Santa Ynez Union Valley High School teacher Gregory Wolf (left) and Principal Michael Niehoff Credit: Courtesy | Credit: Courtesy

Santa Ynez Valley Union High School bid farewell this Thursday to its graduating class of 2023. Among the 175 cap-and-gowned seniors were dozens of honors society members, scholarship recipients, and those recognized for their biliteracy. Ten graduates will compete in college athletics. Two have signed on with the U.S. Coast Guard. 

The school also said goodbye to the person leading the outdoor commencement ceremony: Principal Michael Niehoff, a well-liked administrator who became collateral damage in the outside culture wars that have penetrated the campus.

After just one year at the helm, Niehoff announced this spring that he would not be returning in the fall. His decision came after the school’s Board of Education, bowing to external pressure from conservative valley voices, ordered the removal of Pride-themed crosswalks from the campus, prompting a walkout among LGBTQ students and their supporters. Shortly before that, accusations of racism were leveled against a vice principal. 

In his announcement, Niehoff commended Santa Ynez students and faculty as among the best he’s ever worked with but said his job had become all but impossible due to “small groups of people in the community seemingly destined, at all costs, to attack one another and wield their agendas at the school’s expense.” Niehoff’s replacement, who has yet to be named, will be the school’s fourth principal since 2019.

Niehoff is leaving, however, with one big feather in his cap. Social sciences teacher Gregory Wolf was recently named Santa Barbara County Teacher of the Year, after Niehoff hand-picked him as Santa Ynez High’s nomination and after Wolf beat out an impressive pool of candidates. 

In an interview, Niehoff said he was pleased the campus was being recognized for one of the many positive things happening there that don’t necessarily grab headlines. “We could use some wins,” he said, “based on what’s been going on.”

Niehoff said Wolf ― who teaches history, political science, and psychology ― embodies the best traits of a 21st-century educator, one who facilitates learning in an open, collaborative classroom environment rather than simply lecturing from the podium. Wolf shuns the “sage from the stage” persona, Niehoff said, much preferring to float among students engaged in group assignments and guiding them through the curriculum. 

In his short time at Santa Ynez High, Niehoff was credited with helping interested teachers adopt a student-led style of instruction called project-based learning, or PBL. The approach, Niehoff explained, is centered on projects that mirror challenges students will face in their adult lives. It gives them greater autonomy over their education by letting them choose what issues they want to examine and how they want to address them. “It’s where education needs to go,” he said. 

Wolf was especially receptive to PBL’s concepts, some of which he’d already been using. “Greg is a super bright and creative guy. He has all the pieces,” Niehoff said. “I just gave him a nudge. He’s been unleashed.” 

Wolf, who has been teaching for 10 years, said it felt good to be recognized for his work. “It’s really an honor,” he said. Wolf’s passion for history was sparked by a boyhood trip to Gettysburg, and his path to high school teaching was cemented by a natural ability to connect with teens. He collected his Teacher of the Year award wearing Vans sneakers and a ponytail. During breaks in the school day, his classroom is where colleagues gather to swap jokes and share successful lesson plans.

“From top to bottom, from every corner of the campus, Greg is beloved, appreciated, and known as the ‘go-to’ person for just about everything,” said County Superintendent of Schools Susan Salcido.

As an educator, Wolf said it’s his responsibility to equip students with tools to “better serve themselves and better serve society.” That means developing critical thinking skills by analyzing current events and figuring out how those events fit into historical contexts. “There’s so much to understanding today’s world,” he said. “And a lot of it is rooted in understanding how we got here in the first place.”

With respect to project-based learning, Wolf offered an example of an assignment he gave to the seniors in his political science class. Students were tasked with choosing an issue they wanted to see change in ― whether it was gun control, abortion, environmental protections, and so on ― researching the topic, then proposing a call to action through some sort of civic engagement. They could act as a lobbyist, sponsor a bill, or start a grassroots campaign. 

“Student choice ― that’s the key part of it,” Wolf explained. “It makes the learning experience more mindful and more meaningful.” And that shifts a teacher’s role from a one-dimensional lecturer to an active facilitator who steers students toward insight and discovery. “I get really excited when I see kids have those light-bulb moments,” he said.

Lamenting the “politicization of education,” Wolf described the controversies that have dogged Santa Ynez High as an unfortunate distraction from the good work going on inside classrooms. But he’s also been encouraged by the response of students who recognize the value of informed debate over mindless shouting. “They understand a healthy democracy is not just about who’s the loudest,” he said. “They get it.”

Wolf credited Niehoff with helping students find and use their own voices to express their own views and values, which included an anti-bias No Place for Hate campaign this spring. That momentum will continue even when Niehoff doesn’t return next year, Wolf predicted. “You can’t put that genie back in the bottle,” he said. Wolf also appreciated the engagement and enthusiasm Niehoff brought to the school after two tough years of COVID. “He really reignited my passion,” he said. “He brought back the magic.”

Wolf said nearly everyone on campus is sad to see Niehoff go. “It transcends demographics,” he said. He hopes the departure “will cause the community to step back and think about how we talk about issues,” because the “toxic rhetoric” in recent months ― which often came from adults without children at the school ― only served to “drive our principal away and upset the kids,” Wolf said. “Maybe there’s a better way to discuss various views.”

In the meantime, after a short summer breather, Wolf and his colleagues will prepare for the fall semester. “Because at the end of the day, despite all the noise, what really matters is what’s going on with you and your students,” he said.

Wolf will be honored at the annual A Salute to Teachers event in November at the Music Academy of the West. With the county title, he is now eligible for the California Teacher of the Year award.


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