On July 1, 2016, Nichole Horler took the reins as the new principal of Brewster High School. She returned to Brewster as an alumnus of the Class of 1984. Her previous educational experience includes teaching social studies in the Middletown School District and being an not only an Assistant Principal in the Minisink Valley School District, but also the principal of the Monticello Middle School.
On Wednesday, December 13, I got to sit down with the engaging and passionate Ms. Horler who candidly answered my questions. She was easy to talk to, sincere, and authentic. Following are her responses to my questions.
EF: I understand that you were once a Brewster Bear, yourself. What are some of your fondest memories from that time as a student here at BHS?
NH: I was the Varsity field hockey goalie for years. I loved field hockey. We went to sectionals for the first time my senior year and it was fantastic. That is a great memory for me. I was also in the play, the musical, which was also another great memory. But the one thing that I remember more than anything is on Valentine’s Day we used to send a carnation to friends for a quarter and then write little memos that would be delivered. I don’t know why, because I don’t save much, but I still have one of those saved because it just really stuck with me.
EF: What were your initial thoughts when you first returned to BHS? Any surprises?
NH: I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to have enough time to make long-lasting or effective change. For me, it’s important to change things that need to be changed and to ignore other things. Brewster has always been a great school and a very close knit community, and that hasn’t changed at all. But, we are getting another population and that was very concerning for people in the community. So, it’s a question of how do we find a balance and how do we change things long term for everyone.
EF: Do you think your alumnus status will influence or already has influenced decisions about change in BHS? What exactly do you have planned for the future at BHS?
NH: I don’t know if being an alumni has anything to do with change or acceptance of change. What I do know is the superintendent and the board are very interested in making big substantial changes for the better. We have a Strategic Coherence Plan which looks into how we can get everyone to think critically and how we can look at everyone’s social and emotional well being. We want to make sure everyone just leaves here mentally healthy and not too stressed, ready for college or a career. It takes a lot of change to be able to do all of that. The schedule will be a huge piece of this change for next year. We will be making the periods a bit longer, with forty-eight minute long classes. Then, there will be about
a thirty minute period in the middle of the day, where you would be able to have about thirty different options to pick from. If you want to sit and write articles for the newspaper for that thirty minute period, then here will be a room for you to do that with a teacher to supervise. If you want to do yoga, then there will probably be a room to do that. If you want to do crafts or mindfulness or review work, you can do that as well. We would be focusing on finding what teachers are passionate about, what students are passionate about and merging that.
EF: Technology has been the center of a lot of change in Brewster High School. How do you feel the increased focus on technology will impact students, and the learning process as a whole?
NH: I think teachers need to feel more comfortable with using technology first. I am a very gadgety person so I have devices all over the place. If students learn electronically, then why not? It has to be that mind-shift to just say, it’s 2016, everybody has multiple devices so we should find a way to best use them. Instead of telling students to turn their phones off and put them away, we have to question why it is not okay for students to have their phones out. Why is it distracting to the teacher? What if you learn best by using that device, you should be able to use it, which is definitely a big shift.
EF: Do you believe that BHS is equipped to prepare students for the evolving career paths of the 21st century?
NH: I hope so, with what is coming up next year. One of the things that colleges want kids to be good at is collaboration. Adults think we need to teach how to use the program so they can do the project, but that’s not completely true. With projects, if you were given the topic, the causes of the Civil War, you should be able to show what you know however you feel best fits. If you want to write articles about the Civil War, or find pictures about it, then maybe that is how you best learn and we should be looking at that. We shouldn’t focus on every student doing the same exact thing on the same exact day. We teach how to memorize and regurgitate information and that doesn’t help you in real life. My own daughter will say, “I’m not good at the game of school,” and she is right, because she is an “outside of the box thinker” which we don’t celebrate enough. You are celebrated for being a great student, and a great student here is being good at memorizing. We can use technology to meet the needs of all students. People who are teachers were probably all very good at the game of school and they are naturally good at that. Kids who struggled are not generally the ones who come back and become teachers, because we are only looking for a specific type of person. You are going to teach how you learned which is what you see, everybody in rows, reading the same thing year after year. Hasn’t anyone written a book in the last five hundred years that we would all like to read?
EF: This is a transitional time in the country. What are your thoughts about how to bring unity to BHS?
NH: Right after the election and the day before Thanksgiving, we read the article by Ms. McLeod over the announcements and we tried to do some PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) things. But I don’t think one thing is ever going to fix it. I think that our parents are so vastly different in their beliefs and kids see that. I know my kids have the same mindset as I do, and that is the case with the students here. We have to shift our thoughts and opinions which is very challenging. How do you do that with twelve hundred kids who think it’s funny to throw down a Trump bumper sticker at a table of Hispanic kids who are concerned about where they are going to live next year? It’s baby steps, and about holding a mirror up and saying that we are really not doing a good job of this and questioning how we can do better.
EF: What word do you think best describes Brewster High School, our student body and our staff today?
NH: Passionate. You guys raise an insane amount for charity! I don’t know if anyone has actually done the grand total, but last year one club raised twenty-seven thousand dollars from Mr. Brewster – and that’s just one club! I think that whatever it is that kids decide they are interested in, or teachers decide they are interested in, they are passionate and that is a great place to be.
EF: How would you like BHS to be described in five years? How do you hope to influence BHS and its reputation?
NH: Everybody still better be passionate! I am very interested in change, and not changing because I have nothing better to do. I want to be able to get everybody on board for systemic change, really changing people’s core beliefs. If that means continual gentle disruptions so that everybody is always just a little bit uncomfortable, then that’s great. That is when everything happens, when you are slightly outside your comfort zone. If you’re always living in your comfort zone, you are never going to make changes and nothing exciting is going to happen. Everything will stay status quo and that’s what I don’t want. I want to make sure that in five years, Brewster goes from being a good high school to a great high school.
EF: Do you feel that your role and perspective as a mother will influence how you will run BHS and empathize with the student body?
NH: On the very first day with the faculty, I showed a picture of my two girls. I have one who is eighteen and one who is twenty-six and they are both very different. I said, “One is very successful and doing everything she loves and is very passionate about life, and the other one is a bit of a hot mess.” I was honest about my own kids and my own perception on education and how I handle things, and they were impressed that I was so honest about it. Being a mom is infused in every piece of me – it is just a part of my personality – so there is no way for me to split it. I think that because my one daughter struggled so much with school, life, relationships – you name it, it made me better at doing this because it has made me naturally more empathetic.
EF: Speaking of family, is there a tradition that you practice that you would be comfortable sharing with us in regard to the holiday season?
NH: My one daughter is not always with me for Christmas because she is a nurse. She works in Pediatric Oncology, and has to work on Christmas. A few years ago, we created our own holiday. We do a Christmas pajama party! I kid you not, we just did it on Sunday! I buy beautiful boxes and everyone gets their new pajamas, because everybody gets pajamas on Christmas! Then, we have an agenda where we have all sorts of crazy games that we play. Some of them are those minute- to-win-it games with baby marshmallows, and Chinese take-out containers, sometimes it’s cups that we have to build, we do Christmas Pictionary, we do a whole night of it. We have appetizers, we have hot chocolate, we sing Christmas carols, do Christmas trivia. I have an agenda of ten things, I have a whole box so it’s all organized, and it’s a good five hours full of these activities. They got me pajamas with yarn balls this year because I knit. So, that’s our big thing that other families probably don’t do and it all stemmed from my daughter not being around on Christmas!