Mesilla Valley Leadership Academy: A Conversation with Dr. Toni Hull

Q&A   26 June 2018
By Dr. Toni Hull, Mesilla Valley Leadership Academy


I think I remember everyone’s “why” and allow them to stay connected to their “why” despite the increasing demands being placed on them from the outside. This gives me the ability to make an impact on their practice.

Dr. Toni Hull

Q: Where did your passion for learner-centered transformation originate?

A: In high school, I always liked science. I enrolled in an AP biology class that was sponsored by Syracuse University. During the semester, we had a visiting professor, Dr. Druger, who would come as a guest speaker every so often. He was outstanding. The kids would be so excited when he got there.

The days he came, I remember us as high schoolers being so into it that the lunch bell would ring and we would all remain in our biology class. At the time, I thought, “Wow, look at this engaged group of high schoolers.” It was thanks to this teacher who was so dynamic and charismatic. Even for the kids who didn’t necessarily like science, they were engaged.

There was something about him that made me wonder, “How does he do this?” Every time he came, I thought, “I want to be like that.” I wanted to be that person who could inspire kids to learn. Nothing would take us away from that biology course. The professor would sign our book bags and workbooks—I still have an autographed workbook I had during that time. He was a rockstar.

All I kept asking was “How come?” How come he was so good with these kids, when so many other teachers didn’t have the same impact. I knew he had something special.


I want teachers to know they can do anything they need to do to make it happen.

Dr. Toni Hull

I spent the next 14 years as a teacher in upstate New York. Again, it was one of those things where I knew this was what I wanted to do. I would replicate a lot of the things Dr. Druger would do in my high school class. He would do these out-of-the-box things like sing for the class or include comics on the tests, so I incorporated parallel activities (with my own spin) in my own teaching. I loved it.

Halfway through my time in New York, we were starting to be asked to do more and more things that had nothing to do with teaching—the paperwork, intensive prep for standardized tests, and other things we felt were less important. I almost left teaching during this time. I started looking into other options like becoming a Physician’s Assistant, since I had my biology degree.

I couldn’t do it though. I knew it wasn’t what I was meant to do. Instead, I decided to see how I could work through the changes. I wondered if I might become a leader and change some of these things. The school I was at didn’t allow middle school teachers to be department heads—it was exclusive to high school teachers.

I continued to lead from my classroom and at the same time looked for other opportunities. For example, I started to lead in the New York State Science Teachers Association as a regular presenter, but I knew I wanted to do more.

My husband and I visited New Mexico, and there was an instant connection. Besides the beautiful weather, we fell in love with the people, the culture, and the landscape. I got a job as a science teacher in Deming, NM—a really tiny town. Shortly after starting there, an opportunity to become an instructional coach arose. Throughout my time as a teacher, I always took interest in professional development. I was fortunate enough to have a mentor who encouraged me to go to conferences and bring back anything I learned so I could teach it to others.

I received the position as an instructional coach for the high school. I loved it—district trainings, school trainings, one-on-one coaching, group coaching, etc.

I remember my first day, when a mentor of mine said, “Let’s go for a walk.” I was thinking, “Okay, great, let’s go visit some classrooms.” We go to the classrooms, and I walk into a science class. After visiting the class, we walked out into the hallway, and my mentor said, “I wanted you to see that because I don’t think you realize not everyone is doing what you’ve been doing.”

I was in my own little world as a teacher. I was one of those teachers where everyone would joke, “Oh, we never see you” because I was in my room. I was always with my kids. After this classroom visit, I realized there were teachers who likely never felt they had the freedom to be creative. And, that’s what I still see as an admin. Teachers need the license to be creative.

Whenever I go into a classroom and see a teacher sitting at their desk working on pages and pages of lesson plans or grading stacks of papers, instead of focusing on the kids, I know there’s an underlying reason why that’s happening. I know that teacher has the same “why” for teaching that I do—that “I want to inspire kids” why.

So, I want teachers to know they can do anything they need to do to make it happen. As the administrator, if that lesson plan is this heavy weight on your shoulders, let me take that off your plate, so you can get back to the kids.

Q: What did you see in your instructional coaching that gave access to this freedom to create?

A: I think we’re still at the beginning stages of it, but we have a superintendent, school board, and district leadership team at Las Cruces Public Schools, the district I moved into following my six years as an instructional coach at Deming, who are giving us the space to do these things. Obviously, if my superintendent said, “Your evaluations are everything,” that would be a problem.

At Mesilla Valley Leadership Academy (MVLA), I have a colleague who recently told me, “You have allowed me to grow and be what I didn’t think I could be.” I try to empower teachers just like I try to empower students. I ask, what do you need to be successful, and what can I do to help you make it happen? I allow teachers to try, fail, and try again; I give them the space to create, think, and innovate. Maybe that makes me different. I don’t know.


I’ve clearly done something, but we’re currently in the process of figuring out what that “something” is.

Dr. Toni Hull

I do know there are principals out there who will require every teacher have their lesson plans hanging on their doors every Monday morning. It certainly happens in Las Cruces just as it happens everywhere else. But, that’s not me.

I’ve clearly done something, but we’re currently in the process of figuring out what that “something” is. My colleague even asked, “What are you going to tell Education Reimagined during your interview when asked what it is you do?”

All I know right now is 99.9% of teachers didn’t come into this work for the money or to have summers off—which, as we all know, doesn’t actually happen. They have a deeper “why.” I think I remember everyone’s “why” and allow them to stay connected to their “why” despite the increasing demands being placed on them from the outside. This gives me the ability to make an impact on their practice.

Q: You’re speaking to us today as the principal of Mesilla Valley Leadership Academy. Did you always see yourself moving up the ladder in this way?

A: I thought I was going to do professional development the rest of my life—maybe set up a consulting practice when I retire. We were at our middle school and one of the Assistant Principals was moved to another environment. When this announcement was made, I was sitting next to my principal, and I knew I was being called to turn to him and say I wanted to fill the position.

I always said I would never become an administrator, so when I offered myself up, he about fell out of his chair. I went through the interview process, and I received the position. Once again, I was fortunate enough to work with a leader who sought to empower. That’s what a healthy culture does—it’s a series of empowerments. I need to feel empowered by my principal so that I can pass it along to the teachers I’m working with and they can then pass it along to their students.

As an Assistant Principal, I wanted to change the perception of administration through this concept of empowerment. I wanted to ask teachers what needed to be changed in their work—what needed to be taken off their plates—so they can put forth their best work.

All that said, I eventually became principal of MVLA and have been in this position for the last two years.

Q: What makes learners excited to come to MVLA?

A: It starts and ends with with the relationships. We get to know kids so well; we honor them in a variety of ways that go well-beyond academic recognition. We take “brain breaks” throughout the day, which give kids the chance to walk around and socialize with one another and their educators, so we can constantly build those relationships.

The kids also get to drive their own learning. We have what we call “My Time,” which are electives where we simply ask, “What do you want to learn about?” A lot of times, they don’t even know how to answer that question because they’ve been told for so long: “This is what you need to do and learn.” We have this open question for all our work; even in our core classes, we differentiate and give students choice and voice in their learning.

For example, we just have “math class.” It’s not divided up by ages. Everyone learns math together—6th through 8th grade. We’ve tried single grade classes, and it was actually more of a problem. It should be based on skills anyway—not age. All of our learning is project-based, so inside a traditional math class they have a choice on what product they would like to create—give a presentation, create a video, present your learning to an outside audience, etc.

We also do something we call “big wows,” which are surprize school and classroom transformations that are unexpected and create memorable learning experiences for students. For example, we have created a courtroom, a hollywood red carpet event, a shark tank, and a New York City landscape in our school—all for the sake of connecting learning with memorable experiences. The kids never know what amazing things are going to happen next!


There’s a concept we talk about called “leading up.” We have to think about ways we can show leadership what’s working, especially when we aren’t learning within the traditional framework.

Dr. Toni Hull

A lot of our students’ choice is still tied to the standards due to the curriculum requirements from the state. However, New Mexico recently moved to Next Generation Science Standards, which allows for more interest-based learning. We’re definitely more stuck in social studies where the 6th grader has to know these things and the 7th grader has to know these. Why does a 7th grader have to know New Mexico state history at that specific age? Why can’t they just get it over the course of their middle school years when they’re ready?

Of course, it’s all dictated by the tests at the end of the year. If they have to take a test that is solely about New Mexico state history, they can’t spend the year learning about what they love, perhaps World War II. We’re still strapped down by these tests.

Fortunately, our district doesn’t put a huge stamp on it, but it’s still tough. As a school, we got an F last year. But, I always tell my teachers, they aren’t testing what our kids are learning—how to explore, problem solve, think critically, collaborate, present, etc.

It’s upsetting when we only see only a small percentage increase, but when you talk to parents, the qualitative growth that we see is exponential—and so much more important. Soft skills such as the way our kids think, communicate with others, and speak about themselves should be the focus—especially in middle school when we are helping to set them up for success in future schooling and in life.

Q: You’ve spoken about the importance of having a series of empowerments. How are you actively pursuing a culture of leadership that allows this transformational work to sustain itself once these unique leaders, like yourself, are gone?

A: That’s a big threat in a way. What if someone comes in and says, “Alright principals, I better start seeing those lesson plans…” With our current curriculum map, we have some nice leeway.

I have leeway at MVLA because I’ve asked. At a bigger middle school, it’s going to be a bigger challenge. How can I cultivate that same freedom in a larger environment?

What I’ve done up to this point is continuously communicate with my superintendent and district leadership team. I think they need to see, rather than hear, what we’re up to. I invite them to come visit all the time. And, even if they don’t come, I’m sending emails that simply say, “These things are going on at my school this week; come check them out.”

Even though I know they receive a million emails, they have responded and attended some of the events I’ve put out there. When they can, they will. One of the best stories from this back-and-forth was when my superintendent came to MVLA and walked into a math class. The kids were up on the table—these makeshift stages—with kites doing some sort of project with a fan.

My superintendent opens the door, and all I’m thinking is, “Oh my gosh, I’m going to get fired.” But, he thought it was amazing—as long as we are keeping the kids safe.

There’s a concept we talk about called “leading up.” We have to think about ways we can show leadership what’s working, especially when we aren’t learning within the traditional framework. I can take my state results and show what we’re doing is working, even though it’s not following the typical protocol—teaching to the test.

It’s not just about showing the superintendent either. We invite everyone from the central office to come in and see what we’re doing. This gives us more ears and eyes that can go back to the central office and say, “Hey, let’s look at this idea.” We include parents as well. They go to the central office from time to time and are able to communicate what we’re doing here.

We even have kids do presentations in front of leadership. We had a cabinet meeting where every principal was asked to give a 45-minute presentation about what’s going on at their respective schools. I think I spoke for five minutes. I had the kids speak for 25 minutes and the parents speak for ten. It shows leadership who this learning is about and makes them wonder, “What’s going on over there?”

If they don’t see the faces of these kids, they simply look at what’s on paper and think, “That’s not great.” Once again, it’s because they’re testing what we’re not teaching.

That’s the way I try to influence leaders—to show them what’s working. And, I like to show what didn’t work and how we fixed it. They don’t always have time to go to the 30+ schools in our district, so it’s about continuously being in their ears. If we are going to get anywhere in reinventing education, we have to focus on what CAN be done and not what can’t. Our kids deserve it.  

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