The right leadership makes all the difference. And, Solorsano Middle School’s Principal, Maria Walker’s dedication and commitment epitomize the essential qualities today’s youth look to in a leader.
Recipient of numerous awards, Solorsano Middle School is one of the highest performing schools in the school district according to Gilroy Unified School District Superintendent, Dr. Deborah Flores. Many such honors that wouldn’t be possible without the leadership of Walker.
“Maria is one of the best,” Flores says, whose belief in Walker’s overall career achievements prompted her to nominate the middle school principal for this year’s Gilroy Chamber of Commerce Educator of the Year award—and Walker won.
“Maria’s commitment to her students extends beyond the classroom,” Flores wrote in her nomination letter to the Chamber. “She makes decisions using the lens of both a parent and an educator. She strongly believes in building relationships with her students, parents and the community.”
“She is a trusted, respected and admired leader in the eyes of students, parents and staff not only for her accomplishments but also for the unique and valuable leadership qualities she possesses.”
Walker was pleasantly surprised late last year when Dr. Flores, along with several board members including Mark Turner, showed up at a scheduled “staff meeting.” As it turned out the meeting was a ruse planned by her assistant principal, Charla Mittman. Turner and the others were there to inform Walker she’d been selected as the 2018 Educator of the Year.
“Dr. Flores, our Superintendent, is the one who nominated me, and that’s an honor for me, because obviously she sees something in me. That’s very touching. It was very nice,” Walker says.
For the past five years Mittman has worked alongside Walker who she believes is more than deserving of this prestigious award.
“When she says she has an open-door policy—it is. When she says she puts her teachers first—she does. She’s genuine, she’s transparent and she doesn’t judge. She knows what is good for the school, and she will move heaven and earth to get it,” Mittman says. “Educator of the year, she’s probably the educator of the century.”
On Saturday, Feb. 3, Walker along with six other recipients was presented with their awards at the Spice of Life Awards event held at San Juan Oaks Golf Club, in Hollister.
Although Walker prefers to stay out of the spotlight she does admit, “It’s nice to be acknowledged—that warms my heart.”
In 1976, after graduating from Cal Poly, in San Luis Obispo, Walker was ready to immerse herself in the education profession, but her career took a detour.
“I moved back up here to San Jose and they were having a teachers’ strike, so then I just went into business. I became an executive secretary for years,” Walker says.
It was her father, George Piane’s, continued support and insistence to not give up on her dream of teaching that brought her back on track.
“My dad kept prompting me, ‘if you’re going to do teaching you need to go back and do your teaching,’” Walker says. “So I did. It was hard because in those days I had to take a pay cut to go back into teaching. But actually, it’s the best move I ever made.”
Looking back over her 29 years as an educator she would not change a thing.
“You can really make a difference in a child’s life. You can touch a soul. Sometimes you may not know that until years later. You never know when a simple word—or sometimes just listening—you never know when you will make an impact,” Walker says.
In 1990 Walker’s first assignment was as a substitute teacher for the Gilroy School District. She jumped at the chance, even though she was the mother of three, Jennifer, then, two and a half, and twins, Bryan and Stephanie, who were 6-months-old at the time.
“I’ve always been a working mom,” Walker says. “Which now, when you look full circle, now you become the mentor for others. So my staff if they have young children, I get it.”
The bulk of her career in the educational system was spent teaching all throughout the Gilroy School District, including Jordan elementary, Las Animas, Rod Kelly, and South Valley.
In 2003, she was an integral part of the original staff of Solorsano Middle School, in her role as the first English department chair. Five years later, she moved to the administrative side when she became assistant principal, and in 2011, she moved into the Principal position.
Although Walker admits she misses teaching, she sees advantages to the administrative side—believing that a key factor in her current role is, “to be visible and to build relationships with students.”
“The thing about being an administrator is you’re still teaching, you’re still mentoring, building relationships with students and staff,” Walker says. “I have a great staff here, we’re very cohesive. I truly enjoy what I’m doing in this role. I love working with the parents, because parents are our customers. I love working with the children.”
Throughout the years the challenges for teachers and administrators are constant—and yet guaranteed to change. Walker believes a current challenge for today’s teachers is the impact of social media.
“The social media has been a huge change and challenge in the educational system,” Walker says. “Parents need to understand where their children can go with the technology. These kids are very savvy, they’re very good at this stuff. At the end of the day it’s like synchronized phones, 800 plus phones come out.”
Walker feels another top priority for all teachers is the ability to make a connection with every child.
“We have a very rigorous curriculum here in Gilroy, which is excellent,” she says. “And I think trying to make sure you reach all the children, educationally, sometimes it’s hard, because you get a wide range of levels. We want all children to be successful. I think that’s the bottom line. And I have a staff here of phenomenal educators who try every day to get kids to be successful, but it’s tough.”
Walker believes educators would have a much better chance of reaching that goal if additional funding were provided to the school district.
“We just need the funding and the support from the state too, to help us get all kids up to where they need to be,” Walker says.
This educator of the year remains undaunted by the challenges, and committed to the students and staff—ready to move forward on the road to success.
“You always go into every day with the right attitude, that positive attitude. I genuinely care about all these children, I want them to get a solid education,” Walker says. “We work with them every day. They’re children, they’re changing and they’re growing. Yes, I’m a principal, but I’m also a mom, and I’m also a grandma, so I look at everything through that lens as well, and it’s always about teaching.”