DUBLIN -- A new school year is coming up, which means new students and new faces among teachers and administrators as well.
At Fallon Middle School in Dublin, Principal Sheri Sweeney will be among the Tri-Valley newbies. Sweeney says she puts a lot of stock in the ability to ask a good question and follow the answer wherever it leads.
It's a skill that has allowed her to wear a lot of hats -- from Rhodes scholar finalist at Yale to corporate lawyer to affordable housing coordinator and, finally, to educator.
"I think I've always looked at careers and growth a little differently than other people," Sweeney said. "I've never viewed education as preparation for a particular career. I always came at it -- even in middle and high school -- as really a love of learning for the sake of learning. I never felt what I was doing was linked to a particular outcome in the future."
Born in Texas, where her father worked in the oil business, Sweeney grew up in Oklahoma, and studied political science and sociology at the University of Tulsa, where she became a Rhodes scholar finalist. While not selected, one of the interviewers, a Yale law graduate, advised her to consider his alma mater.
"That changed my thinking," Sweeney said. "Yale is a place where students are encouraged to give back to the community with their legal background, and that appealed to me ... law school seemed like the next best step and a chance to learn new skills."
Sweeney went on to practice corporate law in Houston, where she specialized in public law and regulatory work, particularly with school districts, transit authorities and public utilities. She loved working with bright and committed people, she said, but the ongoing travel and competition for billable hours were wearing.
"I just was feeling less connected to the work than what I wanted to feel," she said.
She left law, and for the next 18 months worked for United Way Texas Gulf Coast, helping community groups develop affordable housing.
"This was my first chance to be an educator; training groups and bringing resources together," she recalled. "I loved the coordination of programs ... it was more similar to a principal's job than anything else I've done -- working with diverse groups of people, bringing people into alignment and focusing on outcome, as schools need to be doing."
Sweeney met her husband-to-be, Mark, an attorney from the Bay Area, while in Houston. By 1993 they were married and had decided to make the Bay Area their home. With no large-scale affordable housing projects offering work, Sweeney made another career swerve and got her teaching credential.
"I had been a volunteer literacy teacher in Houston ... and had been in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, where I had a little sister," she said. "I looked at what my passions had been, what skill sets I had from previous jobs and realized the common thread was this love of teaching and educating. It all pointed toward a career in education."
She worked as a student teacher in elementary and middle school and did substitute teaching for several years before taking a nine-year break to stay home with her son and daughter, now ages 12 and 16. She volunteered in the classroom, did PTA work and served on the school site council. She began teaching again when her eldest child was in middle school, eventually earning her master's degree and administrative credential.
The family now lives in Moraga, and for the past five years she's worked at Oak Grove Middle School in Concord, where she's coached, supervised and evaluated teachers and designed programs. Now At Fallon, she'll oversee a young middle school program with more than 1,000 active sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. It's an age group she loves.
"They begin to think more abstractly and are particularly excited about big ideas -- philosophy, debates, argumentation -- all those things begin to happen in middle school. I like watching kids form their own opinions about the world, articulate those opinions and debate those opinions," she said.
As school districts throughout America begin shifting to "Common Core," a newly adopted set of educational standards, there will be a growing classroom emphasis on critical thinking by students, she said.
"I think we have an opportunity now to really shift the way we view teaching and learning," she said. "We're changing the lens from watching what teachers are doing to watching how students are learning .... There will be a shift from the teacher as the expert who simply is conveying and presenting information to the student, to the teacher as a facilitator, focusing on teaching students the skills they need to find their own knowledge and information. Kids are all very different, and really great teachers are really great at helping kids connect to material in ways it makes sense for them." Lisa Murphy Oates, the principal at Oak Grove Middle School in Concord and Sweeney's former colleague, says Fallon's new principal is a problem-solver whose upbeat attitude will help make the Common Core transition a positive experience for all concerned.
"She is one who underpromises and overdelivers; I totally dig that about Sheri," she said. "It goes back to wanting our students to be creative and deep thinkers and take an active part in their learning. She is one to build on strengths, help teachers deliver on it and support them in a way that will be highly effective."
As for Sweeney, she plans to embrace this latest -- and favorite -- part of her career.
"I really can't imagine ever shifting careers completely at this point," she said. "I think I've come home to the heart of who I am and will always do something related to education. I'm just really passionate about it."