Walden Grove High School opened 10 years ago, and Principal Teresa Hill has led it from the beginning. Hill was recently named the Arizona National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) Principal of the Year and is a finalist for the National Principal of the Year.
The Sahuarita Sun talked to Hill about her journey, the challenges of COVID-19 and what it takes to be a good principal.
How does it feel to receive this recognition?
TH: “It feels surreal. The exciting thing about it for me is it gets to shine a positive light on our school. I think a lot of great things are happening here and so if this is an opportunity to share all the great things happening at Walden Grove, I’m honored to be a part of that.”
Tell us your journey to becoming principal at Walden Grove.
TH: “I started as a math teacher at Flowing Wells in 1993, and I did that for three years and then I had the opportunity to build a dance program and did that for nine. While I was a dance teacher I went back to get my Master's. I knew at some point I wanted to be a principal but I didn’t think it would happen as soon as it did. It just kind of evolved into an opportunity to go into administration by getting to shadow and be a principal designee and see what they did. From there, as assistant principal I’m getting to see that world. I loved being at Flowing Wells but I also loved being at the high school. At the time, I was a CTE director and I had met the Sahuarita CTE director and he had informed me they were going to be building a new school and they would be looking for a new principal. I just threw my name in the hat without really thinking I was going to get the job. I didn't really realize that this is what I was meant to do. I kind of stumbled upon education. I was an engineer major before and knew I didn’t like it but I was a coach and really liked connecting with kids. Absolutely love teaching but there’s something about being a principal... Every day I’m teaching teachers and I’m still building relationships. I really feel like this is my calling and feel very blessed that I’ve had the opportunity to do this.”
What are some of the things you are most proud of at Walden Grove?
TH: “The vision I had about what I thought this place would be is now a million times better than what I envisioned because it’s been a collaborative effort. I’m really proud of the identity of Walden in the sense of our climate and our culture. Everybody knows that Walden is a place where all our kids belong, not only just feel safe but really belong. We feel like we are a community. Our kids all get along with each other. Our teachers really care about our kids. Any decisions we make is really about what’s best for our kids and that’s because we understand they are the number one, most important part of a school. We work hard with everything we do. We want to excel, striving to be the best is just part of our culture and our climate. If you look at all the accolades of our short tenure of 10 years, we have team championships, individual championships, we have a nationally known dance team. If you look across the board we have a ton of accolades. When I first started, the district didn't have honors level classes at the other high school. They had some AP classes but they didn’t have honors level classes at the lower levels. Bringing that rigor, not just to Walden but to the community, it has been really cool to see we've increased our offerings. We’ve spent two years wholeheartedly on writing across the curriculum where, not just our English teachers are focused on writing, but our entire school and you can see the effects of that. You can see the kids are better writers. Because it's a whole school effort we’re starting to see the fruits of that labor.”
What have you learned as principal?
TH: “I think every day is a learning opportunity. I think students always give me an opportunity to learn. To hear their perspective and to see the way they see the world has allowed me to grow and learn. As I get older and my staff gets younger they also help me learn. With the pandemic, our teachers were forced to learn technology and, guess what, I have to, too. I learned how to create a Google Classroom for my teachers to provide communication to them. As educators we’re lifelong learners, right? You learn how to stay up with the times because if I don’t stay connected to what teachers are doing in the classroom then it's really hard for me to mentor them. I may not be the expert in it but I definitely need to be open to learning those things so I can keep growing with them. I always knew it was important to collaborate but I've definitely learned the value of that even more. It takes a lot to involve multiple people in the decision-making process... I had a vision of what I thought Walden might be and it's so much better now because it’s not my vision, it's our vision.”
What are some of your big goals for Walden Grove moving forward?
TH: “I think the biggest challenge we have faced in the last 10 years has really been the facilities. When we opened our first year we had Sahuarita Park next to us and we didn’t have athletic fields. Now we have athletic fields and can play our games and not have to go to Sahuarita to play, so that’s helpful. But, facilities is one thing I’d like to see improve because we’ve kind of outgrown our space. The maximum capacity of our band room is 76 but he has over 100 kids in his band. If you look at our locker rooms, they’re small and you can’t fit a team in one of those rooms. Our weight room is significantly smaller than most high schools. We share our auditorium with nine other schools in the district and that’s super challenging when you have fine arts programs that are growing and thriving and wanting to have performances. Our wrestling room right now is a portable. I’d love to see our wrestlers have a room where they can put their full mats in. One thing I'm proud of is our coaches have always said we’re not going to make that an excuse that our facilities are not what a typical high school would be. If I had the opportunity and a magic wand that’s what I would want to do, expand our facilities. I think we’ve done a fabulous job of not letting that get in our way of being excellent, but I think how much more could our people do if they truly had the facilities.”
What were the biggest challenges of the pandemic?
TH: “I think the challenge is the unknown and the constant change that came with it. As we progressed through the year, we had to make changes every single time. So, the beginning of the year we were remote. None of my teachers went to school and were prepared as remote teachers and the amount of workshops and things we did with our staff to try and get them caught up with here are the tools that can help you to be successful online. Just when we got in the swing of that, the pandemic numbers changed and we were able to come back, but we weren’t able to come back full time, so we were on hybrid. Now, everybody has to readjust...
I feel like communication is the key and allowing my teachers to have a voice so that I’m not telling them what they have to do, we’re working together on what we have to do. They are part of that process and I definitely think it's brought our staff closer together. We have staff and teachers who have evolved into leaders.
"The next biggest challenge is losing a staff member to COVID. That is definitely the most difficult thing i've had to deal with, both personally and professionally, because Raul (Alvarado) was with us for nine years and he was a friend of mine. Trying to lead my staff through the pain of that was really hard because I was feeling the pain, too. As a leader I tried to not be unemotional but people want me to be the stable force. They want me to be the strong one and there were moments where I couldn't be the strong one. I was going to cry and I was going to break down. Trying to balance that, where I'm personally hurting but I also need to lead this school through this, is very challenging.”
What makes a good principal?
TH: “Someone who is approachable, who doesn’t put themselves above others but can talk with others at the same level. Someone who is willing to get input from their stakeholders and who can inspire others and motivate others to want to be part of the common goal. It’s that ability to get the best out of people so that people want to be here and want to give it everything they got.”
What inspires you?
TH: “I truly believe I'm a servant leader and that I'm here to do good in the world. My faith in God is probably one of my biggest inspirations. Right next to that would be my mom. My mom has always believed in me. A lot of what I do to do good in the world comes from watching her be the person she is. My mom definitely inspires me to be the best that I can be and to want to do good in the world. I have to throw my dad in there, too. My dad passed a couple years ago but my parents have always been my biggest supporters, cheerleaders. They’re the ones who said the sky's the limit and you can do whatever you want. They never doubted whatever crazy goals I had. My husband and my kids motivate and inspire me to be a good person. I want my kids to learn from my life and my experience. The world is a brutal place and things don’t come easy to me. The biggest motivations are honestly all of those rejections that I had. Every one of those rejections helped make me better. I want my kids to know they're going to get the same thing. I think we all have things that happen to us that we have no control over, but we always have control of how we respond and react to it. I’ve got that motivation to show my kids that somebody may try to knock me down but all it's going to do is make me work harder to be better.”