Teaching is the fulfillment of a lifelong passion for Dr. Bernice Cobbs.
Cobbs was a married mother of two when she entered Virginia Western Community College as a nontraditional student. Now she holds an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees and a doctorate. The Virginia Association of Secondary School Principals named Cobbs the 2019 Outstanding Middle School Principal.
“My philosophy is wherever we are, my goal is to always make the people around, or the situations around me, better because I was there,” Cobbs said. Cobbs is the product of a blue-collar background. Her parents were factory workers and sharecroppers who instilled in their children the value of hard work, determination and being of good character. After graduating from Franklin County High School in 1978, and starting a family with her husband, Hildred, Cobbs has held numerous positions through the years including banking and working for a law firm and the circuit and general district courts of Franklin County. All along, though, “I was thinking I just want to teach,” she said.
The desire to teach began while Cobbs was in elementary school. Two high school teachers played influential roles in her life. She would visit her family and consumer science teacher each morning, and if Cobbs did not appear for whatever reason, the teacher would inquire about her whereabouts. A science teacher, meanwhile, would tell Cobbs that she was smart and could accomplish whatever she set out to do. That same science teacher chose Cobbs to participate in a science trip with a group of students. “I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” Cobbs recalled. Even Cobbs’ Sunday school teachers would speak about her intelligence, an act that “Just makes you feel so special,” Cobbs said. “You get these people telling you you’re smart, and after a while you start to believe it,” she added. “I still carry that on today with my students … it’s just so powerful.”
With the support of her husband, Cobbs pursued a teaching career in her 30s. Her first assignment was at Boones Mill Elementary School in northern Franklin County. At that time, the school had no black teachers and Cobbs admitted to being “a nervous wreck. But, you know what? I loved the school, and they loved me,” she said. She later began pursuing leadership opportunities.
In 2005, she started work as the principal of Franklin County’s Snow Creek Elementary School. Two years later, she would return to Boones Mill Elementary as its principal. Other leadership roles include serving as the director of K-5 curriculum and instruction at the school board office, and nine years at Benjamin Franklin Middle School, first as its assistant principal, and later its principal. She currently works as an assistant principal at Franklin County High School.
Cobbs’ career has been marked by numerous accolades. Despite her initial nervousness at Boones Mill, she ultimately was named Boones Mill Elementary’s Teacher of the Year in 2003 and again in 2004. That year she also was recognized as Franklin County Public Schools’ Teacher of the Year and Virginia’s Region 6 Teacher of the Year. In 2008, she was the recipient of the Ferrum College Distinguished Alumni Award.
Cobbs said she it was a blessing to be chosen Outstanding Middle School Principal of Virginia in 2019, an award that looks at relationships with students and staff, the implementation of programs, community involvement and other criteria.
Students need to be prepared for the world outside of high school, whether that takes the form of post-secondary education, military service, or a trade, Cobbs said. And there are things that parents can do to help their children. “Our students’ ability to read critically, write critically, do math critically and think critically is so important, and it starts at every level – elementary, middle, high school,” she said. She implores parents to encourage their children to read every day and to do their homework. Further, she said, get your children involved in extracurricular activities such as athletics or school plays. If parents have questions, talk to the child’s teacher or an administrator. Ultimately, be an advocate for your child.
“If there is a concern, even an academic concern or a behavioral concern, the schools may have lots of interventions and resources where they can help families,” she said. Cobbs’ goal is to serve as the superintendent of a school system, and she advises other aspiring leaders to seek out opportunities. “Even if you feel they might be uncomfortable, take the opportunities for growth,” she said. “The only way we’re going to grow is to step out on faith.” Cobbs said her philosophy of making a positive impact on people and situations around her is one that she has taken throughout her life. Whether it is “Through my church work, through my school work, through my community work, raising my children, my husband and I want people to be better off because we existed.”