Dr. George Herrera, principal at Villacorta Elementary School, is preparing his school for its first year in the ART of TEACHING fellowship program. But his work as a leader and principal over the last three years has earned him district-wide recognition this year.
The Rowland Unified School District has named Dr. George Herrera the District Administrator of the Year. The Board of Education honored George for his efforts to improve learning opportunities for students and teachers at his school, and his outstanding leadership in supporting and encouraging innovation and out of the box thinking at Villacorta.
“This was such a surprise,” George said in a statement. “I’ve always felt that it takes corazón (heart) to capture the hearts and minds of students, especially as young as elementary school and all the way up to high school. But certainly, in elementary school, these students are very impressionable and I have always felt that the Rowland Unified School District has corazón. For the district that I care so deeply about to select me is very humbling, energizing, validating, and I couldn’t be any prouder, because I have so much respect for all the people that make up this school district. The outstanding leadership of our school board and our superintendent, Dr. Julie Mitchell, give me incredible hope for what is yet to be.”
George’s passion for children and teaching is one of many admirable qualities that led to his hiring as principal at Villacorta three years ago. That passion was forged at the beginning of his career when he first discovered the joys of teaching children. George credits Dr. Isaac Cardenas, formerly the Chair of the Chicano Studies Department at Cal State Fullerton, for mentoring and encouraging him in his early years to interview for a first-grade teaching position at Northam Elementary School and to consider going into administration. Once George was accepted, he began teaching first grade.
“I really fell in love with teaching,” George reminisced. “I remember coming into that first-grade class with a lot of passion and I had a lot of motivation and creativity, but I knew I still needed to develop my skillset. I started talking to anyone and everyone that I could about teaching so that I could become better at what I did. I have always felt that getting better at teaching is a lifelong endeavor. Then the wonderful opportunity came to join the Cotsen ART of TEACHING fellowship.
Initially, George admits, he was hesitant to apply for the mentor position since he enjoyed teaching and working with his students. He did not want to leave the classroom. But after many of the teachers encouraged him to apply, George found himself with the offer to be the Northam Cotsen mentor. Deciding to follow through, he accepted the position and began working with the Cotsen fellows at Northam.
“I don’t think that any experience has changed me as profoundly as being a Cotsen mentor because as a mentor, I was not focused on myself.” George explained. “I was focused on other teachers, and my skillset grew exponentially. The fellowship took me out of my school and district bubble and my eyes were opened to all the excellent practices that were out and about in all these other schools. I connected with many kindred spirits from other districts.”
As Northam finished the two-year fellowship program, George was left with the desire to create a bigger impact on the school community. George returned to the classroom to teach again, however, a part of him wished and craved for an opportunity to do more for the students and teachers of the Rowland Unified School District.
Through a series of conversations with his principal, George was encouraged to think about applying for a position out of the classroom. Although at first, he resisted the suggestion, the idea that Dr. Cardenas had planted in him years earlier of serving in a greater capacity was still very much alive.
When George’s principal, Helen Benavides, was transferred to Giano Intermediate School, she asked George to join her as the school’s Instructional Coach. He decided to take the position on the reasoning that since he was teaching 6th grade at the time, he’d get to observe some of his students move on from 6th to 7th and 8th grade. After those two years, George took on the role of being a program specialist at Giano. Then a year later there was an assistant principal vacancy and the principal asked George, since he was doing a lot of the work that an assistant principal would be doing, why not apply for the position and see what happens.
After careful deliberation, George decided it would be a great opportunity to impact the school as a whole and accepted the assistant principal position at Giano. He was surprised by how much he enjoyed the role, and when the opportunity arrived for a principal position at Villacorta, George immediately recalled the seed that Dr. Cardenas had planted in him many years earlier to consider being a school leader to impact the lives of many more students. He embraced the leadership position with reignited passion and motivation to return to his elementary roots. George has since been the principal at Villacorta for the past three years.
“My participation in the Cotsen Principals’ Technology Network has been really important in my work,” George said. “I have an amazing staff at Villacorta and being a part of this network has helped our school make dramatic transformational changes. When I first arrived at Villacorta, my teachers would ask me at staff meetings what I wanted them to do. And I thought about this for a while and I eventually went to them and said, ‘here’s what I want you to do. I want you to take risks, I want you to make mistakes and learn from them, I want you to share your discoveries and step out of your comfort zone, I want you to explore uncharted territory, I want you to be creative and innovative, I want you to learn by doing and I want you to expect the same from your students. If you do that you’ve fulfilled my expectations.’ It was sort of like giving them the freedom to explore and they really took it to heart and stepped out of their comfort zones.”
“It’s been a phenomenal year,” George remarked. “When I first became a Cotsen mentor, I had never thought of moving into an administrator role. And so, to come full circle now being an administrator, I can’t imagine not having Cotsen in my school. It was a transformational experience for me. I always wanted to make a positive difference in the lives of young students perhaps in a way that changes their trajectory for the better. Cotsen gave me the tools to accomplish that. I’m so excited for my teachers to experience the Cotsen ART of TEACHING fellowship in this new year!”