by Kristy Bailey, Alamance News Staff Writer
Donna Davis Westbrooks is proof of the adage, at least in education circles, that great teachers aren’t only born, they’re made.
One of three newly-elected members of the Alamance-Burlington school board, Westbrooks retired in 2017 from a 32-career with ABSS, where she last worked as the director of teacher recruitment and induction in the human resources department. When she is sworn into office next month, Westbrooks will join incumbent school board members Wayne Beam; Allison Gant; Tony Rose; and Patsy Simpson, who was also reelected to her fourth term earlier this month; and fellow newcomers Ryan Bowden and Sandy-Ellington Graves.
For more than half of her career with ABSS, Westbrooks taught high school math, from introductory math to pre-calculus, for 20 years at Graham High School. With encouragement from a couple of principals she worked for at Graham High School, she went back to college, earning her Master’s of School Administration from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2005.
Westbrooks served as an assistant principal at Williams High School for six years, from 2006 until 2012. Wanting to broaden her experience, she requested a transfer to a middle school and served three years as the assistant principal at Hawfields Middle School, until she was tapped in 2015 to become the director of teacher recruitment at the central office.
It was a natural fit. “When I was a teacher, and even as an administrator, I always tried to take them under my wing,” Westbrooks recalls of her capstone job in the human resources department.
“I took time to call parents – I didn’t just call about bad things; I called them about good things.
“You’ve got to care about them and know why you’re there. You’ve got to invest in your kids.”
– Donna Davis Westbrooks
Though she rounded out her career with ABSS in that role, Westbrooks is hardly retired. Today, she runs the First School of Elon for her church, First United Methodist Church of Elon, a preschool that offers a pre-kindergarten program with a focus on Christian values and character education. Prior to the emergence of COVID-19 earlier this year, the First School had an average enrollment of between 90 and 95 children ages one to four, she says.
Westbrooks had originally agreed – four years ago – to serve as an interim director for the First School when it opened. About six months into her interim position, the staff parish relations committee, which she likens to “sort of the HR of the church,” asked her how she liked it. “So I stayed full-time,” Westbrooks recalls. “My last day at central office was a Friday and I started here on Monday. Education is in my blood.”
Westbrooks believes the key to her success as a teacher was the relationships she forged with her students. “When I was at Graham, I was at a lot of events: choral concerts, band concerts; I was the Key Club adviser,” she explains. She took her two now-grown children to work with her so often that she tells people they “grew up at Graham High School.”
Westbrooks estimates that she taught about 2,000 children in Alamance County in her 20 years as a math teacher at Graham High School. “That’s just teaching, not the ones I would’ve worked with as an AP [assistant principal],” she notes.
An Alamance County native who has never lived or worked outside of the county, Westbrooks stays in touch with her former students today through Facebook, and several made videos for her campaign. After learning she had gone there, few former students have enrolled their own children at the First School, she says, adding, “What a testimony, to say they trust me enough [to have their own children] come to this school.”
“I didn’t call the principal’s office [every time there was a discipline problem in the classroom]. I was fair. [If there was a problem], I handled it. I did everything I could to make sure they stayed in my classroom.
“If I made them come after school, that was my chance also to tutor them in math.”
– donna davis westbrooks
Westbrooks credits much of her success in education to setting expectations for the legions of students who passed through her classroom. “I didn’t call the principal’s office,” she explains. “I was fair. [If there was a problem], I handled it. I did everything I could to make sure they stayed in my classroom. If I made them come after school, that was my chance also to tutor them in math. I took time to call parents – I didn’t just call about bad things; I called them about good things. You’ve got to care about them and know why you’re there. You’ve got to invest in your kids.”
In addition to her 30-plus years’ experience in education, Westbrooks has also held a number of leadership roles at First United Methodist Church of Elon, where she and her husband of 32 years, Ricky Westbrooks, are members. She sings in the church choir; plays the bells in the praise band; and serves as the worship team leader and as a member of the church council. “The Methodist church has lots of committees – worship, discipleship, missions,” says Westbrooks. “Things under my umbrella of duties [are things such as] making sure the sanctuary is prepared for Sunday services. I also have to develop a budget for the worship team to approve and buy things, and oversee the cost of music supplies – anything that pertains to the sanctuary and worship services. That puts me automatically on the church council.
“We are a governing body. We have to make decisions that are in the best interest of our church have to listen to other viewpoints and then collectively make a decision that we feel is best for our church and congregation,” Westbrooks says.
With her leadership experience at church, it won’t be a tremendous leap when Westbrooks joins the school board next month. Similar to her church council, she “will be part of a collective body, listening to different viewpoints, and ultimately deciding the best thing for our students and community,” says Westbrooks.
“I’m very excited to work with other folks, as we try to determine the best decisions we need to make for our staff and our families,” Westbrooks adds. “That’s the whole reason for me doing this. I care about this community. I may have retired, but that burning in your heart just doesn’t go away – it’s one of those things I was called to do.”
Westbrooks is scheduled to be sworn into office on December 7.