For O’Neill, It’s All About Relationships


When Colleen O’Neil is asked a seemingly complex question, she has a simple answer.


“I’m always asked ‘What are the three areas you really want to focus on?’ I always answer ‘Relationships, relationships, relationships.’ That is the thing that is most important to me. It’s the foundation of whatever we do together. If you know someone, you can build something together.”


O’Neill becomes the principal of Sterling Middle School after a decade serving as the principal of nearby Sully Elementary. Some of the relationships at her new school are already in place with 20 percent of the student body coming from Sully.  


“When people say, ‘We’ve heard about you,’ I say, ‘Everything you’ve heard is true and I hope I can live up to your expectations.’ 


“Some sixth-graders are saying ‘Yeah, a familiar face.’ I’m sure other sixth-graders are saying ‘Oh no, three more years of this lady.’ Familiarity is always a comfort. You feel like it’s home. It also provides me with a lot of joy and satisfaction. Why not take the opportunity to go on that educational journey with them? It’s a challenge. It’s exciting and it supports the community I’m dedicated to. You’re always looking to have an imprint in a positive way. Why not put myself in a position where I’ll do just that?”


“There’s also an incredible opportunity to build on the work we have started in our cluster. There’s a lot of opportunity to say, ‘What are we doing in fifth grade that feeds into middle school?’ Opportunities that present themselves in middle school, we can put into high school.”


Building relationships is the motivation behind everything O’Neill is doing to introduce herself to a new school community. She’s having group introductory events and lots of in-person and virtual one-on-one meetings. “Rolling out the red carpet and making people feel like they’re part of something is really important to me.”


No matter the venue, there is one question O’Neill always asks during these interactions: “What are your expectations of me?”


“I think it’s really important that I have your expectations in mind. How can I serve you if I don’t know what they are? I have high expectations of everyone in this building, but if we don’t know what they are, how can we fulfil them together and hold each other accountable?”


O’Neill has spent 27 years as an educator, 20 of them in Loudoun County and 13 in Sterling Park (she also was an assistant principal at Forest Grove Elementary). Sterling Park is the community she has chosen to serve.


“I’m committed. I care and I’m committed. I wouldn’t be here otherwise.


“You have to be willing to serve the community in whatever capacity is necessary. In general, that is the duty of a principal. I’m a servant leader. Somebody who serves their community, period. Community means representing Loudoun County Public Schools, the students, parents, business partners. It’s making connections so you know what each group’s important issue is.”


Resuming in-person classes after more than a year of virtual and hybrid learning is something O’Neill is thrilled about. “It’s like a family reunion. You’re rallying everyone around a purpose and building community and spirit.”


Starting the school year with masking requirements is a challenge O’Neill is taking head-on. She’s ordered buttons for all staff showing their full face. She’s had students take selfies and is displaying them along with the student's goals for the year. Photos and names of teachers are being displayed outside all classrooms because, O’Neill said, students associate classrooms with a name and face, not letters or numbers. “It’s important for people to see each other. I feel more comfortable, because I see you.”


Middle school is a professional departure for O’Neill, who has spent her career at the elementary level. She does, however, have experience as a middle school parent. (Photos of her two sons, who are now in college, as middle-schoolers adorn the walls of her office.)


O’Neill explained the decision to leave her professional comfort zone.   


“You learn through experiences. This is another experience through which I hope to become a better version of me.”


“A professional opportunity presented itself. I had thought about the desire to continue to grow in a leadership role. You can’t grow in a comfort zone.”


Published 8/13/21