School administration was never the plan for Todd Grina, who started at Hutchinson Public Schools in 1988. Now he’s set to retire after working the past 14 years as the Hutchinson Middle School principal. (Click here to read about the new principal)
“Education is in my family background,” he said, noting his parents and sister are all teachers. “It was in my blood to go into education. I never dreamed I would be an administrator. It just sort of happened. My goal was to be a counselor.”
After one year teaching social studies and coaching hockey in Owatonna, Grina moved to Hutchinson to do the same.
“After I was here one year as a teacher, the dean of students retired and asked me to apply,” he said.
That led him to obtain his license and become assistant principal. He worked with principals Mike McLaughlin, Dan VanOverbeke and Cathrine Gillach, all while continuing to coach through 1997.
“I thought I’d do that the rest of my career,” Grina said.
Eventually, he decided to work toward the principal role.
He took two years off from from coaching to focus on his master’s degree and principal license, then continued as coach from 2000 to 2005. In all that time, he coached three teams to the state tournament in 1995, 1997 and 2000. The 1995 team had a 26-1 record and won consolation at state.
All told, he was assistant principal for 11 years before the switch to principal in 2005.
Big and small changes
The most obvious change for Grina in Hutchinson came toward the beginning of his career in 1990. That’s when Hutchinson Middle School was built and sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students moved out of the high school. But he’s seen plenty of other changes inside the school walls.
“The biggest thing is how we teach,” he said. “It used to be teachers teaching in silos. Now there is a lot more collaboration and commonality of curriculum. ... It’s really good for kids when you have teachers teaching the same things so students get a common experience.”
With teachers spending more time collaborating, it means they have partners and someone with whom to develop and improve curriculum.
The earliest sign of new digital technology in schools was when every teacher received a desk computer. Then, about 14 years ago, every room received a smart board.
“When we first came here, you didn’t even have a phone in the classroom,” Grina said. “Now every teacher has a computer, and then every student has a computer.”
But has all the technology led to real improvements for education?
“For the teaching side, it’s an improvement,” Grina said. “It’s more efficient. They develop some lessons on the computer that are more engaging. On the student side? I would say the jury is still out as to if it helps with academic achievement.”
Some changes have led to new challenges.
“The last few years, we are seeing students with more mental health issues,” Grina said. “That’s a challenge of how to deal with those in the school system.”
Teachers and intervention specialists serving young students have noticed an increase in adverse childhood experiences — events in the first five years of life that negatively impact development.
“There is also a lot of pressure on kids these days,” Grina said, “not only to perform academically, but outside athletically. It’s put on by parents, school and society. When you have all that pressure as a student, I don’t know if they’re really able to handle that.”
Achievements to remember
Grina’s office at Hutchinson Middle School will change hands by the end of the month, but for the moment it’s filled with signs of a full career. There’s the familiar trappings of a principal’s office: a desk full of paperwork, calendars, binders, motivational posters and a giant daily school schedule on the wall. But all of that is joined by framed Rink Rats hockey shirts, signed plaques, degrees and certifications and awards.
Grina was selected as the 1994-95 Class A state hockey coach of the year. In 1998, he was Assistant Principal of the Year for southwest Minnesota schools. He was also the southwest Principal of the Year in 2010 and 2017. But he’s especially proud of an award that recognizes the entire school. Hanging on the west wall of the school entrance is a circle engraved recognition marking Hutchinson Middle School as a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence. In essence, it says the federal government recognized the school for its high performance.
The core of the school’s success is it’s environment, Grina believes.
“What we’ve done a really good job with here is hire the right people to teach the adolescent learner,” he said. “We have people who are in tune with the middle school students. It’s all about developing relationships, and that’s what we’ve preached since I came here.”
He said it’s important to build connections between teachers, staff, students and parents.
“I think that’s what it’s really all about at the middle school,” Grina said. “If you develop a good, positive relationship with a student, they’ll do most anything for you.”
Because of the school’s focus on relationships, it’s no surprise its outgoing principal will miss the students and staff.
“I love the people I work with,” Grina said. “Some of them I’ve worked with a long, long time. This has been my family for 31 years, and it’s not a slow transition. You’re here today, gone tomorrow. That’s an immediate hit. That will be hard, not seeing the people I worked with every day. And I love hanging out with the kids. Not having that every day — I’ll miss it a lot.”
The world is always changing, and to keep up with it educators must also change. That lesson is one Hutchinson Middle School’s incoming principal, Brenda Vatthauer, keeps in mind.
“The students today are not the same we worked with 20 years ago,” she said. “We have to grow and change.”
Vatthauer was selected to fill the position held by Todd Grina, who will retire at the end of the month. Monday was her first day working in the school, though she joined staff for a half day of training this past month. She was hired after a round of interviews with School Board members, and another round with central office staff. She comes to Hutchinson Middle School from Lincoln Park Middle School on Duluth’s west side, where she was principal for six years.
Her career started in Fosston, Minnesota, as a family and consumer science teacher at the high school and middle school. She also coached girls basketball and track. From there she taught in Red Lake Falls and later Thief River Falls. That’s when she decided to pursue her master’s degree in curriculum instruction.
“It was my high school principal’s encouragement to go on and obtain an administrative license,” Vatthauer said. “So I did. From there, the Northwest Service (Cooperative) approached me and asked if I would work for them as an education consultant.”
The cooperative serves as a regional education hub for professional development.
From there, Vatthauer went on to her first principal job at Montevideo Middle School, which has a population of about 400 students. She was there four years.
“Then I felt I needed a big change, bigger challenges and a bigger system,” she said. “So I went to Duluth.”
Six years later, Vatthauer said she was attracted to Hutchinson as an instructional leader.
“I’m excited about what the high school is offering with TigerPath, and the innovation up there,” she said.
TigerPath is the school’s award-winning workforce development and career exploration program.
“There is a lot of opportunity here (at the middle school) to have kids ready for high school,” Vatthauer said.
But there’s a bigger picture to keep in mind, she added.
“Education now days, especially in the middle school, is more than academics and standards,” she said. “It’s social/emotional. It’s being connected to the community. It’s service. It’s the whole child, engaging kids so they feel part of something. I think that needs to really be looked at, and we need to provide opportunities for kids to have those experiences. ... Middle school is about exploring. (Students) maybe don’t know what (they are) really good at yet.”
As an administrator, Vatthauer said she is focused on instruction and engaging with what is happening in the classroom.
“Things need to change with the times to meet the needs of our students,” she said. “We know change is hard. It does take time.”
She has found teachers in Hutchinson are open to trying new things and hearing new ideas. She has also found a welcoming atmosphere, which is encouraging for a principal who enjoys promoting and building culture.
“If you can develop relationships and trust with parents, your students and your staff, you can do a lot of things,” Vatthauer said.