February 01, 2024

People often question why Heidi Peterson ’94 has chosen to work with middle school students.

“Middle school students are going through many changes — in their bodies, their brains and in their social-emotional development. There is certainly no monotony!” she said. “That’s what makes working with adolescents so interesting. I love being part of students finding their own passions — whether it’s music, sports, art, writing, sciences, volunteering or any other area.”

A leader whose influence is recognized far beyond the classroom, Peterson was recently named Middle School Principal of the Year in Massachusetts.

“When I found out my colleagues nominated me for principal of the year I was flabbergasted,” Peterson said. “I thought they were crazy for even doing such a thing.”

Their nomination essays weren’t crazy, however. They were inspiring.

  • “Heidi Peterson empowers her team to be the instruments of transformational change at Webster Middle School,” one essay read. “She has led the efforts to create a community of learning for all of us where each and every one of us has a voice and experiences a true sense of belonging.”
  • “Heidi inspired this nomination for manifesting the true example of teacher-leader by providing robust learning for both adult and adolescent learners, by remaining open and inquisitive to the ideas and feedback from all members of the Webster community, but most importantly by arriving immediately on the scene to pitch in, to problem-solve, and often to defuse and/or deescalate any situation that arises that may impact the culture and climate of our school community,” read another.

The award makes Peterson the fourth Susquehanna graduate to earn their state’s top honor in public education in the past three years. In 2022, Carolyn Kuhr ’98 Kielma, a science teacher at Bristol Eastern High School, was named Connecticut’s Teacher of the Year and a top-five finalist for the National Teacher of the Year Award. In 2021, Taiisha Swinton-Buck ’08, principal of Baltimore’s Digital Harbor High School was named Maryland Association of Secondary School Principals’ Principal of the Year. And in 2023, Ashlie Crosson ’11, an English teacher at Mifflin County High School, was named Pennsylvania’s Teacher of the Year.

Overcoming challenges

Peterson has served as principal at Webster Middle School for the past three years. Webster is a suburban district with 70% of its students falling in the poverty category, Peterson said. The district is currently deemed underperforming by the state of Massachusetts Department of Education, she added.

To improve teaching and learning, the district has been working to make sure its curriculum is equitable. “By doing this, we ensure that all students are receiving the same texts within their classrooms,” Peterson said. For example, all eighth-grade students read the same novels; no class reads something another class is not reading.

“I have also implemented what is referred to as Tier 2 instruction on a daily basis. We have been able to incorporate a 45-minute block into our schedule to enable students to work with like groups to fill in learning gaps,” she said. “We frequently re-evaluate student needs based on various data and adjust groups as needed. In education, this is referred to as flexible grouping.”

Peterson graduated from Susquehanna with a bachelor’s degree in sociology before earning her master’s degree in elementary education from Worcester State University and certificate of advanced graduate studies in educational leadership from Simmons College. Prior to serving as principal, Peterson was a teacher, literacy specialist and an assistant principal for 13 years.

“More than preparing me to teach, Susquehanna prepared me to be a leader,” Peterson said. “Our work is hard, but the reward is greater than great. While the benefits are not in the pay, they are in the lives we change every day. We may not see it immediately, but our impact and influence is in every child we work with.”