CHESTER, Va. (WRIC) — Susan Pereira always knew she wanted to teach.
“I started at, like, 6 years old playing school at the kitchen table,” she explained.
That kitchen table eventually turned into a teacher’s desk. Pereira started her career in Hanover where she taught for nearly two decades.
In 2011, she decided to try something new, and came to Curtis Elementary School in Chesterfield.
“I walk down the hallways all the time when the building is completely empty — and think ‘I have the coolest job in the world,'” Pereira said with a smile as she sat in her office.
As principal, Pereira leads a staff of about 75 teachers and instructional assistants and 700 students, and does pretty much everything else in between.
“There is no typical day,” she said. “I always say the ones that are the most exciting are the ones you have nothing on your calendar and you think you’re going to have a quiet day.”
Her journey to the principal’s office didn’t come without its challenges.
At just 29 years old, Pereira was diagnosed with a rare form of breast cancer. She had a 3-year-old and 3-month-old at home, but decided to fight. She taught full-time while going through treatment.
“I wouldn’t change it because it changes your perspective,” she said. “I love my birthday. I love coming to work. The alternative is you wouldn’t get to it. Not that we don’t have bad days or I don’t have bad days, it’s just makes you see life through a different lens.”
That different lens can be found throughout Curtis Elementary.
Pereira and her team wanted to find a fresh approach to encourage good behavior and came up with a system where students are split up into groups and can get rewarded for positive attitudes.
Curtis Elementary is the home of the Koalas — the famous Australia-native marsupial is the school’s mascot.
“As the students behave, and make good ‘Koala choices,’ are kind or optimistic or raise a grade, they get points for their house,” Pereira said.
Just around the corner, the Koala Closet gives students the chance to grab donated supplies, clothes and food if they need it.
Pereira says one of her favorite parts is to see families donating items.
“One of the things I love about Curtis is sometimes our families will have a need and express that to us, and then a year later they’re the ones donating,” she said.
Above all, Pereira hopes her school is a place of joy that leaves an impact on students and teachers.
“If you can create a school where people want to work, where parents want their children to go school, and where kids want to come to school, the rest falls into place as far as test scores and . . . I live by that every day,” she explained. “Would I want my child here? Would I want to work here? If you do all those things, everything falls into place.”