Dr. Shanessa Fenner, principal at W.T. Brown Elementary, wants all of her students to reach their highest potential. She calls them her “babies” and “my sweet faces.”
“Teachers run in my family,” Fenner said. “My mother was a teacher. My sister is a teacher. Teaching, I always thought, was awesome because you lay the foundation for the babies and teachers. That’s how I got into the field of education.”
As an educator, Dr. Fenner strives to stay connected with her staff, students and their parents.
“I build relationships with them. I talk to them, spend time with them, ask them questions. I’m a very authentic, open, accessible person when it comes to my staff, parents and my babies,” she said. “Everyone knows that you can come to me, ask me a question or come to me with a concern. I have an open-door policy.”
Dr. Fenner uses a consistent approach in building those ties to her staff, students and families.
“Relationships are everything. If you don’t have relationships, you don’t have anything.”
Over the years, Fenner has encouraged other educators to continue their educational pursuits. This includes helping them with their assignments and reading over their dissertations. She is a cheerleader for those who seek to obtain a higher degree. One of her former coworkers, Patricia Moses, detailed this further.
In 1998, Moses and Fenner were teachers at Lucile Souders Elementary School. Fenner taught second grade and Moses taught first grade.
Fenner asked Moses, “What are your long-term and short-term goals?” Moses said she was content with being a teacher and Fenner asked if Moses would complete her master’s. Other teachers then started asking Dr. Fenner about the completion of their higher level degrees. Moses went on to obtain her master’s.
A legacy of high expectations
Fenner has been the principal at Mae Rudd Williams Elementary Kindergarten School, Ireland Drive Middle School, Alger B. Wilkins Elementary School and now W.T. Brown Elementary School.
“It’s all about the legacy you leave,” Fenner said. “I want to leave a legacy that Dr. Fenner wanted everybody to learn and grow and be the best that they could be. She had very high expectations and she would tell you she would not lower them. You are going to rise to high expectations.”
A former student commented on the positive legacy Fenner brings to school. Nyasia Franklin had Fenner as a principal from Pre-K to fifth grade. Franklin, currently in the sixth grade, said Fenner is a great role model.
“She was very inspiring. She encouraged students. She was always willing to talk to you one-on-one,” Franklin said. “She always had your back no matter what. I love Dr. Fenner because she believes in me,” Franklin said.
Franklin’s grandmother, Ladoniya Miller, added: “Dr. Fenner is what every principal should strive to be. As a parent, I’ve been able to voice anything that I needed to say to her. She was always willing to speak with me,” Miller said.
“Just to sit and watch her and to know the things she’s achieved in her life makes me feel good. It, in turn, shows the students what they can achieve also,” she said.
Fenner’s dedication to her students, staff and profession have not gone unnoticed. She was nominated as a Cumberland County Principal of the Year twice.
Dr. Fenner has multiple degrees from Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Her bachelor’s degree is from North Carolina Central University. She has two master’s — one is in Administration and one in Elementary Education — that she obtained from Fayetteville State University. Her doctorate degree is from FSU. She said her HBCU experience still influences her journey.
“It continues to shine and show up in everything that I do because both of those institutions taught me and gave me the confidence to be all that I can be, to give back to my community and volunteer,” she said.
In her heart, she wants all of her babies to get a doctorate degree. She encourages them to at least obtain a bachelor’s degree. Some former students let her know they are following her advice when they are in college.
This year, Fenner took her fifth graders on a field trip to Fayetteville State University. She made sure they could tour the school and eat in the cafeteria to give the students a feel of what a college experience would be like. She said exposure is the key for her babies.
“I want to sit in my rocking chair one day and turn on my tv and I want to see your face across that tv saying you did something great. I’m going to say, ‘That was one of my babies,’” Fenner said.
When asked what she wants to see more of in education, Fenner said she wants to go back to the concept “It takes a village to raise a child.”
“I want to see more parental involvement,” Fenner said. “I want parents sitting down every night with their children doing homework, flashing multiplication cards, reading to them, communicating more with my teachers, and building that positive home-school connection.”
Influence beyond education
Over the years, in her spare time on weekends, Fenner has written for 16 publications, including Up & Coming Weekly.
“It’s very therapeutic for me. I’ve always been able to express my thoughts and emotions on paper,” she said.
She said writing aids her love of meeting new people. She currently has a podcast called “The City Insight” featuring cosmetologists, barbers, fashion designers among others. She’s been doing it for a few months and tapes on the weekends. She says the podcast has been fun.
Fenner has also done work as an actress, a hair model, insurance agent, radio personality, TV show host, songwriter and adjunct professor.
Fenner plans on writing a book perhaps on leadership — or maybe even a romance novel, something that would be different for her, she said.
“I believe that we were placed on Earth to do great things and that is exactly what I am going to do,” she said. “You never know what is going to happen tomorrow and I am not going to be put into a box only knowing how to do one thing.”