By Mike Turton
In the latest in a series of interviews with local education leaders, Philipstown.info’s Michael Turton recently spoke with Haldane High School principal Brian Alm at his office. With the new school year just around the corner they discussed everything from Alm’s priorities for the year and drugs at Haldane to favorite pizza toppings and fishing. Questions and answers have been condensed.
Philipstown.info: Is there a school principal in your past who really stands out as a role model?
Alm: Not really. I was a teacher and helped establish The Beacon School in New York City. It was very progressive. It had two co-directors and used a distributed leadership model. That influenced my approach as a principal — absolutely.
Philipstown.info: What was your best subject in high school?
Alm: It was a toss up between math and science.
Philipstown.info: What was your worst subject?
Alm: I did poorly in social studies. It’s ironic. I didn’t like the way I was taught those subjects in high school — but ended up doing a double major in college in history and sociology.
Philipstown.info: Do you ever wish you were just teaching — and not the principal?
Alm: That happens about once a week. It’s a reminder that I need to get out of my office – and a sign I’ve been doing too much paperwork. The hallways should really be my classroom.
Philipstown.info: I’ve heard some people say there are a lot of drugs at Haldane. What do you say to that?
Alm: I take a tough stance. I go over expectations at the beginning of the year. The students know it’s an automatic out — a long-term suspension. And they know I don’t hesitate to search. It’s hard…and it’s a matter of perception sometimes as well. One group of kids (known to use drugs) can affect the perception of the whole school.
Philipstown.info: What was the last book you read for fun?
Alm: I wish I could say I read for fun — but most of it has been oriented to my career. I’ve really enjoyed all of Malcolm Gladwell’s books.
Philipstown.info: Apart from getting good grades what do you think is the biggest challenge that high school students face these days?
Alm: Students are very torn between being the best at one thing and taking a sampling of what school and life have to offer. In a small school like this students often do everything. Someone may be the captain of a team, perform in plays or a band and take four AP courses. There is tremendous pressure to be highly successful.
Philipstown.info: What is your view on teachers’ salaries being based in part on performance?
Alm: This is an inevitable reality of our time, but it will surely be a slow process. The biggest question”¦and it’s highly debatable”¦is: can learning be quantified? Right now in education we do a pretty decent job measuring achievement, but this is not learning or growth. Whether or not empirical devices can measure true learning is yet to be determined, and in my opinion if we are going to institute performance pay it should be based on learning and not achievement.
Philipstown.info: What’s your favorite movie of all time?
Alm: That one with Matt Damon and Robin Williams. Good Will Hunting.
Philipstown.info: What’s one practical way that parents could contribute more to their kids’ high school experience?
Alm: There tends to be a culture of resume padding. For a lot of students a 70 is unacceptable. Parents are reluctant to have students struggle in some courses — chemistry, physics, upper math. It’s important that students have that opportunity to struggle — to prepare them for college and life.
Philipstown.info: How would you like to see Haldane improve academically?Alm: In all curriculum areas I’d like to see a more inquiry-based school, more challenge-based learning and development of 21st century skills. But the state system is so highly prescribed – with the most testing we’ve ever seen. That makes it very difficult to innovate and provide authentic opportunities for students to learn in unique ways.
Philipstown.info: Do you think the college selection process puts too much pressure on students to get into the best schools?
Alm: I’ve found just the opposite here. A lot of our students were not aiming high enough. That will change with the class of 2011. They’re very worldly and have had a healthy culture of competition.
Philipstown.info: What’s your favorite pizza topping?
Philipstown.info: What are your normal working hours during the school year?
Alm: I get in about 6:30. Often there is a game after school. I usually leave by about 7:00. If there’s a school board meeting it’s more like 10:00.
Philipstown.info: How much time do you spend working on education versus administrative duties?
Alm: In my first three years it’s been more administration than education. It takes time to develop an administrative system. The hiring of the social worker is going to mean I’ll have more time for curriculum development. This is my fourth year — about the right time to focus on instructional leadership.
Philipstown.info: Are students intimidated by your title or do they come to you pretty easily?
Alm: It varies with the grade. I like to think that I get out enough and that they know I’m approachable – but even on positive topics no one likes spending much time in the principal’s office.
Philipstown.info: When you want to relax — what do you like to do?
Alm: I love fishing. My favorite spot is the Salmon River in Pulaski, New York
Philipstown.info: What are your top two priorities for this year?
Alm: I want to focus on instructional leadership and developing a culture of collaboration among our teachers. Teaching is one of the only professions where the professionals don’t have the opportunity to share and plan their craft together. I also want to create more opportunities for students to have digital exhibition of their work. Digital media, sharing more information on our website using e-chalk, google docs, web 2.0 applications — can enable us to engage the community and use local experts for improved learning. I’d also like to see more student collaboration and peer feedback around their work.
Philipstown.info: You are currently working in your doctorate in education —what’s your dissertation topic?
Alm: Educational leadership — at Columbia Teachers College.
Philipstown.info: What’s your favorite holiday?
Alm: Columbus Day — because I get to go fishing.