Best in Show: Get to know Spanaway Middle’s Shannon Leatherwood

Shannon Leatherwood (right) and her mother celebrate a victory at the Washington State Cocker Spaniel Club Dog Show.

As a young girl, Shannon Leatherwood focused most of her attention on two things: Sports and dogs.

Loving dogs was a requirement in Leatherwood’s Bonney Lake home. Her mom was, and still is, a professional dog handler whose parti-color cocker spaniels have competed all over the world, including the famed Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York City.

Leatherwood began showing her own dogs as a child, and at just 15 years old she traveled to New York and won the Junior National Competition for spaniels.

“It’s kind of like sports,” Leatherwood said of showing dogs. “It is a competition. It’s not just about parading them around. The dog has to look good and be well-groomed. You have to know what you’re doing. It’s an art in itself.”

If there was competition involved, Leatherwood was interested. She played every sport available to her as a kid, and she had enough talent to play soccer in college at Whitworth University.

Academics, she admits, didn’t always come first when she was young. She struggled in class, but that began to change when she reached high school and discovered a third passion in life: Teaching.

At Sumner High School, Leatherwood volunteered to be a teacher’s assistant in a class for special needs students. She helped teach students various life skills, like how to ride the bus or make their bed.

She could see that her work was making a positive difference in someone else’s life, and she absolutely loved it.

From that moment on, Leatherwood knew she wanted to be a teacher.

When a serious knee injury ended her soccer career in college, Leatherwood put all of her energy into school. She left Whitworth and finished her education closer to home at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey.

With a degree and teaching credentials in hand, Leatherwood started her career at Orting Elementary School, where she taught third, fourth and fifth grade.

Just two years after she started her career, Leatherwood was given a unique opportunity when her school was awarded a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to launch what she describes as “a school within a school” at Orting Elementary.

Leatherwood and two of her colleagues used the grant to open the K-8 Partnership School, where she spent four years before moving on to Ptarmigan Ridge Intermediate School in Orting.

In addition to her role as a teacher, Leatherwood was also tasked with a host of leadership roles at Ptarmigan Ridge. At one point she was the assistant principal, the curriculum coordinator, the instructional facilitator, the K-8 math instructional coach, and a teacher.

Her experience at both the Partnership School and Ptarmigan Ridge solidified Leatherwood’s desire to lead a school.

“When I was in my classroom I impacted the kids that I touched. When we became the Partnership School, I was able to impact a greater number of kids. I saw that scale and how many families we touched, so transitioning to administration just made me feel like I could make an even greater impact,” she said.

Leatherwood eventually left the Ptarmigan Ridge and became principal at Michael T. Simmons Elementary in Tumwater. Moving out of the classroom and into the principal’s office was a challenge, but no matter her role in the school, Leatherwood has always worked hard to build positive relationships with students.

She thinks back on one student in particular who started out in special needs classes as a youngster, but through hard work was able to transition out of the program and have a successful academic career. That boy, now an adult, went on to become a champion wrestler in college and is now a college wrestling coach.

It’s incredibly humbling for Leatherwood to watch her former students find so much success, and it only reinforces her professional mantra that kids always come first.

“My biggest thing is staying student focused no matter what,” she said. “If it’s not good for students, we’re not going to do it.”

Leatherwood loved her time at Tumwater, and she likely would have stayed if the job at Spanaway Middle hadn’t opened up. She was drawn to SMS for several reasons. First, she was excited to lead such a diverse, vibrant school. She had also been living in the Bethel School District for years and admired the way the district was run.

“This was the only position I applied for, and if I wouldn’t have gotten it I would be in Tumwater still,” she said.

When she’s not working, Leatherwood unwinds with her family and dogs. Her oldest son is a volunteer firefighter with South Pierce Fire and Rescue, and her younger son recently graduated high school.

She still shows her dogs when she can, but she’s less interested in winning and losing these days. For Leatherwood, the big win is getting to lead Spanaway Middle School.

“I tell parents, I tell students, I tell everyone — I have landed my dream job. I feel like I’ve won the lottery,” she said.

Helping kids learn is the driving force behind all we do in the Bethel School District.

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