After a 38-year career in education, 23 years of which were spent here in Wicomico County, Dr. Margo Handy is set to retire June 30.
She will forever be remembered for her passion for kids, compassion for all, and her never ending pursuit for fairness and equity for all students.
Born in Laurel, Handy moved to Salisbury at the age of 6 and graduated from James M. Bennett High School in 1972. Her mother and grandfather were very influential in her life.
“From an early age I knew they had high expectations of me. When I first started school I realized that when I received good grades it made them happy and proud. And I wanted to make them happy and proud. So that’s what I did – for the rest of my life,” she said.
“I worked hard to learn and earn those good grades. My grandfather and mother are no longer here, but still to this day, at 62 years old, I always think to myself, would they be proud of me.”
A self-proclaimed “nerdy kid,” Handy spent a lot of time on her school work making her sometimes feel different from her classmates, isolated and somewhat excluded.
“When I grew up, I didn’t want others to feel that way. So I found those kids, in my classroom or school. I found the ones that were hurting,” she said.
Walk into any school today and most teachers and administrators can share a Dr. Handy story. She has touched the lives of so many families, students and educators – here and in Baltimore County, where her career began.
After graduating from high school, Handy attended Morgan State University, where she received both her Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees. She didn’t start out as an education major, however.
There were teachers in her family and she always knew she wanted to help people, but there was also a social worker in her family.
During her first year in college she thought about becoming a social worker herself.
“The more I learned about social work the more I realized I didn’t want to do that,” she recalled. “I wanted to have an impact early on so that maybe children wouldn’t have to access social services. I felt if I could instill the importance of education and reading and thinking and doing well, that they wouldn’t have to be on public assistance or public housing.
“I know that is necessary sometimes, but I wanted to have an impact early in their lives so that maybe those services wouldn’t be needed.”
Education called her name.
Her first job out of college was a long-term substitute position in Baltimore City. That quickly led to a full-time position teaching sixth-graders in Baltimore County. She spent 11 years in the classroom there and then moved up to Assistant Principal, and on to Principal.
During her first years of teaching, Handy said she focused on building relationships with her students, something she would continue for her entire career.
“I figured out early on that my words and my deeds would impact others’ lives,” she said. “My commitment was to the children. My greatest reward in my career was in the schools and making a difference in the lives of students – staff, parents and families too – but most importantly the students.”
The students definitely felt her compassion. In her first classroom, her 6th grade students somehow managed to throw a surprise birthday party for their beloved teacher.
“They did everything from decorations to snacks and cake. Parents and other teachers were there,” Handy said. “It was my first surprise birthday party. I had no idea they were doing anything. I will never forget it.”
Meeting her would-be husband brought Handy back to Salisbury, where she served as Principal of Prince Street and Pemberton Elementary Schools before moving into positions in the school board’s central office.
“I had a very good career in Baltimore County, however it’s in Wicomico County where I know my true appreciation, passion and love really came through.,” she said.
“The needs here were very different. I have learned so much about myself through working with families. It has helped me become who I am and appreciate the wonderful beauty of being a family, but also appreciate some of the challenges families go through.”
Handy said that, because of her own personal situation, working with families means even more.
“It has been most rewarding to be able to help families; to cry together and laugh together. I will miss it. I think the Lord blessed me with the position of being in this role as a public educator and being motherly, because I don’t have any children of my own biologically.”
As a Principal, she tried to instill in her teachers how much influence they have.
“I’d tell teachers, you have so much power. Other students watch how you interact with that one child and they are going to treat that child they same way you do,” she said.
“One of the greatest compliments I ever received came from a former teacher of mine when I was a principal at her school. She said, ‘We all knew that you loved us. The children felt loved. No one wanted to disappoint you.’ I made it a point, as principal, to know the names of all of my students. I knew I had to do whatever it took to help children be successful and, most importantly, to help children feel loved and feel important.”
Handy has served in various roles during her time at the central office in Wicomico County. She served as Director of Elementary Education and Supervisor of the English for Speakers of Other Languages Program and Education that is Multicultural. She will be retiring from her current role as the Assistant Superintendent for Instruction.
Serving in these capacities has served to introduce Dr. Handy to so many people in our community.
It comes as no surprise that Dr. Handy loved her time in the classroom and schools the most. It’s where she felt she was able to make the most impact.
“I felt I was shaping the future. I wanted my students to be good people. I wanted them to understand themselves and to understand other people. My commitment was to the children because I knew their families were counting on me,” she said. “My journey at central office has been a treat but it doesn’t compare, doesn’t come close, to my biggest reward of being in the schools as a teacher and as an administrator.”
One of Handy’s many strengths is her ability to listen to others. She has a warm, engaging personality that shines through, even during difficult times.
Education is a revolving door, with programs and policies and people changing constantly. When asked how she has been able to remain passionate and focused for so long, Handy replied: “It is about passion and a belief in yourself and others. When you believe you can make a difference you will make a difference. My passion is always focused on what is best for children. And knowing that even when we disagree, whether it’s with parents or colleagues or board members or County Council members, ultimately we all want the same thing – we want what is best for students.”
In her 38-year career, Handy has received many accolades and awards. From the National Milken Foundation to recognition for National Title I Schools of Excellence and the National PTA Lifetime Award.
She has also been honored as educator of the year by her alma mater, Morgan State University and received the James Harrison Leadership Award for academic excellence. She received her Doctorate Degree in Educational Leadership from Wilmington University in 2010.
Handy remains humble about those accomplishments. She explained that it was never about the award. It is always about the students.
“As an educator, who wants to do what’s best for the kids, you surround yourself with people who have the same beliefs you do, because you can’t do it by yourself. So I applaud all the staff members I have ever had, who worked so hard and tirelessly to fulfill the vision and the mission of academic excellence. I loved my staff.
“The award may have had my name on it, but it’s for all of us who worked together, including the parents, to make a difference. And there is no amount of money, no award, nothing that can compare to having an influence in the life of a human being to become a well educated, good person.”
The next few months will be a series of “lasts” for this lifelong educator: the last school year, last graduations, last days of meetings.
“It will be hard not having those interactions on a daily basis. I will miss it. But it’s time. It’s time to reflect, unwind and enjoy my family,” she said.
The educator is looking forward to sleeping in, reading good books, watching movies.
“I do have to clean out closets and things like that – I’m not looking too forward to that. But you know what? — I really don’t know how it feels to just get in the car and visit with a friend and not be on a schedule. I don’t know how that feels. But I want to experience it.”
“It’s such an honor to me that I have touched so many lives. I never thought I’d see that day that I would say it’s time, I never did. But I do know this, it’s hard for me to say, but I know mathematically I have fewer years ahead of me then I do in back of me. So there’s just a part of me that wants some time for me and my friends and family. The rest of the time, God will lead me to what my next journey is.”