As a young girl growing up in Vermont, Donna Hayward didn’t always want a career in education.
But her principal at South Royalton High School, who left the high school to start a bilingual nursery through grade 4 school in Kuwait, provided the inspiration.
“I just thought, this one man from the middle of no-place Vermont—nowhere on the map—goes halfway across the world, changes the lives of young women and therefore changes their futures,” Hayward, the principal of Haddam-Killingworth High School in Higganum, Conn., told Education Week last month when she was named a finalist for the award. “There was nothing more inspiring to me than that.”
Hayward, now a principal for the past 15 years, was named Thursday night as the 2023 Principal of the Year.
Ronn Nozoe, the CEO of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, which gives out the award, called Hayward “a proven leader with an unwavering commitment to her students, families, and educators in her school and beyond.”
“Donna has innovated strategies to inspire a love of learning and a true sense of belonging in her students and staff,” he said.
The other finalists were David Arencibia, principal of Colleyville Middle School, in Colleyville, Texas; and John Briquelet, the founding leader of Oxford Preparatory Academy, a new charter middle school in Aliso Viejo, Calif. Briquelet led Whitney High School in Cerritos, Calif., until the end of the last academic year.
Focusing on academics and culture
Since becoming principal of Haddam-Killingworth in 2014, Hayward has worked with staff to add 14 new courses; start a blended-learning program; and ensure that staff has access to professional development to implement SEL in the curriculum. Haddam-Killingworth High School was also named a National Blue Ribbon School in 2018.
While Hayward is honored by the National Blue Ribbon recognition, she told Education Week last month that she’s even more proud of the school’s family atmosphere.
“We have a real familial feel here at Haddam-Killingworth,” she said. “It’s intangible, not measurable; but outsiders who visit us comment on how it’s so clear. ... We care about each other here.”
That’s all rooted in Hayward’s guiding education philosophy “Just Love Them”—essentially doing all you can as an educator to ensure students are successful.
“[Parents] are bringing us their babies, and above all else, truly, they just need us to love them,” she said. “The parents need me to care about their kids enough so that I can figure out what’s right for them.”
Decisions rooted in data
But she was quick to clarify: “I’m not fluffy—nobody would describe me as fluffy.”
Decisions, she said, are based on real data.
“We are a results-oriented school,” Hayward said, adding that she’s created a culture where teachers have “creative license” to try new and innovative things as long as they get good results. That freedom is among the reasons the school has been successful, she said. Ideas come from teachers and students alike.
After one of her students who had exhausted all of his math classes informed Hayward that he was interested in teaching, she found a way for him to work as an intern with the math department.
The student, whom she described as “brilliant,” ended up teaching alongside the head of the math department and helping out those in the lower grades who were having trouble with math.
“Sometimes the ideas come from who is in front of you,” Hayward said.
Hayward started her career in 1993 as a math teacher. She’s notched a number of accomplishments during her time in school leadership. She was Connecticut’s assistant principal of the year in 2006, and she’s served as president of the state’s Association of Schools.
The NASSP’s Principal of the Year program recognizes middle and high school principals for their leadership as well as their contributions to the field. The program is open to principals in all 50 states, as well as Washington, D.C., the State Department’s Overseas Schools, and Department of Defense Education Activity schools.