Carolynn Walsleban

“It was an out-of-body experience,” is the way Principal Carolynn Walsleben describes receiving the highest honor available for a Montgomery County, Maryland, school leader.

Carolynn, of Candlewood Elementary School in Derwood, Maryland, says the Superintendent’s Annual Mark Mann Excellence and Harmony Award “is an honor that reflects how your students, parents, staff and community feel about you as a leader.”

Upon receiving the award this year, she said she felt like she had succeeded in making all of her mentors proud. Two in particular are Gayle Starr, her principal at Woodfield ES, and Sarah Sirgo, her director when she was acting principal at Carl Sandburg Learning Center and Candlewood ES, along with many others during her school career.

“I tried to forge a legacy of great relationships from a very young age because that’s what it’s all about,” she says—and she can reel off the names of most of her teachers from elementary school. “I student-taught for a few of them,” she notes. 

Carolynn’s 20 years of teaching first and fifth grades prepared her for becoming the principal she knew she wanted to be. Although she had realized as a child that was her goal, she thought she needed a very strong grounding in teaching and learning. 

“There’s a lot of hard work, a lot of stress in being a principal,” Carolynn says. “You always have to be present. You have to want to build and develop people.”

After her husband Kraig was offered three jobs in land development in Montgomery County, they moved there from Long Island, New York, right in the middle of a public school hiring freeze. For the next 10 years, she worked at St. Martin of Tours, a Catholic school, where she learned to manage large class sizes. When the hiring freeze was lifted, she moved to Bells Mill Elementary School and then to Woodfield Elementary School. These were the years she and Kraig were raising their son, Connor, and daughter, Kersten.

Her first job in school leadership was as an assistant principal at Greenwood ES. From there, she moved to Germantown ES as principal intern and then became acting principal at Carl Sandburg Learning Center, a special education school. A year later, right at the start of the pandemic, she was named principal of Candlewood Elementary School, which is where Carolynn, a member of Montgomery County Association of Administrators and Principals, AFSA Local 146, calls “home.”

Pretty much right out of the box, she was putting in 16-hour days. She’s a hands-on leader who greets her children at the door, covers classes so her teachers can complete testing, and even wipes down dirty cafeteria tables when necessary. And there was a lot more to handle than the routine. They had to switch to 100% online learning, then gradually move to a hybrid model.

“We handled the pandemic with grace,” she says, “thanks to the collaboration of everyone in the building and an absolutely amazing assistant principal.”

Meanwhile, during quarantine, her entire family moved into her house. Carolynn’s sisters-in-law and daughter-in-law are teachers—“all of us pretty driven”—so they were all working on school at the same time. “We all laughed together and learned together,” she says. “We had the time of our lives.”

Some of the more positive developments of the pandemic have carried over, with children from different grades entering and exiting the building through separate sets of doors, making things calmer and more systematic, as well as students who don’t eat breakfast in the building now going straight to their classrooms and some staff still using virtual options for meetings.

“But like everywhere, our students have experienced learning loss,” she says, and she adds that the school’s interventions are rapidly proving successful.

And like everywhere else, student mental health requires more attention than before. Candlewood has a well-being team, composed of Carolynn, the AP, the school psychologist and English language development teachers. “Every other Thursday, a wealth of people sits around a table and makes a plan for each child who needs one.”

“Kids have an ability to see through a lot,” she says, “including through you. They know when you’re on their side. We are more than ever a partner with our families in educating a child.”

Carolynn must consciously create time to be with her husband, and they take on massive projects. “We’ve renovated three homes,” she says, “and it’s labor intensive—and that’s good for stress. Everyone who knows me knows that renovating and decorating are my passions.” She also likes to bike and kayak and learn about her Irish family, the Fosters.

But every weekday morning, she goes back to her demanding job, because “I know I have to have every child in the Candlewood community ready for tomorrow.”