Award-winning principal says, “Just get started…”


Jennifer Priest Mitchell

Paula Tseunis (EdD ’11) has a resume of awards and achievements that could intimidate aspiring teachers, and she has made a name for herself in the world of STEM education in elementary schools. But this principal reveals it is the hugs from first graders and the professionalism of her staff that keep her going. She said, “Anyone who is having a bad day should just walk into an elementary school classroom, and things are bound to improve.”

Tseunis recently won the 2016 National Distinguished Principal Award for the state of Arizona, an honor given to a carefully selected, prestigious group each year by the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

She says that in all aspects of her life, she tends to apply the principle of breaking down projects into smaller pieces, and she works with students at all levels to move through challenges and projects this way. “Just getting started, or completing what you can in the time you have that day is one step along the path to where you want to be.

“When it does seem tough or when I feel challenged, I often remember something I learned in my doctoral program at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. They told us and modeled to us over and over that you don’t have to achieve world peace in one day. There are many little things you can do to make a difference. And by making decisions and taking small actions toward a larger goal, you can have a positive impact and make change. You have to remember, you can’t take on everything at once. We tell this to our students and staff, too. It’s the only way to get things done. To get started, we just break a large project down into action steps and manageable tasks. The most important thing, though, is to just get started.”

As a principal, Tseunis built on Sierra Verde STEM Academy’s reputation by focusing on curriculum, community and STEM. She spearheaded a three-year initiative, The Sierra Verde Outdoor Academy, to enhance science education through project-based learning experiences. Through this program, students partnered with the community to create outdoor learning spaces including a desert tortoise habitat and an outdoor STEM lab. The school now hosts a regional STEM conference and ongoing STEM events. In addition, the teachers and staff participate in collaborative work throughout the state of Arizona by attending and helping to plan STEM events in other schools and communities.

Tseunis says the most difficult part of being a principal is balancing her personal and professional lives. “There is so much paperwork that needs to be completed after the school day ends; you just don’t have time to do it during the academic day, and that can be really hard at times.

 “I will say, though, to anyone even considering a career in education, just do it! There are so many ways to use a teaching degree or to get involved in education, and it is a very rewarding career path with so many options and so many opportunities.“

Her career started in 1996 when she was a Spanish teacher in Deer Valley Unified School District and progressed to her current role as principal of Sierra Verde, where she’s been for six years. Along the way, Tseunis earned her master’s and doctorate degrees from Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

“One of the most striking things about the advanced degree programs at ASU is the human connections you make while you are studying. It’s great to get to know, for example, the superintendents or principals at other schools. You stay in touch with people, and then you know more about the city and education and what’s happening out there. It’s also amazing how things come full-circle. There are so many connections among people and events, and even what you learn in class to my current work.”

Tseunis said the most difficult class she remembers at ASU was on educational law, but she also said it was the course from which she learned the most. “It was a great class. Dr. Painter, who just retired, had high expectations of all of us. We analyzed cases and wrote up briefs as if we were lawyers. Now as a principal, I use all of that knowledge so much more than I thought I would. There are many questions related to events and daily activities, especially when it comes to religious beliefs, or decisions related to concerts.” She said that one of the really satisfying parts of her career was eventually being able to help teach that class last year as a faculty associate. “It was really rewarding, after applying what I learned to so many situations, to be able to help teach and share with others how all those cases and examples come into play in a school setting.”

Her teaching role at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College now includes leading a new class, part of an online course series she helped to design. Tseunis teaches one course in a series for online students in educational studies, an undergraduate program in which students learn to teach outside of traditional classroom settings. The first class in this series helps students develop a professional identity; the next course requires them to go into their communities and find opportunities that match their identity and identify institutions where they could teach or facilitate learning; the third class is on educational innovation and impacting change in the community; and the fourth class, which Tseunis teaches, prepares students to advocate for their own ideas and think about future jobs and goals.

“In my course on educational leadership and advocacy,” says Tseunis, “the students plan a three-week project that they conduct in their local communities. Recently one student created a food pantry in a school, an effort that required considerable work and communication from getting support to finding space the administration could allocate to the project and, of course, having supplies to stock it and planning on how to make people aware of this resource.

“Because this is an online class, we have students in Japan, on the east coast of the U.S., in Colorado, Washington and right here in Arizona, just to name a few locations. We learn a lot from the students and they learn from each other while they plan to work in their own specific communities.”

She says it is very rewarding to work with such a diverse group and to see all of them, in their own communities, advocate for large projects and causes by just getting started and then building momentum.