CAVE SPRING–Cris Flippen is one of those people who always knew she wanted to be a teacher, and fairly early on realized that she wanted to be a principal.
However her views of teaching were formed by unusual circumstances that took her from an affluent life as the daughter of a doctor in Cuba to a small town in West Virginia. There she found kindness among strangers willing to help a child who spoke no English, who was facing the challenge of entering a new school.
Flippen remembers her parent’s whispers at night during events that most people have only read about: the Bay of Pigs invasion; tanks coming into Havana; Fidel Castro’s takeover of the Cuban government; the closing of churches, schools, and banks. She remembers saying goodbye to her dog, her toys, her home, her relatives, everything, as she and her family left for the United States on a two-week visa, knowing that they were leaving Cuba for good.
She remembers the cultural shock of eventually ending up in a town of 2,000 people in Montgomery, West Virginia, where her father had found work.
“I realized that anything is possible through hard work and education as I saw him learn English, take his Boards over again, establish his own practice, and become a beloved family doctor there,” said Flippen. “I remember the kindness shown to my family by the community, who helped us set up housekeeping, and brought toys and furniture.”
She also fondly remembers a classmate who took her under her wing as a sort of project as she found herself, a formerly very verbal child and topnotch student, unable to express herself in a new school; unable to explain her needs, wants, or opinions.
“I remember that “turkey” was the first word that had meaning for me in November of that year,” said Flippen. “As kids, my sisters and I adjusted better and sooner than my mother. We loved the freedoms and the small town; however my mother accepted the challenges of leaving her lifestyle behind and appreciated the opportunity to raise her children in freedom.”
Flippen graduated from Gauley Bridge High School in 1972 and then from Concord College in 1975, majoring in elementary education. She taught for five years in West Virginia, before coming to Roanoke.
Over the years spent in the Roanoke County school system she taught all grades from kindergarten through seventh, except for first grade. She was a teacher at G.W. Carver Elementary in Salem when it was still part of the County system, followed by Oak Grove Elementary and Cave Spring Middle schools.
All in all, Flippen spent 18 years as a teacher and nineteen years as an administrator, beginning her administrative career as an assistant principal at Burlington Elementary. Roanoke County Schools gave her the flexibility to work on her Master’s Degree in Educational Administration from Virginia Tech, while still teaching part-time and raising a family.
“I knew at age 19 that I wanted to be a principal. I had strong opinions on how schools should be run,” said Flippen. “Principals set the stage for a school. They impact the flavor, the climate and the atmosphere of a school.”
In 1994, she was appointed as principal at Clearbrook Elementary where she served until 2002, supervising the renovations to the building, which she found to be a challenge.
“Overseeing renovations to a school is like flying an airplane while building it,” said Flippen.
Apparently she was quite good at the process, because the school system asked her to move to Oak Grove as principal in 2002, to supervise the renovations there.
“I loved Clearbrook,” said Flippen. “It would have been hard to leave for any other school than Oak Grove Elementary where I had so many ties, both from teaching there and from three of my children being students there.”
Flippen has spent a total of 19 years of her career as both teacher and administrator at Oak Grove Elementary.
Flippen and her husband of 20 years, Wayne, raised a blended family of five children, who are now grown. She has four grandchildren living in Roanoke and in Maryland.
“My husband has been a blessing in my career,” said Flippen. “He has supported me in every way since we met at a Junior Achievement function twenty-two years ago.”
Flippen spent ten years as a principal while her own children were still in school, which makes her much more sympathetic to the needs of her teachers who must balance family and career.
“I try to be flexible and understanding with my teachers and allow them to be there for their own children, to readjust their schedules so they don’t miss important events in their own children’s lives,” said Flippen. “I treasure my staff.”
Her background has also given her great empathy for the increasing population of foreign students entering Roanoke County schools.
“We have a very diverse population at Oak Grove,” said Flippen. “We now have students from Bosnia, Thailand, Korea, Japan, and Colombia. We currently have about 25 Hispanic students receiving services in our ESL (English as a Second Language) program.
Oak Grove has a population of about 500 students this year, one of the County’s largest, and has traditionally been a high-achieving school, fully accredited on state SOL’s and meeting federal AYP standards.
“That’s a credit to my teachers, who live and breathe their jobs,” said Flippen. “Without raises, with cuts in personnel, and with bigger classes, they have still managed to bring enthusiasm to their classrooms and motivation to their students. Our teachers and our students give 150% in effort.”
Flippen is retiring in June from her position as principal at Oak Grove. It was a hard decision for her to make.
“I love the children, my staff, and the Oak Grove community,” said Flippen. “It’s hard to let go of a passion and what’s been my life for so long., but I am feeling the pull of the needs of my own family.”
Flippen is revered by her students, the staff, and the Oak Grove community.
“I guess what is so impressive about Cris is her passion for the job,” said Frances Rogers, incoming president of the Oak Grove PTA. “She is the leader of Oak Grove; she keeps the morale up and goes to bat for her teachers. She’s the disciplinarian, but she does it with a loving hand. She knows everything that is going on in each student’s life and is especially attentive to their home situation and knows what she can do to make things a little better.”
Flippen is well-known for her willingness to dress up as a turkey, a tiger (the school mascot), a dog, a ballerina, the Tooth Fairy, or to be the victim of a dunking booth, to celebrate one achievement or another by the students at her school.
“I don’t mind being seen as funny or goofy for a good cause,” said Flippen. “It suits my personality, but students also realize there are times for me to be firm and strong.”
Concerned about coping with the start of a new school year in September which doesn’t include her, Flippen and her husband have planned a trip to France as a diversion. Since she is bilingual, a plan is forming in the back of her mind for a way to combine her language skills and her desire to travel after she retires.
“I am trying to think of some way to fund my travel addiction,” said Flippen.
Dr. Lorraine Lange, Roanoke County Superintendent of Schools, was Flippen’s mentor as she completed her Master’s degree.
“I have known Cris for a long time. She was an excellent teacher and has been a dedicated and enthusiastic principal at Oak Grove. She always worked harder and longer than anyone, and she will be missed by the Oak Grove community. I wish her the best as she retires and travels and spends more time with her family,” said Lange.
By Debbie Adams