When Imana Sherrill is installed as top administrator at Trinity Episcopal School, she will become the first Black woman to ever lead one of Charlotte’s private schools. (Her installation ceremony, scheduled for today, was postponed as Hurricane Ian approached the Carolinas.)
The mother of two is a 1989 graduate of West Charlotte High School and a UNC Charlotte alumna.
Education, she says, is in her blood, dating back to her great, great grandfather who, according to Sherill, learned to read as an enslaved man.
“Back then, that was dangerous to do, but he was determined to learn,” she said. “He taught his children to read, and his children taught their children, and that was his legacy to us. He wanted his entire family to be literate.”
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Sherill said her family is now peppered with educators, and she herself once taught with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and held the position of diversity coordinator at Charlotte Country Day School.
Before accepting the job at Trinity, which has had two previous heads of school since opening its doors in 2000 in uptown Charlotte, Sherill was head of middle school at the Episcopal Academy in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania.
In an era when teachers are leaving the profession in droves, Sherill said she wants to ensure that Trinity remains unaffected by the national teacher shortage. She said she plans to nurture her staff and encourage Trinity’s teachers to take care of their mental and emotional health.
Teachers who are neglected, she said, are often ineffective.
In an interview with QCity Metro, Sherrill talked about her career in education, a Charlotte trailblazer who inspired her and her vision for Trinity Episcopal. Her answers were edited for length and clarity.
Did you ever consider a career other than education?
I was a nursing major at Hampton University (before she transferred to Charlotte), but once I saw blood, I was like, “Yeah, no, not my thing.” My mother was a dentist here for a number of years. I considered being a dentist, but I couldn’t see myself working in people’s mouths. I did work in her office for one summer, although it further solidified that I would rather be in a classroom.
What about your father?
I have a Charlotte dad and a California dad. Ken Koontz was the first Black anchor for WBTV, and he was a major influence in my life as a child. Dr. Leroy Vaughn, my California dad, was one of the first Black ophthalmologists to own his own practice in Los Angeles. These people were raising me and were breaking barriers, so being the first Black woman to lead Trinity Episcopal School is something I feel honored to do and called to do.
Are you a part of the Episcopal denomination?
I’m a good ol’ Southern Baptist. I believe in the Episcopal values. I’m pretty familiar with their values because I was raised on them during my schooling.
How have you maintained your passion for children without experiencing burnout?
I love what I do, and I love being in classes with kids. I also make sure I take care of our staff and faculty, or our staculty, as we like to call them. We do little notes in their mailboxes and give them reminders that they are valued and special. They are the ones in the classrooms every single day, creating scholars, nurturing spirituality, embracing diversity in every lesson and making our kids feel known and loved. So I find my passion in making sure they see themselves as educators. I also remind them to take care of themselves because that’s the only way Trinity can continue to be the school that we are.
Talk about your experience working for CMS.
I loved my time at CMS. My first position was at Chantilly Visual and Performing Arts School (now Chantilly Montessori). Dr. Francis Waller was my principal, and there was something about having another Black woman as my principal. In the Black community, everybody could be your mama and everybody is family. If I stepped out of line, she would tell me, “You might want to go home and iron that out,” or, “You might want to fix this.” She was one of those people that grew me as a person and as a teacher. Chantilly was the kind of school that allows teachers to introduce creativity into the curriculum. I could teach math using art work or teach English by looking at jazz lyrics and blend that in with the history. That is the way I was taught to teach, and I don’t think that has ever changed for me.
How does Trinity accommodate different learning needs?
I think that is the beauty of being an independent school and having smaller class sizes. We don’t teach to the center, which is what a lot of teachers are taught to do. We teach the whole child. We are differentiating all throughout the day, and it’s not easy. Someone who hasn’t been trained won’t automatically know how to create different ways of learning for different students.
Has Trinity been affected by the teacher shortage?
We have not. Our staculty love it here and they don’t leave. When they do leave, it’s because of some circumstance such as moving out of town. I’m trying to hold on to the teachers as tight as I can and make sure that they are happy. My heart breaks for CMS, the kids and the teachers because it wasn’t easy teaching during Covid. A lot of folks (teachers) just said, “I’m done; let me move on to something else.” And that’s tragic for us as a community, because these kids deserve a fair education. But, teachers also deserve to have a break and some rest.
One of Trinity’s stated values is nurturing spirituality. What does that look like in the classroom?
For us, it’s allowing kids, through our curriculum, through their readings and through conversations, to ask questions about what their own spiritual journey feels like. It’s not for us to try and create these little Episcopalians. That’s what makes us a little different, because everyone is welcome and we want you to bring your full self.
Much of your community involvement is focused on education and women. Why so?
I am a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated, and I pledged Kappa Kappa at Charlotte. I’m a legacy because my mother and grandmother are AKAs. I would tag along with them to all of the AKA programs. I was always inspired by these women and the work that they were doing. I believed I needed to be a part of that. Sometimes, women get overlooked and we feel like we aren’t good enough. I wanted to make it my mission to ensure that anyone I was mentoring, or any group that I was working with, could feel empowered.
How important is it that you are the first woman, and the first Black woman, to head Trinity?
Representation matters, and I will say that over and over again. I know that me being in this position might be aspirational or inspirational for someone, so I can’t let them down. I think it’s a little tragic that I am the only Black woman that is a head of school in Charlotte. There are so many brilliant and intelligent people of color who have a passion for education, so I shouldn’t be the only one.
How will you bring more diversity to Trinity?
I don’t go by, “If you build it, they will come.” One of my goals this year is to re-establish and establish community relationships. I can’t grow the school and invite people to the school from my desk. I have to be out in the community.
How do you plan to overcome challenges?
I pray a lot. I haven’t had any major challenges, and it’s been a real pleasure being here. I don’t know when those challenges will come up, but I have a wonderful network and group of people that have supported me from day one. I always keep them on speed dial and reach out to ask for help.
What are your short- and long-term goals for Trinity?
I want everyone to know about Trinity. I want everyone to feel like Trinity is a place where they need to be. It’s a life-changing experience for our students. When they leave us, they always come back and tell us how foundational Trinity was in developing who they are as people.