Terrence W. Hill, principal of Sterling Middle School, got a call a few years ago that he says underscored why he has remained dedicated to the county's school system for some 24 years.

The man on the phone was a former student once on the verge of failing Hill's government class in the late 1960s. Hill had helped the student pass, and the man called simply to say thanks.

"I think the thing that keeps you coming back to education is having someone come and say, 'You made a difference in my life,' " said Hill, 46. "You never know the impact you have on a student."

Hill, who started working in Loudoun's system in 1966, has been given a Washington Post Distinguished Educational Leadership Award. He received at least 15 nomination letters and was ultimately selected by a special committee of residents and colleagues.

The award goes to a principal in each of the 15 metropolitan area school districts. Hill was named Loudoun's outstanding principal at the county's annual Excellence in Education ceremony on Nov. 12.

Colleagues, parents and students have praised his ability to direct students while remaining open to what they have to say. To be nominated, a principal must be able to combine the efficiency of a Boy Scout with the seriousness of an academic. A winning principal also must stay abreast of educational developments and play a strong role in the classroom, according to the nomination forms.

"We think he deserves this award," said JoAnna D'Elia and Melissa Alfano, eighth-grade students at Hill's school, in a letter to the nominating committee. "Many principals are known as scary, and kids think of the principal as more of a warden . . . . This is not the kids' point of view at Sterling Middle."

Hill said he believes a principal's first responsibility is making a school run smoothly. Students, teachers and parents should feel they are able to communicate with him and with one another.

But as principal of Sterling Middle School, where he oversees 880 students and 60 teachers, Hill said he feels a strong responsibility to provide clear goals and vision about what a good education is.

He said students in middle school, grades six through eight, generally think more about socializing than books, and frequently have to contend with broken homes, which creates enormous challenges for the youngsters.

"I think the most important thing is to value kids. It's an awesome mission, I think, to take our generation and prepare them for what lies ahead," he said. "We've got to help kids be successful."

To get through to students, Hill said, he encourages teachers to develop ties to each student. He suggests that teachers tailor their approach, if only in a small way, to connect with each child. And rather than overemphasizing facts, he said, schools should show students how to learn.

"Future Shock," a book about the proliferation of information and the fast-changing world, is the work that has most influenced his outlook, he said.

"We had better teach kids to process" information, Hill said. "The world as we know it today may not exist in 10 or 15 years."

Hill was born in Parkersburg, W.Va. He went to high school in Illinois and to college in England and at Columbia Union College in Takoma Park, Md., where he studied history and social science. He has done graduate work at George Washington University, the University of Virginia and elsewhere. He is married, lives in Leesburg and has a son. Hill started in the Loudoun system as a teacher at Ashburn and Lucketts elementary schools. From 1968 to 1972, Hill taught government, history and economics at Loudoun County and Broad Run high schools. He has been principal at Sterling since 1985.