Leslie Heller knew she wanted to be an educator from the time she was in elementary school, when she was prone to critiquing her teachers and pondering how she would handle a class full of students.
But while school came easily for Heller, at times she said, she was more interested in talking than learning. Then along came Heller's third-grade teacher, Mrs. Newton.
"She recognized my lack of motivation," Heller said from her office facing the front entrance of Hart Middle School. "She was the first teacher that sat me down and said, 'You can do better.' It was one of those moments in life when you realize people can motivate you and see the goodness in you."
That realization stuck with Heller, who has taken inspiration from Mrs. Newton and other educators over the years to develop a passion for helping students learn.
Now over two decades into her career, this school year marks Heller's first as a school principal. She took the helm at Hart on July 1, replacing Terry Conde who was reassigned to a vice principal role at Amador Valley High.
Heller, 44, was born in San Francisco and raised in San Rafael. While she doesn't come from a family of educators, her enjoyment of school and love of reading convinced her at a young age that she wanted to be a high school English teacher.
She attended UC Davis after high school and graduated with a degree in English. After that, Heller took a year off and traveled the country as an international leadership consultant for her sorority working with collegiate women.
Heller then went back to school and got her single-subject teaching credential in English from Sacramento State University. That propelled her to a nearby high school, where she taught English and English as a second language for four years. She also returned to Sacramento State and earned her master's degree in education and an administrative credential.
After that, Heller moved back to the Bay Area where she taught "every level of high school English possible" at Amador Valley High from 1999 to 2012.
Heller then took on an administrative role. She spent the last four years as a vice principal at Foothill High before being named to the Hart Middle School position.
"I've always loved high school, but the intensity and issues can be very overwhelming," she said. "I was very interested in coming here and learning a little more about the middle school and helping shape those students in order to prepare them for high school."
So far, Heller said she enjoys getting to work as a team with her vice principals and looking at the school from a big-picture perspective. She describes herself as having a lot of energy and says it's part of her leadership style to be loud and boisterous.
"People know where I am -- you can hear my laugh," Heller said. "I definitely would say I'm a communicator."
Although Heller lives in San Francisco, she's worked in Pleasanton long enough to develop an appreciation for what she refers to as its "hometown feel."
"It's cliche, but it does take a village -- we all need to work with our students in order to make it a better place," she said. "I really feel in Pleasanton that we are all working together to make sure our students get where they need to go."
In her spare time, Heller likes to enjoy the company of friends and family, read and go running with her 140-pound dog Asics.
Heller receives an annual salary of $142,624 as principal of Hart Middle School, which is located at 4433 Willow Road in Pleasanton.