Teach For America Baltimore 2004
Assistant Headmaster and Dean of Students, Woodberry Forest School
Ansel Sanders’s quest for innovative, transformative models to support the growth and development of children has driven his professional life.
“I’ve always found myself operating in creative spaces that can have a big impact on kids,” he said.
The journey began serving as a Teach For America (TFA) teacher at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore from 2004 to 2007. When the freshly minted magna cum laude English major from Washington and Lee University stepped into his eighth-grade English-Language Arts class, he found a calling.
“I am deeply indebted to TFA for being the vessel that opened the classroom door to me and let me pour myself into teaching, learning about public education at large and learning about myself,” said Sanders. “It sparked a desire in me to spend my life in education.”
At college, he had fallen in love with a young lady from Greenville, S.C. After Baltimore, Sanders followed her to The Palmetto State where they married. He brought a vision fostered in the classroom and through TFA to Mauldin Middle School as an assistant principal, then leaped into educational reinvention as founding director at A.J. Whittenberg Elementary School of Engineering.
This was 2010, and Whittenberg offered young students something entirely new under the South Carolina sun.
“We were really at the forefront of schools teaching project-based, STEM-oriented learning,” Sanders explained. “The goal wasn’t necessarily to enrich the state’s pipeline of professional engineers, but to teach students ways to engage in a design process to solve problems, develop prototypes, apply lessons from core classes, and learn from failures.”
He added, “It was the first school of its kind – an incredible adventure – and it showed what’s possible. It created a demand for this kind of learning experience at scale.”
Building on the success at Whittenberg, Sanders took work as lead planner for another innovative school on the drawing board. It would eventually open as Dr. Phinnize J. Fisher STEAM Middle School, applying methods used in Whittenberg’s elementary classes to the middle grades.
All this time, Sanders quietly continued a quest for personal knowledge, acquiring master’s degrees from Johns Hopkins University while in Baltimore and Furman University while in Greenville.
His educational immersion ultimately led to the opportunity of a lifetime – a new doctoral program, Doctor of Education Leadership, from Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Harvard accepted Sanders into the highly competitive (only 25 students per cohort) three-year program to engage in two years of classroom study, then one year of residency designed much like a medical school residency. He spent his last year in Memphis working with an organization known as the Achievement School District. His capstone project explored ways schools and community organizations can partner to bring greater success to students.
In 2015, Sanders came back to Greenville as president and CEO of Public Education Partners (PEP), a foundation seeding research-based, innovative ideas and projects through private investment. PEP operates as an education think tank aimed “at galvanizing the Greenville community around the tremendous and diverse value proposition that is a high-quality public education system.”
Sanders added, “It was a great avenue for me to bring my learning and experience over the years to serve a community that was special to me, personally and professionally.”
He never forgot what made him love education in the first place – TFA. While in Greenville, Sanders served on the advisory board of Teach For America South Carolina (TFASC) for several years, working to facilitate TFASC’s expansion into the Upstate community.
Now that keen sense of loyalty has returned him to another dear place.
In 2019, Sanders and his family moved to his native Virginia, just north of Charlottesville. He accepted a position at Woodberry Forest School, where he received his own high school education. Sanders said he seeks to offer the 400 boys there the same transformative educational experience that made him the educator he is today.
“It’s a special place,” said Sanders. “Woodberry made me, and I am indebted.”
He comes full-circle, returning to where he first started thinking about education. Girded with lessons from TFA, Greenville County Schools, Harvard, and other experiences, he is now doing what every great educator does.
“To pay it forward for new generations to come,” said Sanders, “means the world to me.”