Haddam-Killingworth High School Principal Donna Hayward is noted locally for being “truly a courageous leader.”
Now, she is known on a completely different level as the National Principal of the Year for 2023, so named by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
Hayward has been at the helm of District 17’s high school for four years, and previously spent 10 years as an assistant and then principal at Rocky Hill High School and six years as principal at Suffield High School.
“Principal Hayward is a proven leader with an unwavering commitment to her students, families, and educators in her school and beyond,” said Ron Nozoe, CEO of the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
“Donna has innovated strategies to inspire a love of learning and a true sense of belonging in her students and staff. There is no doubt in my mind that Donna will represent the unique perspectives of school leaders and serve as a force to be reckoned with when advocating for the profession,” he said.
Hayward was earlier named Connecticut’s Principal of the Year last spring, which she called a “once in a lifetime honor.” In October, she was notified by Nozoe that she was one of three finalists for the national award. California and Texas administrators were the other two. The three were asked to come to Washington, D.C. to go through interviews and panel discussions with state departments of education.
“Then, we were all sent home, and didn’t know the outcome,” Hayward said. “All 50 principals came back for the national celebration, which happened to be Veterans Day weekend. The celebration is a very formal gala… at the end of the dinner they made the announcement that I was the national winner. It was stunning… kind of surreal.”
“Donna is truly a courageous leader,” said Jeffrey Wihbey, Regional School District 17 Superintendent of Schools. “She always leads with children’s best interests at heart, and is never afraid to advocate for student-centered decisions.”
The national title’s written application process included approximately a dozen essays, covering topics including school security, student voice, raising academic achievement, human resources management, equitable division of resources, and other topics. In the interviews, they asked data-driven questions around those topics.
While the writing and interviews were grueling, Hayward said she also found it enjoyable, because there was nothing she didn’t know how to answer.
“I’ve been doing this my whole life. This is my profession. I know what I think about these topics. I know what my experience is. They’re not asking me anything I don’t know. I just have to express myself and tell my story,” she said.
The honor comes with the new job of being a national spokesperson for principals everywhere. She spoke with Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, who she has known for years, and he told her that he is looking to elevate principals’ voices.
“There are 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 I’m going to be looking to you to tell your story.'”
Hayward said there are many things that make her feel like she’s successful at her job, including visits from grads who talk about their successes, or when she sees new teachers find their successes. Naturally, when school test scores go up, she is happy, but she’s more concerned with the overall school culture, and when students make a positive impact in the community.
Going forward, Hayward said she hopes to use her new platform to help with the challenges educators are facing, including the lingering effects of the pandemic and unfavorable perceptions of educators.
“Educators were on the front line. Schools had to figure out how to ‘do school’ differently than we’ve ever done it before,” she said. “The post-COVID effects are numerous. Among them are, we no longer have subs. A lot of our sub pool was retired teachers. That’s the population that was the most afraid of COVID.”
While post-COVID effects are still being felt in many industries, some media outlets, she said, aren’t helping with people’s perceptions of educators.
“Some of our news channels have segments called ‘The Trouble With Schools’ or ‘Crisis in the Classroom,'” she said. “I don’t hear ‘Crisis in the Dentist’s Chair’ or ‘Trouble with Your Accountant.’ I do feel like sometimes the media has been negative about educators and education, and social media is a real issue. Anybody can say anything, anytime, about anyone. I’ve been a victim of it, we’ve all been victims of it.”
Hayward said she’s delighted that schools are open, and people are attending events. Kids are going to dances, games, and other events, so there is a great deal of positivity on which to build as well.
She said she is “incredibly humbled” to receive this honor and hopes to make the most of the opportunity to make positive change.
“I am beyond humbled,” Hayward said. “I feel a tremendous responsibility to speak for principals across the country. That’s a responsibility I take seriously.”