So it’s quite surprising that the retiring superintendent of Floyd County Schools described herself as such.
“I was the classic underachiever,” Plunkett said emphatically. “I had two really smart sisters, I mean, they’re phenomenal and I love them with all my heart. They’re really, really, really smart. And I just always thought I wasn’t nearly as smart as they were. And I was the classic underachiever. In fact, my high school counselor told me I’d never make it in college.”
But how very wrong he was.
Plunkett’s career in education has spanned 32 years, and though she said she was beyond excited to be closing the door on her superintendency, she emphasized that every moment was precious and she couldn’t be happier about her time spent serving the Floyd County community.
Path to the top
Plunkett described her entry into the field of education as unorthodox.
“I always wanted to be a teacher from the time I was a little kid,” she said. “And then when I was in college, I had a professor at Berry who really encouraged me to look at law. So I majored in English, I had a double major in English and theater. But she talked me into applying to law school and I did and I got accepted. I was just really torn about what I wanted to do.”
Plunkett said at that time, her husband Ron wanted to get married. Instead of going through three more years of schooling, the couple wed in 1975, and for nearly 10 years, Plunkett was a stay-at-home mom. It was in the 1980s that she started teaching English at Manatee High School in Bradenton, Fla.
“Then Ron, he was with Sears and he was transferred to Atlanta, and so we came to Atlanta and I taught in Cobb County,” she recalled. “And then I went into administration in Cobb and then went to Marietta city and was assistant principal and associate principal at Marietta High School. And then I went to Bartow County where I was curriculum director at Bartow. And then I had an opportunity to go to the Department of Education. And I worked up there for two years and I was in charge of the high school graduation test and SAT and ACT and PSAT, all high school testing. And then I came to Floyd as an assistant superintendent and that was in 2001. And the rest is history.”
Though Plunkett didn’t necessarily have faith in herself as a high school student, she went on to earn a number of degrees.
“I went to Georgia Highlands, which back in the day was Floyd Junior College,” she said. “And I was in the first graduating class of Floyd Junior College. And I was an honor graduate and then I got a full scholarship to Berry and went to Berry. And then ended up getting my masters at Berry and then went to Jack State and got another masters in education and administration because my masters at Berry was in elementary education. And then I went to West Georgia University, and that’s where I received my specialists degree. And then I went to Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale and received my doctorate in education.”
Working with board members, she said, has been a wonderful experience and she also said they have a very unique relationship. She said that though some board members have come and gone during her time as superintendent, they have adapted to one another’s personalities in such a way that makes the job all the more enjoyable.
“I actually only have two of the original five board members who hired me,” she said. “So it’s been really an interesting process, but it’s also been a very good process.”
Working in education, she said, is much more than just a job — it’s a long term commitment to the very end.
“My philosophy of education is, when we signed on to be educators, when we decided to major in education, or we decided to sign that contract with a school system, we sort of signed away the right to opt out or to not buy into things that are good for kids,” she said. “My philosophy is that our one goal as educators must be, it’s not it should be, but must be, that everything we do and every decision we make is going to be in the best interest of students. And if we’re not doing that, we need to rethink our profession.”
In Plunkett’s point of view, the quality of education globally is heading in the right direction.
“I think what we’re doing with standards-based instruction is absolutely right on,” she said. “I think what we’re doing with a national curriculum is absolutely right on. I think what we’re doing with raising standards and expecting more of our students, expecting more of our teachers, expecting more of our administrators is absolutely right on. And I really think that the idea of charter and shared decision making and shared governance is absolutely the way to go.”
But she said being a superintendent wasn’t always a walk in the park.
“There are some things that as a superintendent, I have had to do because that is the law,” she said. “I have not always agreed with some of the things I’ve had to do. Which a lot of people don’t understand is that, in a position like this, sometimes you have to do things you really don’t want to do but you have to do it because that is the thing that has to be done. It is what it is. I think having to deal with those situations where I know in my heart I have a really hard time carrying that particular thing out … but I know I have to do it, whether it’s with personnel or a student. It’s really hard telling a kid, ‘I’m sorry, you’re not going to graduate,’ when I know in my heart that kid has put every single thing he or she has and they missed the graduation test by one point. That is the hard stuff.”
However, her work has been rewarding, she said, adding that she felt blessed she hadn’t experienced that “burned out” feeling that sometimes plagues educators. In fact, Plunkett’s teaching efforts and personality have touched student’s lives.
“A lot of my students, I mean from way back, a lot of my students stay in touch with me,” she said with a broad smile. “One of my students who was in my 10th grade English class down in Manatee, Fla., is a teacher now in Athens, and her husband who was also my student is a doctor in Athens. And we still stay in touch. Ron and I mentored two young men when I was at Marietta and these were just wonderful, wonderful young men. Single parent family, just really had tough situations, and we mentored them beginning their freshman year of high school and they went to West Point. They graduated, they are captains in the U.S. Army and they have just come back from the Middle East, and we’re going to have a great big huge reunion with them as soon as they can.”
She said those strong relationships built between past students, their parents as well as her colleagues are priceless.
“Those are the rewards,” she said. “Those immediate rewards are wonderful, seeing that kid’s face light up like ‘Ah, I get that!’ But to see five, 10, 15, 20 years down the road, that is amazing.”
Her family and friends, she said, are her inspirations that have kept her going all these years.
“I lost my dad in May and I became superintendent in December, so I was still sort of reeling from losing my dad,” she recalled. “And I cannot tell you how many times I’ve gone (his grave) and said, ‘Daddy, tell me what to do here!’ And my mom is the coolest 83-year-old you’ve ever seen in your life, she’s in assisted living at Winthrop West, and one thing I’m really looking forward to doing is spending time with her. They are my inspiration, my kids are my inspiration, my husband, oh my goodness, I couldn’t have done any of this without him. My sisters. There are just so many people, I couldn’t even start thanking everybody.”
Though Plunkett will walk away from her superintendency on Nov. 28, she said she isn’t done working in education. In the spring she will teach graduate education classes at Berry College as an adjunct professor.
And truly, at the end of the day, she is retiring not because she doesn’t want to work, but so she can savor the rest of her years while spending time with her family.
“The only reason I’m not going to continue working in this capacity is that it’s time now; this is such a time-consuming job,” she said. “And it’s not only time consuming, but it’s all-consuming of me. And I have a family. I owe it to them while I’m healthy, and I have little grandbabies and I have nieces and nephews that I just adore, and I want to spend time with them.”