“The primary work of a school principal is to create a system of school operations that promote our school's vision and mission,” Walder said. “When teachers can focus on students and instructional practice, they are successful. When I see teachers succeed in their goals, I know students are successful in their classrooms.”

Walder and her husband, Tom, are originally from Hayti, South Dakota. The Walder family’s roots run deep in Hamlin County as their children, Leah and Martin, are seventh-generation South Dakotans. As a wife, mother and busy educational professional, advancing in her education meant she needed a flexible schedule. She found that at USD.

A headshot of Samantha Walder. “USD’s options for online programming and on-campus summer studies fit my schedule,” said Walder, who holds an Ed.S. in Educational Administration and Leadership and Ed.D. in Educational Administration from the USD School of Education.

Walder’s hard work and dedication has not gone unnoticed. In October of this year, Walder was named a National Distinguished K-8 Principal by the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP).

“It is a privilege to work with Dr. Walder," said Jennifer Lowery ’09, ’14, Ed.D., Tea Area superintendent of schools. "She approaches each day with tremendous drive and determination as she pursues excellence for the elementary students at Tea Area and as an advocate for all students in our South Dakota public schools.”

We asked the elementary school principal about her time at USD, what it’s like leading an elementary school and much more. Here’s what she had to say.

Why did you choose USD to advance your education?

I appreciated that the courses of study were South Dakota-focused and provided me with the opportunity to personalize my research to my interests. The rigor of the coursework provided me with the springboard to any school administration career in South Dakota. 

What’s something from your time at USD that stuck out to you?

The most impactful work I completed at USD on my educational career was during my dissertation work. The self-directed study to compose, edit and defend a dissertation while being supported by professors who were willing to provide high-quality feedback throughout the process is not unlike working in education. The dissertation process required a commitment to meeting self-imposed deadlines alongside the development of a continuous improvement mindset. USD's dissertation process helped me to gain the skills to focus on continuous improvement. 

How did it feel to be named a NAESP National Distinguished K-8 Principal?

It is humbling to be named one of the 2023 NAESP National Distinguished Principals. A school leader is only as successful as the school community and teaching team she supports. I know any recognition for the principal is truly a recognition for the school. I am incredibly proud of the Tea Area community and our Legacy Elementary School team for their commitment to student success every day. 

How do you support teachers?

As a building principal, my goal each day is to support teachers to challenge students to reach their goals using the latest evidence-based brain science on how students learn. At Tea Area, we do this by promoting teacher collaboration in each building and across buildings. I believe the best professional development for all educators is to combine the latest evidence-based brain science on learning with the expertise of teachers. At Legacy Elementary, teachers meet weekly in professional learning communities (PLCs) to put evidence into practice. The two-year process to transform PLCs into fully teacher-led spaces promotes collaboration by reviewing student data and comparing the instructional strategies used in the classroom weekly. I support teachers by providing the time, space and resources teachers need to expedite change and innovation in service of student outcomes.

The shortage of educators continues to be an issue in South Dakota. How do you approach this issue, and how do you see USD filling gaps in these shortages?

There is no quick fix for the teacher shortage crisis in South Dakota. The shortage of educators is a system failure in our entire country to appropriately support and promote education. Teachers create all other professions by caring for our children and challenging our children to be resilient, lifelong learners. At Tea Area, we approach this issue each day by working to support and retain our teacher team. 

We listen to our teachers because they are closest to our work of educating the next generation of South Dakotans, and we try to make their jobs each day as rewarding and fulfilling as possible. As an advocate for education, I approach the issue by sharing our school's story. When the greater South Dakota community has access to what the daily life of a student looks like, then they can help to support teachers and all the work they do each day. 

USD's flexible options for busy educators to work on continuing their education is important to fulfilling school principal and superintendent shortages as well. 

What advice do you have for those pursuing a career in education?

Being in education is the most rewarding profession one can choose, as education develops the foundation for all other professions. As an educator, you will be able to help children reach their dreams each day. While in college, learn as much as you can, but more importantly learn how to be a lifelong learner. The greatest challenges presented in this world will be solved by those who continuously learn. 

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