Heather Buckley (BA ’03), principal at Cardinal Elementary School in Eldon, Iowa, has been awarded the prestigious Iowa Elementary Principal of the Year award for 2022 by the School Administrators of Iowa.
She was nominated by her peers, selected by a committee of Iowa elementary principals, and was recognized at the association's annual conference in August. The National Association of Elementary School Principals will also honor her as a National Distinguished Principal.
Buckley was born and raised in Fairfield, Iowa, and graduated from Fairfield High School. She then attended the University of Iowa, receiving a degree in Elementary Education.
She says it was here she was provided with a valuable experience, with content, coursework, professors, and advisors who facilitated discussions around all aspects of education.
“My Educational Law and Special Educational Law classes provided a wealth of information that I still refer back to today,” Buckley says. “Dr. Fiedler's course on the Foundations of School Administration pushed me to reflect on my leadership qualities and how my skill set and goals could support and impact my school. The teachings in this course sparked a great interest in school culture and how our words, actions, and relationships impact the culture of our organizations.”
Buckley also obtained a master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of St. Mary’s. But her roots in education came at a young age, due in large part to her own third grade teacher.
As a child, Buckley experienced school anxieties, leading to a daily, morning stomachache. Her teacher showed her great care, checking in with her each morning, and keeping a stash of oatmeal cream pies to ease her nerves.
“It was not necessarily the oatmeal pies that cured my morning bellyache but her extra loving time made a great impact on my life and helped me develop confidence, eased my school jitters, and made me feel so special” Buckley says. “From that moment on, I was inspired to follow her caring example”.
Buckley’s career in education began in Kansas City, Missouri, where she taught second grade for the Liberty Public School District. Here, she was inspired by Joe Palmer, her principal, whose leadership style impacted her teaching career. “His leadership style, and the way he connected with students and staff inspired me” Buckley says. “He held high expectations for learning while also building strong relationships with the teaching staff”.
After several years, Buckley returned to Fairfield, Iowa, to be closer to her family, where she taught fourth grade for the Fairfield Community School District. She then furthered her studies at the University of Iowa in the Educational Policy and Leadership Studies program, receiving her Evaluator and Principal License in 2013.
“I appreciated that our discussions were not built on educational theory, but on ‘real-life’ experiences that we would soon face in our principalship,” Buckley says. “These class discussions and assignments helped me identify my values and beliefs about leadership. They connected me with successful practicing educational leaders that mentored and inspired me throughout my studies”.
Soon after, Buckley was offered a position as a Shared Curriculum Director for both Cardinal and Pekin Community School Districts. At that time, she rediscovered her passion for working directly with children, leading her to apply and accept the position as principal of Cardinal Elementary School.
Cardinal Elementary is a part of the Cardinal Community School District, serving Wapello, Davis, Jefferson, and Van Buren counties in Iowa. The district runs K-12, and in 2019-20, featured enrollment of 1,051 students. Cardinal has seen unique and rapid growth in this rural setting, with the district enrolling more than 200 students and doubling its staff in eight years. This is an opportunity Buckley says she and her staff have tackled head on.
“Educators are faced with such great demands and with each year, nothing is taken off their plates,” Buckley says. “To work with this challenge, I continually try to let my team know how valuable and appreciated they are”
Buckley says she and her Cardinal colleagues make staff wellness a priority, offering a variety of outlets for staff, including a spiritual growth group, a walking club, and weekly yoga sessions, led by Buckley herself, among many others.
“I have not conquered the challenge of taking away the immense stress of educators, but I hope to provide my team with care, deep gratitude, and a positive culture so they feel valued and enjoy the important work they do each day,” Buckley says.
Buckley has employed her own guiding philosophy over the years, which has been molded and shaped by her experiences, even changing so much as her first day on the job as principal, where she helped a student who was approaching their first day with no breakfast, no new shoes or bag, and no parent to walk with her into the school.
“I realized that being an effective principal was more than test scores and student achievement. Kids need to see a morning smile, hear their name, and know that we are so excited to have them here at school,” Buckley says. “My ultimate career goal is to be able to ensure our students' most basic needs are being met, and they feel safe, loved, and cared for.”
As for how Buckley feels about the award, she had four specific words to describe the emotions: “Humbled, surprised, grateful, and so honored.”
This mix of emotions is due in part to her respect for her fellow principals, gratitude for her work being recognized by the state, and honored that she can continue her purpose of providing students and staff with a positive learning culture as “part of Iowa’s excellent educational system.”
Buckley also shares advice for any students desiring a career in school administration.
“I would encourage students to reflect on their strengths and leadership qualities,” Buckley says.
She says that a growth mindset is important in leadership development, and that finding quality mentors will prove valuable in helping a student define their future leadership vision, much like her mentors in the UI College of Education.
“If we keep ‘what's best for the students’ at the forefront… you’ll have this to help guide your decisions and keep our attention and our purpose on what matters most, the kids,” Buckley says.
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