Dwight VanRossum (M.T. ‘04): A leader with a purpose

Principal of Chamberlayne Elementary School inspires young hearts and minds

Dwight VanRossum, principal of Chamberlayne Elementary School in Richmond, Va.
Dwight VanRossum (M.T. '04), principal at Chamberlayne Elementary School.

Dwight VanRossum began his journey to becoming an educator in an unlikely way – by studying Biology with the goal of becoming a doctor. At the same time, the VCU undergrad got a work study job as a tutor at Oak Grove Elementary in Richmond, Virginia.

Despite initially having no intention of becoming a teacher, VanRossum said tutoring was how he discovered how much he enjoyed the teaching experience.

“I had one student who I tutored during the school day, and when I brought him back to his classroom, he and his classmates would say, ‘I wish you were my teacher’,” he said. The experience was transformative.

“It felt like the angels started singing,” VanRossum recalled.

His high school guidance counselor, who he was still close to, warned him the change in career paths might be difficult.

“When I told her I wanted to be a teacher, she said ‘You won’t make any money. It will be really hard.’ She really believed I could be a doctor,” he said.

Undeterred, VanRossum continued on with this Biology major, but with the intent of becoming an educator. He pivoted to the Liberal Studies for Early and Elementary Education track at the VCU School of Education in 2000 and entered the Master of Teaching program with a concentration in early and elementary education in 2002.

VanRossum said he was inspired to choose elementary education by one of his professors, Dr. Jill Fox.

“She just had this magic. Teacher magic. I wanted to teach elementary school just like her,” he said.

“While some Black men choose to study secondary education, almost no Black men choose to study elementary education,” VanRossum said. He said that during his time in graduate school, nearly all of his classmates were white women.

“If I wasn’t the only Black person, I was definitely the only Black male,” he recalled.

However, VanRossum said this allowed him to stand out during his time at the School of Education and make an impression on his professors and the principals of the schools where he did his practicum.

“Those principals would talk to the people in the School of Education who were eventually doing the placements and ask, ‘Where is he going to be placed for student teaching?’ The fact that I stood out allowed people to pay attention to me,” he said.

“They saw more in me than I saw in myself.”

“When I'm gone, I want [this] to be my legacy – that I worked consistently to make sure these kids believed in themselves.”

After graduation, VanRossum started his teaching career as a student teacher at Glen Lea Elementary, then he taught first grade at Longdale Elementary School where he was also a math instructional coach. During that time, he returned to VCU to get his Post-masters Certificate in Educational Leadership, which he credits for opening another door for him: the possibility of becoming a principal.

“I wasn't even sure I wanted to be a principal, but again, my story is one where people saw more in me than I saw in myself,” he said.

VanRossum became a summer school principal at Longan Elementary and Highland Springs Elementary, then a resource teacher there. He became the associate principal at Chamberlayne Elementary in Henrico County in 2013 and after three years, when the current principal retired, VanRossum was promoted to principal. He’s been the principal at Chamberlayne Elementary for four years.

VanRossum said he bases his teaching style on one of his favorite teachers, his fifth grade teacher Mr. Hicks.

“He was very strict, and he meant business, but he was loving,” he said. “That was something that I brought into my classroom. We're going to cut up and we're going to have a great time, but more importantly, we’re here to work.”

VanRossum said that as principal, his goal is building up the students at Chamberlayne Elementary and encouraging them to believe in themselves.

“When I'm gone, I want that to be my legacy – that I worked consistently to make sure these kids believed in themselves,” he said.