“It’s been an opportunity and an honor.”
By Alison Rooney
Haldane Elementary and Middle School Principal Maggie Davis retires at the end of June after 11 years at the helm. Philipstown.info visited the principal’s office recently (no detention given, phew), to talk with her about these years, and her future plans.
Philipstown.info: What changes did you make right away upon starting in the job?
Davis: You come in with a different personality — the person after me will too — and change just takes place based upon who you are and what you bring. Initially, the first thing needed was that there was a lot of movement in and out of the building. There were no routines and there was a culture of people coming and going, so there was a need to balance a district with a personal style with the realities of a post-Columbine world, even in Cold Spring. That was a tough piece, but all of the changes made were not “my” changes. They were made by talking to faculty, staff, parents and hearing all of their concerns. All things accomplished here were shared concerns, whether security issues, playground, literacy. There is not one thing that I did myself. It’s all about listening and responding with ideas, things that make sense for the kids, that make it effective.
At the kindergarten orientation nights I always tell parents that the school is run like Disneyland: you feel welcome, there’s lots of smiling, but it’s a tightly run organization; run without a glitch. With routines in place, teachers can teach. When I pass the baton, I hope the new principal will think things are well in place here.
Philipstown.info: There has been a giant growth in the use of technology since you began at Haldane. What do you see as the strengths of this, and what do you think has been lost because of it?
Davis: There was no technology when I was in school. I told the students when I was setting up our equipment to watch President Obama’s inauguration that when I was in 8th grade we were thrilled to watch President Kennedy’s inauguration on a small black and white T.V. We talk a lot about this as an administrative team, finding the balance between technology and a humanistic touch — the role for person to person contact between teacher and student. The technology which has been brought into the Elementary School – netbooks, Smartboards – has enhanced learning in this generation of kids — we’d be foolish to think that we would teach in a different way. Our students are such different learners. Some of them really benefit from the technology. We have to keep our strategies connected to the kids. What will it look like down the road? I don’t know.
Philipstown.info: What do you look for in hiring a new teacher?
Davis: First of all, a strong literacy background; it underscores everything about education. People who exude a love for kids — their faces light up. People who are a good match with Haldane. We are a small district so it really has to work. There can be wonderful teachers, but it’s not a match. We’re a family here — we fight, we make up, but we’re all here for the same purpose. If they’re not here for the kids they don’t stay. We keep looking after we hire.
Philipstown.info: Would you encourage young people to go into teaching?
Davis: Yes! Yes, but you must have a passion for it. It’s not about the money and certainly not about the hours — that is such a misconception.
Philipstown.info: What is the hardest aspect of the job of principal?
Davis: People think that discipline is the hardest, but that’s not the case, although it’s not the most fun part of the day either. In elementary, we have an underlying premise: we use consequences as teachable moments. If students are in trouble we spend a lot of time with them to work on making good choices. We also work with families. It’s time consuming because it’s thorough and ongoing. We have a great social worker, Renee Curry, and we work together to set up the best course of action. The most difficult aspect is when we can’t get parents, for whatever reasons, to work with us. There are a million different reasons — no judgment — but it is frustrating for me and for the teachers. It’s emotionally difficult and our greatest frustration.
Philipstown.info: (After Davis’s long-time secretary Carol Filmanski has interrupted the conversation briefly) “¦ How important is it having a great secretary to the principal?
Davis: Completely! Without Carol nothing gets done. Carol is critical to the running of this school. She frees me from so many administrative things and helps keep me on target. She doesn’t have to ask me, she just does it. With the adding on of the middle school principal to the elementary duties, Carol has picked up so much of what has to be done. She also is the front line and she protects me. She has to say no, so she is the one. She takes the first call. It’s a very hard job. She is an utter professional and I don’t know what we do without her. My job couldn’t be done without her.
Philipstown.info: What is your favorite aspect of the job?
Davis: (Turning to wall, pointing out some artwork and cards made by children) “¦ These show it best.
“Mrs. Davis, you are the best Pistabal, Love, Thomas”
“Mrs. Davis, I’m so glad you own the school.”
“There are two people always watching me: God and Mrs. Davis””¦ Reva
They get what I’m trying to do here. They get mad at me but I hope and believe they know I’m trying to take care of them. They’re my kids. My own girls would get upset at my focus on the kids and I would tell them ‘as hard as I work for you, that’s what I want for them.’ The kids are the most important things for me.
Philipstown.info: What was the path you took toward becoming a school principal?
Davis: My goal in life was to be a lawyer, a family lawyer, but Vietnam got in the way. I wound up taking a civil service government job as a caseworker for the Division of Youth and Family Services in Newark, New Jersey. I got my MSW and a post-graduate degree in Social Work Administration and wound up working at Four Winds [the children’s mental health hospital in Katonah]. Someone suggested I should look for a job in the schools, so I took the exams and ended up as a school social worker in Carmel. Because I was in administration previously, I would cover [the principal’s job] when the principal was out. I knew if you worked in a school, you needed to know everything about that school — the teachers, strategies, etc. I took classes and subbed in classrooms. My goal was to go into administration. My sisters were teachers, but systems were my strength: seeing the school as a system and deciding where to make changes to make schools more successful. The principal in Carmel wound up being out for an extended period on medical leave, and I became principal there until she returned. When she did, I applied for jobs and was offered the job here. The combination of all of the different jobs in social work and education synthesized in this job. I never wanted to be anything but a principal. I use my social work 24/7, use my strength in literacy. It has turned out to be a very good combination of skills.
Philipstown.info: What do you think are the pro’s and cons of the K-12 one-campus set-up?
Davis: I think it is now 95 percent positive. What made the difference was the creation of the new high school. Before, high school kids didn’t have the opportunity to be high school kids, in front of the elementary kids. The routine and things that need to be in place for elementary kids were philosophically opposed to what is needed to be a high school kid. Now they have a place. I felt badly for the high school kids when I arrived. I knew what my kids had. These kids didn’t and I felt sorry for them.
Now, we have a wonderful relationship, with high school kids coming and working in the classrooms. This is a real community school and allowing the high school kids to have their own place means a lot of stress and pressure was taken away. Also, having the middle school down here is tremendous. Having the middle school separate from the high school was also a very important decision.
Philipstown.info: Your job now includes responsibilities for the middle school. How has that worked out?
Davis: I was very happy to take over responsibility for the middle school. It was a big undertaking. I do take full responsibility for elementary — good, bad, ugly “¦ all me. Julia [Sniffen, middle school assistant principal] had done a wonderful job in helping to bring “junior high” to middle school. Having a principal work side by side was helpful, I would like to think. Julia was my 4th grade teacher [at Haldane] and then my administrative intern. We spent a lot of time working together, but middle school was part of the high school for a long time and changes needed to be made: in infrastructure, in teacher strategies “¦ to align with middle school philosophy. Julia was trying to support the middle school model, which was edging away from high school, but it was part of high school. That first year was difficult because it was a culture change. I would like to think at this point Julia and I have accomplished what Julia wanted, which was to reframe the culture to a middle school model, rather than a high school model.
Philipstown.info: What are your future plans?
Davis: I wanted to retire while I was loving what I was doing. Never wanted to walk in and say ‘I can’t stand what I’m doing.’ I am assuming this timing is good. My husband will be 70 this year and I’d like to have time to be with him, my family and my friends who need a friend. They haven’t had me available for years because this job is 24/7 — there are always fundraisers, sports, school concerts, Destination Imagination, you name it. I need to be available to my family and you can’t do this job part time. I’ve worked for 42 years. I don’t know what it’s like not to work. A new phase will come along; I don’t know what I’ll be in it. Maybe I’ll go to law school! We do have a place in Florida and one of my daughters is in Seattle, the other in Manhattan, plus my parents are alive and well-living in Bergen County. After my husband [an M.D.] retired last July, he became an “explainer” at the American Museum of Natural History. He works in the butterflies and brain exhibits. I love to sing and play my guitar, so who knows?
I know that the committee worked very hard in picking my replacement. He will know that I will be available when asked, but it’s his ship and his way, and it will be awesome. I’m just very grateful to everybody. It’s been an opportunity and an honor. Parents bring their kids to you and leave them under your care and they don’t worry. What an honor.