Alumni Highlight: Q&A with Two New Principals About the Start of the School Year

Posted on September 08, 2021

olivia brice lattimore feature image

This fall, two Spartans became principals of Greensboro elementary schools that are part of Guilford County Schools. Olivia (Brice) Lattimore ’11, MSA ’20 now serves as principal at Falkener Elementary and Trent Walton ’03 MEd.’10, C ’15 was named the principal at Hunter Elementary.

Lattimore is a double UNC Greensboro alumnus, with a master’s in school administration from the School of Education, as well as a bachelor of science degree in middle grades education. As a graduate student, she was a North Carolina Principal Fellow. She moved to the role of principal after serving as assistant principal at Falkener, and prior to that a middle grades English language arts teacher and digital learning coach. In addition to GCS, she has worked for Orange County Schools and Asheboro City Schools.

Principal Trent Walton ’03 MEd.’10, C ’15

Walton is also a multiple UNCG degree-holder, with a bachelor’s of music education, and a master’s of music in music education from the School of Music and a post-master’s certificate in school administration from the School of Education. As an undergraduate, he was a North Carolina Teaching Fellow. Walton became principal at Hunter Elementary after serving as assistant principal there and at Bethany Community School. Prior to becoming a school administrator, Walton was a middle and high school band director. Additionally, he is a proud graduate of Guilford County Schools. 

UNCG University Communications interviewed the two principals about the start of the year.

What have you looked forward to most about starting the school year, and in the new role of principal?

Lattimore: This school year, I have most looked forward to welcoming students back in the building from the start of the school year. I think this year has the opportunity to feel somewhat “normal” to students and staff with some added enhancements learned so far through the pandemic. Our school theme for the year is “Grow,” and in the new role of principal, I am looking forward to building relationships with staff and students and pushing them to grow in new and unexpected ways. The staff and students are filled with so much optimism at the start of the school year. I look forward to harboring that excitement and transforming it to impact our school community in positive and transformative ways.

Walton: I am really looking forward to seeing our students engaged in learning in the classrooms every day. I am excited to watch students socialize and learn to interact and develop friendships after a year where that was difficult. I want to hear the buzz of learning because it is exciting and something I value as students return to the building. As a new Principal, I am excited to expand the ways I can support teachers and enhance the strong work that is already occurring daily.

What will your school, teachers, and staff focus on while entering another unusual year after the most unusual and unpredictable year in our recent history?

Lattimore: This year our school focus is all about having a shared mission and vision and aligning our actions to be sure that the work that we do, reflects the shared mission and vision established. While we do not know what challenges await us during this school year, we know that if we are moving forward as a unified school, it will be much more difficult to rock us when situations occur. So, now that we have all of our students back in school, full-time, our goal is to keep them there and engaged in meaningful learning experiences. This year we know that we may experience situations where students and or teachers will need to be out of school for periods of time. A challenge that we may face is keeping the momentum going when students or teachers are no longer able to be in the physical classroom. As a school, we have to determine the plan for how we will ensure learning continues and that we maintain the trust of our families to keep students safe. Many students have not stepped foot in a classroom since March 2020. When students return to school, we have to be sure that we acclimate them to the environment and ease possible anxieties that exist about being back in school, from both the parents and students. Essentially, we are welcoming students back to school and introducing families to our “new normal”. 

Walton: Our primary focus is working to support students, families, and staff with their social emotional needs and helping to foster resilience. We’ve recognized that focusing on learning is difficult when you’re experiencing emotional stress. With that in mind, we are working with a Social Emotional Learning (SEL) curriculum to teach our students how to better identify their emotions and needs and then leverage that information to make choices that improve their day and lead to personal growth. As a staff, we have embraced these same concepts and model this daily for our students.

How did your time at UNCG prepare you for your career and where you are now? What from your time at UNCG did you take with you?

Lattimore: I look back fondly at both experiences that I had in UNCG’s School of Education. Both my undergraduate and graduate experiences thoroughly prepared me for my career in education by providing both sound pedagogical knowledge and practical tips to help me excel in my career. Having the support of the faculty and staff in UNCG’s School of Education, effectively prepared me for leading and supporting innovative, student-centered approaches to education. The interpersonal skills and knowledge of cultural leadership attained at UNCG, has assisted me in collaborating with support staff and community partners to provide targeted support for students and staff. UNCG’s SOE pushed my thinking about the role of the educator and equipped us with tools to become champions for equity in our local school districts. While I owe UNCG for the vast knowledge their programs provided as an undergrad and graduate student, one of the most important things that I took away from my time at UNCG is the community of educators who still support  and challenge one another in our careers years later. 

Walton: My time at UNCG has provided me a broad background knowledge in education that helped me develop my own repertoire of teaching and leadership strategies. I was able to enter the teaching and administrative fields with the confidence that I had the tools in place to succeed, and if I didn’t know something, I knew how to find the information. The School Administration program really emphasized many of the critical elements of the job – principles of leadership, learning and curriculum, special education, education law, and culturally relevant pedagogy.

One of the biggest lessons I took with me is developing relationships. The success of the school is ultimately built around relationships. The professors in the School of Education prepared us for how to communicate, partner, and build cohesion around the work we do. If I didn’t have this knowledge, it would be more difficult to move the school forward.

What motivated you to become a principal?

Lattimore: I have ALWAYS wanted to be a teacher. Growing up, I admired the educators in my school buildings and I looked forward to becoming just like them when I grew up. As a teacher, I found great joy in seeing those “lightbulb” moments happen in the classroom and I have always believed that a quality education can unlock a world of possibilities. While teaching, I realized that the lightbulb moments in my classroom were not enough; they only benefited a small group of students in the school. I knew that to impact the lives of additional students, I needed to pursue formal leadership positions. I believe ALL students deserve access to high quality instruction and engaging learning experiences. Learning that all students did not have access to those opportunities motivated me to become a principal. I want the school community that I serve to be a place where all students have the opportunity to achieve and unlock a world of possibilities.

Walton: I became a teacher because I wanted to provide musical opportunities for my students and have a positive impact on their lives. Through the years, I became increasingly interested in expanding that impact, which led to becoming an Assistant Principal. My journey to becoming a Principal was motivated by my experiences seeing inequities exist in schools and realizing I wanted the platform to not only identify systemic barriers to education, but to also be able to remove these barriers to education for our students. At the end of the day, I want to know I’ve helped lead an organization that is preparing students to be responsible and productive citizens.

What advice do you have to offer future teachers and aspiring school administrators?

Lattimore: My advice to future teachers and aspiring school administrators is to “remember your why?” There will be many days that one may experience in the profession that may make them forget why they started. Each teacher and school administrator must use their “why?” as a guiding light to keep them focused and headed in the right direction. I would also offer the suggestion to find mentors and be diligent in nurturing the relationships with those mentors. It is very difficult to operate on an island as an educator and expect to be successful. You have a school community, tap into the skills and resources present in your community and never stop learning and growing as an educator. 

Walton: Surround yourself with successful teachers and administrators. Great educators have a repertoire of strategies and you develop this by observing great educators at work. Get into classrooms, shadow teachers and administrators, be curious, ask questions, and build your own repertoire.

What can we all do as a community to support teachers and students right now?

Lattimore: As a community, the best way to support teachers and students right now is to wear a mask and follow the health and safety protocols established by our health agencies. Both teachers and students just want to be in school right now and experience minimal interruptions to the school year. By assisting us in keeping the community healthy and safe, we increase our chances of staying in school for the entire school year. Additionally, teachers need supporters in the community who acknowledge the value of the work that they do each and every day to improve learning and life outcomes for students. It is important to have advocates in the community who can help create productive and safe working and learning environments for teachers and students.

Walton: Let’s start by publicly and consistently acknowledging the value of great educators and their contributions to our society. Educators feeling and hearing the support of their community has a profound impact on their work. Helping to fund school programs or projects or providing school supplies is a great way to financially support education. I also encourage you to look beyond financial support and consider things like mentoring or tutoring students and supporting extracurricular activities. With the development of virtual meeting platforms, these activities can exist online and give students access to the support they need to grow and be successful. Being involved and getting close to the needs of students and teachers creates the understanding needed to truly support education.

Interview by Susan Kirby-Smith, University Communications
Photography courtesy of Olivia Lattimore and Trent Walton