An Interview with Tim Breen, Head of School

WMS is a one of the top New England boarding schools. Find out why from Head of School, Tim Breen in this enlightening podcast.
 
John Maher: Hi, I'm John Maher. Today, I'm interviewing Tim Breen, the Head of School at The White Mountain School, a private college prep, day and boarding school in New Hampshire. Welcome, Tim.

Tim Breen: Thanks, John. Glad to be here.

Tim’s Background and History in Education

 
John: Tim, tell me a little bit more about your background and your history in education.

Tim: Well, I spent most of my early career in education as a physics teacher. I guess the teaching spark may have come from my family. My father was a teacher, and then assistant principal at my high school for many years. He used to like to say that I'm in the family business. In college, I studied both physics and English. I actually had a double major in both. To be honest, it's easier to get a job as a physics teacher. There are fewer of them around. And teaching physics is just fascinating because, in part, it's a subject that a lot of students find really difficult. It can be something that the real challenge for the teacher is to figure out the ways to engage and help students understand the material.
 
John: Make it really interesting for the students, yes.

Tim: Exactly. Over the course of my career, I worked at three different boarding schools teaching physics and astronomy. Along the way, I did my graduate work in science education, focusing on assessment issues. And that really sparked a deep interest in me about really how best can we engage students in their learning. In many ways, a lot of my work since graduate school has been trying to do that in various ways. And as Head of School now, I feel really blessed to be part of an adult community. The teachers here are working so hard to think about how do we best engage students, how do we get them asking their own questions about the material and really learning deeply.
 

Helping Students to Learn

 
John: That must be really gratifying to be able to take what you've learned about education and learning and how students best learn, and then be able to directly turn that into policies or strategies that you and the other faculty here at White Mountain School use every day in their classrooms.

Tim: Yes. One of the things we've been able to do here in particular is get together in small groups of teachers and administrators in the middle of the summer when we're not worried about anything else, and just think together about what should teaching and learning really look like. I've learned so much from the faculty members here from those conversations, from wrestling with ideas together. We're very lucky.

What Makes WMS a Top New England Boarding School?

 
John: White Mountain School is one of the top New England boarding schools. What drew you to boarding school life and culture, which is very different from your typical public school?

Tim: Sure, sure. And I went to public school. I didn't have any experience really with boarding school until I started working at one. But it was my first job as a teacher, and I really fell in love with a couple of aspects with it. One is this sense of purpose you have being part of an adult community that's living together, that's sharing meals, that is with shared values and shared goals, that we’re all there trying to accomplish a similar thing. And there's something really, for me, that was wonderful about that. I think the other piece is if you believe that teaching is about relationships, and that great teaching and learning happens when the relationship is strong, there's no better place than a boarding school for that. Because as teachers, you get to know the students as students in your class, maybe as athletes out on the soccer field or working with them on the farm here at school. There are lots of different ways that we get to know our students, and that makes the learning better. It makes it so the students see the teachers in a variety of contexts, and the teachers see the students in a variety of contexts. It just builds the kind of relationship that it's such a strong foundation for learning.

College Counseling at WMS

 
John: Right. I was speaking with one of the students earlier, and she was mentioning that she felt like the [faculty], especially her guidance counselor looking toward her applying to colleges, really knew her and knew her in a deep way because of being involved in, not just her classes in her school time, but in that private time outside of school and being in her dorm where she lives, and maybe being on some of the projects outside of the school, and the trips outside of the school that she's gone on. So that when that counselor then says, “You know what? I’ve talked to you so many times and I know what the interests are that you have. I really feel like you should be pursuing this or that or go to this school or that school.” It comes from a place of real knowledge of the students. And that's something, again, that is pretty unique to the boarding school experience.

Tim: Yes. It's unique to boarding school, and I would say, it's even unique to a smaller boarding school. Because at our school, the college counselor knows every student right away. It isn't just they meet the student junior year and start working on college things. They have seen that student in many different contexts in 9th grade, 10th grade, 11th grade, through 12th grade. You really get a sense of that student in a way that you wouldn't at a larger school.

Being the Parent of a Boarding School Student

 
John: You also happen to be the parent of a student here at White Mountain School. What is it like to be the parent of a boarding school student?

Tim: The thing that has been great about that, and of course, as Head of School, that's always a little bit challenging or could be. But what's been great about that is for us to see the work of the other faculty members through the eyes of a parent. We are so grateful for the relationships that our daughter, Tori, has with her teachers and with her advisor. And really, they've been helping us raise her. Through the teenage years, it is so wonderful to have adults in her life that she fully respects and looks to for guidance as partners in raising her. It's really been great that way. The other piece I would point to is this has been a great place for her to explore her passions. She's very passionate about dance. She's had a great opportunity here to do that. But she's also very academically focused and has really enjoyed the classes where she can dive deep into the material in the way that we do with student-driven inquiry. It has been very nice that way for her.

John: You mentioned to me before as well that your daughter, like you said, she's interested in dance, but she did a particular LASR project, one of these sort of outside of the classroom, the special projects, and it wasn't on dance at all, and you found that very interesting.

Tim: Right. It evolved from a chemistry class that she was in. And she was in chemistry class and then a ceramics class, and she started thinking about this chemistry of ceramic glazing. How do glazes work? What is going on in there chemically? She did a mini LASR in the chemistry class for that and then decided she wanted to turn that into her LASR project. There was a great moment when she was doing this project, is the moment a parent loves when they see their child really learning and excited about it. She was thinking she finally found this resource and found things like, “I know. Now I know why the color changes when you fire in the kiln.” And then she said, “But how does color really work?” Which you know as a former physics teacher, I love that question because it’s actually pretty complicated. But that type of thing, so that her initial question she answers and that leads her to the next question. And that's just the kind of thing that we're trying to do here with our students.

John: Right. You're trying to make every student have one question lead to another question which leads to another question, and that ends up being maybe what we pursue with our career, what we want to do with our life. Or it allows us the opportunity and it allows the students the opportunity to be able to change courses as well and say, “Well I'm interested in this but now I'm going to try this other thing over here.” And as a parent, I think that's really what we want to see out of our kids as well.

Tim:
Yes. As Head of School, like I said, it's always a little awkward with your daughter here, although I lived that because my father was the assistant principal at my high school, so I guess that's in the family. But we actually did have her look at other schools too. We didn't want her to come here simply as a default choice. But she really made the choice positively because she knew the community, she knew some of the teachers and wanted to be in their classes. And she knew the approach and really wanted to be part of that. So it was affirming in that way too.

John: Right. All right, well, that's great. It’s very nice to speak with you, Tim. Thank you.

Tim: I'm glad to do it.

John:
For more information, visit the school’s website at whitemountain.org or call (603) 444-2928.

THE WHITE MOUNTAIN SCHOOL

371 West Farm Road  •  Bethlehem, New Hampshire 03574  •  603.444.2928
Founded in 1886 and set in the beautiful White Mountains of northern New Hampshire,
The White Mountain School is a coeducational college-preparatory boarding and day
school for students grades 9-12/PG.