Terra Toscano: Listening for the Heart of the School
Last month, when Terra Toscano accepted the offer from the Walden School Board of Trustees to become the permanent Head of School, she was thrust into the spotlight. While Terra has never been one who sought to be the center of attention, she is now poised to lead Walden into a new era. After almost two decades at the school and countless contributions to curriculum, culture, and community, few if any are more qualified for the job. She maintains strong beliefs about educating children and also a fierce progressive attitude, always looking to move forward and embrace change. All of this is done with intention, a spirit of collaboration, and mutual respect. And a lot of hard work.
Before coming to Walden, Terra worked as an Associate Teacher at Children’s Center at Caltech while organizing summer programs for underserved youth all over Los Angeles. A friend told her about an opening at Walden, and she interviewed for a job as a Pre-K Assistant Teacher. When she didn’t get a call back, she contacted Tina Riddle, Walden’s Pre-K Director at home a number of times until Tina eventually did offer her the job. It seems that her persistence had paid off.
Walden would ultimately become a significant part of her life, but it was a bit challenging at first. At Walden, the community sits in circles, and people are expressive and hold strong beliefs. Terra remembers the first faculty meeting of the year and being “intimidated by a circle of people that passionate. The school was going through a transition, but everyone was so driven and committed to what they were doing.” Any initial feelings of apprehension quickly gave way to inspiration, however, as ultimately, being passionate about her beliefs is something she had in common with them.
By the time Terra was a teenager, she had already decided that she wanted to work with children, and the mentorship Tina provided had a profound effect on her approach to teaching. Terra recalls that Tina “woke me up to teaching and changed my view of what children can do, who they are, and what they could be.” But was Walden the right place? In order to know for sure, she had to leave.
After five years at Walden, she left to try something completely different, founding a non-profit with some like-minded friends. “You can always come home to Walden” is a sentiment that can be heard often at the school, and that is exactly what then Director Carol Per Lee said to Terra before she left. A year later, however, Carol had moved on from the school, and Terra found herself wanting to return, but without a position to return to.
But she returned home anyway. She started by volunteering, doing whatever needed to be done from admissions to being a long-term sub in a Kindergarten classroom. She took on this role with vigor and determination, feeling what she calls a “responsibility to contribute.” “I had skills as a community builder, and I used those skills to do what I thought would help the community, to fill a need.” Eventually, she applied for a Lead Teacher position, and after a thorough interview process, was offered the job by new director Matt Allio and the entire Walden faculty. As a Lead Teacher, she was instrumental in spearheading the writing program. She and another teacher went to New York to study at Columbia Teachers College, bringing back a new program and pioneering it in Walden classrooms. She trained other teachers and created projects for students across the curriculum.
These contributions led to the role she held until recently, Director of Studies, a position she served in for four years. As her positions required more and more leadership, she rose to that challenge, but in reality, she had always been a leader and had always been a valuable contributor. Terra is always quick to point out that all of the progress and changes in the curriculum were the result of collaboration with other teachers who are equally dedicated to improving the educational experience at Walden. A commitment to collaboration is part of what characterizes Terra as a leader. She wants to hear from everyone and for everyone to be their best selves.
One thing that quickly becomes clear in a conversation with Terra is that she is not only an intelligent, passionate deep thinker, but also someone who always puts children first. She knows all the issues, theories, and philosophies currently percolating in the world of education and has well-researched ideas about them all. Portia Hein, Art Teacher and Interim Director of Studies, comments that Terra “is incredibly passionate about education, philosophy, children. She can see the big picture and make connections in meaningful ways. She comes to every situation seeing the potential. She works to realize the best thing, not just the easy thing.” Portia jokes that Terra should go to Washington, DC and use those skills to create education policy.
A brief conversation with Terra about progressive education or pedagogy may have you thinking the same…until you see her interact with and talk about the children. It is, after all, really about the children. Terra says, “they are the reason; they are the hope.” What would she hope for students coming through Walden? It was clearly something to which she has given great thought.
“I hope that they would wonder, wonder about themselves, others, the world. I hope that they remain curious because we have honored that curiosity. I hope that this curiosity and questions would spark action because it is through questioning that change happens. It can’t happen if we always feel like we know the answer. I want them to be passionate enough to keep developing what they have learned and confident enough to keep those ideas. They all deserve to be heard, and I hope that they have developed their voices in a way that can make that happen.”
For Terra, being an effective educator begins with asking questions and then truly listening. It is part of that collaboration that has always been integral to her work at Walden. She is constantly asking questions of herself and those around her, while also gathering the information she needs to come up with answers to those questions.
The value of listening is particularly important with regards to the children. She values the idea that each child in a school should be known far beyond their favorite color or what activities they enjoy most. She believes that “it is important to listen to children, because they will tell you what they need. That often gets lost. We spend too much time telling them what to do, when in reality, the magic and learning comes from listening to them and trying to figure them out. Know them and teach them from there.” She hosts lunches with students during which they talk about their passions and their dreams. Students are drawn to Terra for that very reason. She asks what they are thinking. What are they questioning? What are they wondering about? Showing a genuine interest in what children have to say and honoring their voice guides her as an educator. “I learn from them, and I tell them that,” she says.
It is not uncommon to find students in the hallway looking for Terra. They have something on their minds, and Terra is the one they want to share it with. Portia reflected on a time when Terra was teaching 4th and 5th graders. She remembers thinking that “the kind of conversations they were having with Terra were so meaningful. The importance of the class was so obvious. She truly honored everything about those kids.” Honoring each person’s voice is a value she takes very seriously as an educator and as a leader.
Terra has had a significant impact on Walden, but how has Walden changed her? She says that the biggest change it has made in her is in the area of diversity education.
“Walden invites diversity. We have a very diverse faculty, and leading in such an environment is a very different experience. A different kind of leadership is required. I have to do my homework to do this, and I love that. The conversations in this space are so rich. Everyone’s voice is at the table. We are living it. And that changes me as a human being and as a leader. I come at it from a place of curiosity. I believe that everyone’s voice matters, and I am held to that.”
Throughout her years at Walden, but especially during her time as Director of Studies, Interim Director, and now Head of School, she has come to a better understanding of what it means to lead in a place so committed to honoring everyone’s voice. Terra wouldn’t want it any other way.
When she is talking to parents about the school, she talks about the importance of voice and its effect on positive change. She says, “the real change happening in this country right now isn’t coming from large entities and national
policy. It is coming from small groups of creative, passionate people who are committed to positive growth and change. Our students learn that here, and we need to model that for them.” She comments that “the value of Walden is the balance of experience/expertise and thoughtful, intentional progress.” Her commitment to this is no more evident than in her constant reexamining of curriculum, projects, and culture that she herself had significant influence in creating. For her, there is always room for more ideas, more voices, more room for change, for progress. And this what she wants to impart to the students at Walden.
Terra’s vision for Walden going forward is characteristically philosophical:
“There is so much collective wisdom in this place, but the only way for it to get better is for new wisdom to be added. I want to continue this legacy at Walden and continue questioning the wisdom of the moment and questioning the wisdom to come.”
“I’m always listening for the heart of the school.”
Walden School, 74 S. San Gabriel Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 792-6166 or visit www.waldenschool.net.