teaching, administrating and working within Fairfax County Public Schools, it’s time for Terry Cavender to say farewell to her students.
“I don’t really want to retire now, but maybe it’s time for me and my husband to do different things,” said Cavender, principal at Forestdale Elementary School
For the past nine years, Cavender has been principal at Forestdale, which she calls “a sweet little school” and “the best kept secret in Fairfax County.” With an enrollment of between 440 and 500 students, the small population of families has begun to shower Cavender with gifts, concerts and well-wishes before she officially retires on Aug. 1.
From her early days as a first grade teacher at Kings Park Elementary School in 1973, Cavender said she has appreciated the opportunities for teachers to expand their skills within the Fairfax County system.
“That’s the best thing,” she said. Teachers have “lots of opportunities to go out and hear what’s new. They let you find out what’s best for the children.”
After leaving Kings Park, Cavender spent time at Cardinal Forest, Freedom Hill, White Oaks, Mount Vernon Woods and Halley elementary schools, where she worked with principal Janet Funk.
“Jan knows everything,” Cavender laughed. “And if she doesn’t know it, she’ll help you find out it.”
WHILE AT FORESTDALE, Cavender used some of what she’d learned at in-services and workshops to incorporate a “community of caring” emphasis within her school.
“We constantly talk with our children about respect, honesty, fairness and kindness,” she said. “They use those words all the time. I think that has a lot to do with the atmosphere in our building.”
Teaching children to be respectful goes beyond their classroom teachers and extends to “everyone in our staff. Everybody here has connected with the kids,” who know the names of everyone who works inside the school, Cavender said.
Creating a learning environment that children are happy to spend their time in during the day is “half the battle” of getting the excited about their education, she said.
Cavender, who attended James Madison University, originally wanted to be a nurse but changed her mind after spending time with the preschool at the university.
“I got to thinking that I’d love to teach the little ones how to read,” she said. She later earned her masters degree in reading was worked as a reading specialist at Freedom Hills.
In the next few weeks, though, as the school year winds down and Cavender begins to pack up her office, she’s preparing to hand over her school to the new principal, Cheryl Toth.
“I’ve had some tough nights. The children keep you young,” Cavender said.
Looking ahead, Cavender said she and her husband of 26 years, Jim, are going to exercise and walk. "I’ve enjoyed coming to work every single day for the last nine years, I feel like I’m going out on top,” she said.
Cavender's husband is still working, a member of the Stafford County Sheriff’s Department after he retired from Fairfax County. The couple hopes to travel more in the next few years.
Still, leaving her students will be difficult.
During a concert a few weeks ago, every student at the school gave her a single flower, mostly carnations and roses, and the PTSA presented her with a quilt that included a patch from a T-shirt commemorating the school’s opening in 1964.
When asked about the kind of legacy she’d like to leave behind, Cavender said she hopes her staff will continue to encourage students to be the best they can. "Being opening minded and letting them give things a try” will instill a sense of curiosity and creativity in the students, she said.
That legacy is already well in place.
“She’s the best boss I’ve ever had,” said first grade teacher Garianne Mabe. “She’s taken such good care of me here.”
Teacher’s assistant Fahima Rahimi agreed. “This is my first year here, but I really don’t want her to leave,” she said.
Cavender "brings out the best in the kids," said teacher Mary Wall. "She knows each and every one of them by name, which is something you don't find in every school."
Fifth grade teacher James Quinn said his "best years of teaching" have been at Forestdale while working with Cavender.
"She's guided me through personal and professional experiences, from my marriage, my first child and earning my Master's Degree from Virginia Tech," he said. "She's the best principal I've ever worked with. I'm sure I'll be calling her for advice long into her retirement."
Special education teacher Donna Murphy said Cavender's "always helpful. She's got a really good understanding of children and she wants to make sure they get the best help they need."
A "good role model" for English for Speakers of Other Languages teacher Tish Nordvall, Cavender "always let me know she was someone I can talk to when I need help."
Christella Rumberg, another ESOL teacher, said she thinks Cavender is so good with children because "she's still a kid at heart."
Even the students are having a tough time letting Cavender go.
“She’s nice and kind,” said third grade student Thanh Pham, who said she’s written a song for Cavender with her sister. When Cavender asked to hear the song, the shy girl said she’d sing it for her later, with her sister.
Some students said they'd miss her singing during their grade-level meetings at the end of each quarter.
"She's always singing. She made up a song for Character Day," said fifth grade student Katie Necochea.
Heidi Alvarenga said she's had many different principals at different schools, but Cavender's her favorite.
"She's one of a kind," the fifth grader said. "She's outstanding."
Fifth grade student Steven Burton said Cavender is always willing to give students a chance to explain themselves when they go to her office. "She always gives me a chance," he said.
"When I came here, she gave me a hug and welcomed me to the school," said fifth grader Manuel Gonzalez. "We'll miss her a lot."
“Mrs. Cavender’s fun to play with on Field Day,” said Mai Anh Le.
Cavender turned to give her a hug, and Mai Anh summed up the feeling of so many others at the school. “Thank you for all you do," she said.