Growing up in a small town in the middle of Vermont, Neag School alumna Donna Hayward ’98 6th Year, ’10 ELP did not intend to become an educator. Instead, she loved math and pursued a mathematics major after high school. Luckily for her future students, however, Hayward’s path not only led her to become a math instructor but an administrator as well.
Currently a principal for the past nine years at Haddam-Killingworth High School in Higganum, Connecticut, Hayward was named the 2023 National Principal of the Year by the National Association of Secondary Principals in November.
Thinking back to the initial spark that eventually led her to become a principal, Hayward says she was inspired by her high school principal, Bill Pollock, who left to start a bilingual nursery through fourth-grade school in Kuwait. Hayward recalls Pollock being a highly effective principal and that the teachers and students loved him. She even served on the selection committee for Pollock’s replacement when he left.
“I was inspired by his drive to start a school halfway across the world that positively impacted the lives of young women,” she says.
Hayward studied math at Smith College and, at the time, still didn’t intend to become an educator. However, her former math teacher at her high school reached out and asked her to substitute for him while he pursued an opportunity for international travel.
“She is a proven leader with an unwavering commitment to her students, families, and educators in her school and beyond.” — Ronn Nozoe, CEO of the National Association of Secondary Principals
“It was during my sophomore year of college,” she says. “When I finished the school year in May, I started subbing for him. I loved it!”
After graduation, Hayward received a letter from Smith recruiting young women to pursue a career in math education, given the shortage of females in the field. Smith offered to forgive 70% of the tuition for the Master of Arts degree if Hayward agreed to teach for three years after graduating. She would go on to earn her master’s in a year at Smith and then teach for five years at Farmington High School.
“While I loved teaching, I saw things as a teacher that I didn’t like and wanted to change – but you have limited influence as a teacher,” Hayward says. “I felt that by becoming an administrator, I would have a better chance to change things in the greater picture.”
To reach that next level, Hayward earned her 6th Year Certificate in educational leadership from the UConn Neag School of Education’s Administrator Preparation Program (UCAPP). She started as an assistant principal at Rocky Hill High School and was later promoted to principal. She also served as principal at Suffield High School before taking the principal position at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
“She is a proven leader with an unwavering commitment to her students, families, and educators in her school and beyond,” says Ronn Nozoe, the CEO of the National Association of Secondary Principals, which gives the National Principal of the Year award. “Donna has innovated strategies to inspire a love of learning and a true sense of belonging in her students and staff.”
Becoming the National Principal of the Year
Hayward has earned several other accomplishments during her time in school leadership. She was Connecticut’s Assistant Principal of the Year in 2006 and served as president of the Connecticut Association of Schools.
Through her leadership, Haddam-Killingworth High School was named a National Blue Ribbon School in 2018 and she was named Connecticut’s Principal of the Year in 2022, which she called a “once-in-a-lifetime honor.” In October 2022, she was notified that she was one of three finalists for the national principal award. All the finalists were invited to Washington, D.C., to undergo interviews and panel discussions with the U.S. Department of Education and NASSP staff.
The national selection process involved a written application covering topics such as school security, student voice, raising academic achievement, human resources management, among others. In addition, the interviews and panels covered contemporary topics and challenges facing educators and school systems today. While the process was grueling, Hayward says she also found it enjoyable.
“I’ve been doing this my whole life,” she says. “This is my profession. I know what I think about these topics. I know what my experience is. They weren’t asking me anything I don’t know. I just had to express myself and tell my story.”
The announcement of the winner wasn’t revealed until a ceremony on Nov. 10. All finalists were allowed to bring one guest, and Hayward chose her 20-year-old daughter to attend the ceremony.
“Being an administrator is a 24/7 job, and I wanted my daughter to be part of the ceremony since the child of any school administrator pays the price,” Hayward says.
She says she was happy to be a finalist for the national award but did not believe the title would be hers. Hayward says she is “incredibly humbled” to receive the honor and hopes to make the most of the opportunity to make positive change.
The recognition comes with the new role of national spokesperson for principals across the country. Hayward recalls speaking with four-time Neag School alumnus and U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, who she has known for years, and says he told her he is looking to elevate principals’ voices.
“There are nearly 100,000 principals across the United States, and someone has to speak for them,” she said. “He told me, ‘Think about what you’re passionate about, Donna, because you’ll have an opportunity to have a voice.’ ”
Hayward hopes to use her new platform to help educators with the challenges they face, including the pandemic’s lingering effects and unfavorable perceptions of the field.
“I feel a tremendous honor to speak for principals across the country,” Hayward said. “It’s a big deal and a responsibility I take seriously. We need to protect our public education system and elevate and strengthen it.”
Becoming an Educational Leader
Hayward complimented the Neag School’s UCAPP program in preparing candidates for this career path, especially through its rigorous internship requirement.
Late in the UCAPP program, students are required to interview in school districts. What Hayward thought was professional development turned into a job offer. As an assistant principal at the age of 29, Hayward was only 15 years older than her youngest students, which allowed her to relate to them more easily. She had loved her teaching experience, but knew she wanted to be a principal, just like the one she was initially inspired by in high school. She now pays the inspiration forward as a mentor of future educational leaders through the UCAPP program.
“I encourage them and try to be very realistic,” she says. “I think it’s important to give them access to as much of the ‘real work’ of a principal as possible. So, the interns in the building are invited to come work with me when I’m working on a budget, having a difficult conversation with a parent about a discipline issue, working with a colleague to improve performance, and also to just talk with me about their UCAPP homework questions.”
Hayward’s approach to mentorship is also reflected in her guiding educational philosophy: “Just love them.” Essentially, she believes in doing all you can as an educator to ensure students are successful.
In her almost 25 years as an educational leader, Hayward has seen, experienced, and accomplished a lot. She will now spend the next year helping elevate the profession, inspiring students and future leaders along the way, just like she was inspired decades earlier.
For more information about the UConn Administrator Preparation Program, visit ucapp.education.uconn.edu.