SCOTCH PLAINS/FANWOOD, NJ -- Dr. Joan Mast officially took over as Scotch Plains-Fanwood Schools Superintendent, replacing Dr. Margaret Hayes, earlier this month. She is preparing for her first academic year as head of the SPFK12 District and took some time last week to sit down with TAPintoSPF and discuss her approach to her new job.

Q: How prepared are you for the job?

I’ve worked closely with Margaret since 2001. I’m fully prepared for the position, but you’re never the architect of your own day, you’re always surprised. I’m willing to take on any challenge.

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I have worked in a number of other districts. The kids here are special – they made eye contact, they’re eager to learn, and the spirit of the student body stuck me. When I was interviewing math teacher candidates, I’d bring them to the cafeteria to meet the students because they are so good. I think we raise really good kids in the town. It’s reflected in parents, administrators, and every aspect of the school system: the students are supported. Kids are at the center of it all.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge you face?

I think the biggest challenge is that we ultimately are preparing students for jobs that we cannot even predict. Our future will be very different from our present. How do we make them ready? How do we hone the creativity and critical thinking that will translate for success in the future? That’s our biggest challenge.

Q: Why did you become an educator?

I was one of those kids who enjoyed being in school. I thrived in it. Many educators helped me. You know that the work you are doing is making a difference. I have a friend with a great job with a furniture company who told me: “You make an impact on the lives of our future.”

Q: What will you do differently?

There are many things we will do the same. Our Board is committed to our strategic plan. We are invested in discussing what the top priorities and concerns. Health and wellness is a priority in the strategic plan. We want the system to provide support systems. We want to incorporate health and wellness into curriculum where appropriate.

Another strategic plan goal is in curriculum. It’s about engaging students and giving them choices. We have also done a lot of professional development, a third part of our strategic plan. It’s part of my leadership plan to give teachers the opportunity to provide development.

Our fourth goal is community and parent engagement. We need new ways to get our good stories out. I’m encouraging teachers to use Twitter. Our students are doing great things. We are launching a new website, doing Twitter training, and focusing on sharing our stories.

Q: What do you think of the latest school rankings?

I pay attention to the metrics of the rankings. You can move up without having done anything. The rankings are an indicator of how we do in comparison with similar schools. I think we do well, but we can always do better.

Often the rankings are based on standardized tests, but they are only part of student performance. Our students need to achieve their dreams and get into schools (colleges) that provide the right path for them. You don’t want to be solely testing-focused. Singapore abolished it.

We want to teach to the heart and spirit. There is a social/emotional piece to learning. We have supported an arts integration specialist. We know that the arts provide a different voice and a different way to make sense of the world. It plays into health and wellness and social development of our kids.

Related: Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School Ranked in U.S. News List of Top Schools in NYC Metro
Related: U.S. News Ranks Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School No 50 in NJ

Q: What are you most looking forward to?

The convocation on Sept. 4. I’m looking forward to greeting the entire staff and inviting them to keep the line of communication. There are difficult things that happen and there are wonderful things that are happening here. Let’s be forward-looking. Let the kids know that the world they’ll live in will be different form the one we are living now.

Q: How many hours does a superintendent put in?

While you’re on call 24/7, the people that you’re leading you want to model a work/life balance. I believe you have to have outside interests to feed your soul in order to meet every day agendas. I have always been interested in folk music. They tell stories. My mom is from Ireland. I love the accordion. I was away from it for many years, and it became difficult to find teachers. Skype opened up the world of accordion to me again.

On Friday nights, I’m in the Rise Up Chorus in Metuchen. I think I may be able to do that most Fridays, but my responsibilities are here (in SPF) first.

Q: What else do you want people to know?

I’m looking forward to really bringing community assets together, including groups like the EEF, the Rotary Club, the Ministerium, and the Board of Ed. We want the mayors (Scotch Plains Mayor Al Smith and Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr) to celebrate the good work of the schools. I want the towns to understand the work we do and how thoughtfully we budget. We are ultimately accountable to the tax payers.

I’m interested ways to increase student voice. Sometimes we think we know what’s best, but at times the kids have insights that we have missed. Last year, we conducted focus groups and asked: What are you most happy about in coming to school each day?

No. 1: I come to school to see my friends. This wasn’t surprising.

No. 2: Connecting with individual teachers. Students connect with teachers who really understand them. They build good relationships and share the passion of the content.

No.3: Extracurricular activities. They are important.

I’m looking forward to being a fan. I have attended many sporting events with Dr. Hayes. I’ll be reading the stats.

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