As a little girl, Joan Benz had a particular fondness for pencils and teachers.
Many years have passed since then (it’s not clear how many, since Benz won’t reveal her age), but Winston Churchill High School’s outgoing principal said her appreciation for a good No. 2 pencil and skilled educators remains the same.
Much longer is the list of changes she’s experienced over the years.
During her roughly 21 years as Churchill’s principal, Benz has watched her students grow up, start families, settle in Potomac and send their own teenage children to the school. Over her tenure, the number of students taking Advanced Placement exams has climbed, and the school’s participation rates are currently among the county’s highest. In 2007, Churchill was named a National Blue Ribbon School, a recognition shared by only five other Maryland public schools that year.
“I’m very proud of this school. I spent a good part of my life here, and it’s been some of the best time of my life, honestly,” Benz said in a recent interview.
Benz in mid-April announced her plan to retire at the end of the academic year, closing out more than four decades with Montgomery County Public Schools. She informed Churchill families of her departure in a brief, to-the-point message that concluded with an upbeat, “Once a Bulldog, always a Bulldog!”
Benz said she grew up in what she describes as an “idyllic” Massachusetts town, earning her diploma from a public high school that had a graduating class of 72 students. Her childhood dream was to become a teacher and a Catholic nun, and while she ended up deciding not to take the veil, she did pursue a job in education. She graduated from the University of Massachusetts with a degree in English and got her master’s degree in special education from Eastern Michigan University.
In 1974, while she was pursuing her doctorate at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, she took a job with MCPS, she said. She started out as a teacher at Julius West Middle School in Rockville and moved on to positions as a teacher specialist in an administrative office and a teacher at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda. In the mid-1980s, she became assistant principal at the now-closed Mark Twain School and later served in the same capacity at Tilden Middle School in Rockville.
Her first principal post was at the Regional Institute for Children and Adolescents, an MCPS special education school where she drew on her training in therapy and working with students who have special needs.
“I always wanted to have the expertise to be able to understand, to be able to problem-solve with young people,” Benz said. “I have a special place in my heart for children with special needs and special disabilities, and I found that background has been so incredibly important. Because of that, I think I’m a much better listener and a much better problem solver.”
After RICA, she became a principal in Poolesville at a school for grades seven through 12. She was there when the middle school separated from Poolesville High School and took an active role in the logistics of moving younger students to their new location. She took the helm at Churchill in 1997, as the school was gearing up for a two-year modernization project, according to an article in the Gazette.
Reflecting on her proudest accomplishments as leader of the Potomac school, Benz mentions the creation of the Winston Churchill High School Educational Foundation, an organization that has provided funding for Chromebooks, Promethean boards and student and staff grants. Benz helped start two signature programs that challenge students with rigorous coursework in the areas of math, technology and science and the creative and performing arts.
Benz said she also began holding annual banquets for students in the top 5 percent of each graduating class. The students invite their family members and a teacher who has been meaningful to them, she said.
“It’s a wonderful way where teachers get feedback about the impact that they’ve made … and the teacher gets to reflect on their time with the student in class,” she said.
A highlight from Benz’s time at the school came in 2003, when she and a parent convinced the granddaughter of Winston Churchill to speak at a graduation ceremony.
Benz, a widow who does not have children, said she’s always told Churchill parents that “all of your children are mine,” and said it will be difficult to walk away after so many years forming bonds with the school community. But she’s looking forward to reconnecting with friends, relatives and a sibling who lives in Europe and to enjoying the activities she’s never had time for.
“Like cooking,” she said. “I don’t go to McDonald’s, but I haven’t done things like dinner parties in a while.”
Eventually, she’ll also explore other opportunities to work in education, she said. Considering her full agenda, she says the word “retirement” won’t really apply.
Bethany Rodgers can be reached at email@example.com.