Mr. Maher: The Interim Report

Maher

Northwood’s eleventh Headmaster, Michael M. Maher. (Photo: Michael Aldridge)

Mr. Michael Maher became Northwood’s eleventh headmaster in July. Staff writer Maris Van Slyke ’16 sat down with him recently for an interim report.

How did you get involved in education?
Well, I knew when from a young age that I wanted to get into politics, law or education. When I graduated from college, and played a little bit of hockey after, I came back from that experience in August and an opportunity at a boarding school presented itself, and I had to decide if I wanted to go in that direction, go to law school, or get involved in politics. The opportunity was in front of me; I would have time to redirect if I didn’t like it, and it was a rare opportunity, so I did it, and it confirmed that I wanted to be in education and particularly in a boarding school where I could have a richer experience with kids.

How did you go from being a teacher and a coach to a headmaster?
I actually went from being hired a coach/teacher. I was hired to be the boys varsity hockey coach and do admissions and teach one section, and then I worked at a school where the headmaster believed in giving responsibilities to energetic, young, promising people, years before they were really ready, then mentoring that person, and I guess I was just always on that list. So in my 3rd year, I became a dean of the 10th grade class, and then my 5th year- assistant dean of students, then by my 8th year- dean of students, assistant head. So I guess I became those things because the headmaster thought I could help him with the school.

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Why did you take this job at this time in your career?
Because I in general can’t see myself doing anything else besides working in a residential school in general, and Northwood specifically presented opportunities and challenges that I was excited by and feel well suited to tackle.

Was there anything about this job that made you hesitate becoming Headmaster?
Only given the magnitude of opportunities and the work it would take, you know. Whether I had the willingness and energy to put in the time commitment, not just every day, but in terms of years that would be required to help make Northwood its best version of itself. I would also say that I’m somewhat of an idealist, and I think that there are a few things more important than working at a school or serving on a board of a school, or an administrator at a school, or being a teacher at a school, and there are few places where one works harder or more hours than a boarding school. So I don’t think you should make decisions to join boarding schools lightly. You really have to believe in what you’re doing and like the work. You shouldn’t be the head of school just for the sake of running around saying you’re the head of school, because it’s really not that glamorous, so you better really like the work. So I really needed to assess that at 50.

What are the first things you want to accomplish for Northwood?
I would say understanding the place, fully, which I’m constantly trying to do. Ask questions of lost of people affiliated with the school, most importantly students. So in an understanding of the sort of soul you know, and the things that are kind of particular to Northwood that should always exist no matter how education changes or how kids change or how the world changes. I think that’s been going pretty well, and then I look at schools in terms of program, people and sort of the process, and you’re always working on those three things intentionally at the same time, and in some ways at equal focus. I happen to believe at this stage that the people part of Northwood is particularly strong, both in terms of the faculty and the quality in the collegiality in the student body. I think from a program perspective, there is a unique opportunity at Northwood to bringing much more dimension to the school experience, whether that be in academic programs or athletic or artistic programs, whatever they might be, and figuring out strategically how to tap into the unique facets of Lake Placid and the Adirondack Park and bring those into the school experience and create an interesting experience for the kids and the faculty is what we’re looking at this year, and I don’t know exactly where it’s going to end up, but in saying that there is a unique place-based education that could exist here that we’re not fully utilizing. In the process part, I’m getting used to very different processes that I’m not used to, being student leadership, or whether that be in admissions, or in advancement work, or academic policy, and I’m trying to understand why we do what we do, and make improvements where we could have better answers to why we do things, or clearer answers as to why we do what we do.

When I come back in 10 years, what will be new?
I don’t know. I have no idea, but I what I hope would be new. I think our kids deserve the same facilities that other kids that go to boarding school have. So I want to do everything I can, and work with the board and some other people to make sure that our facilities both fully support a modern relevant academic and co-curricular program, and that from a quality perspective, they are the highest level and to compliment the already good work that Mr. Good did, to advance the school in that area. From a programmatic standpoint I think the school is interesting in part because it has a broad spectrum of kids in terms of their interest, aptitude and learning style, and I think we can serve the population better than we do, but I think there is a very strong chance that there will be a center for learning which would provide a different level of support beyond what teachers do, to give kids a chance to succeed even more. The school needs a new science facility and I intend to get that done. The school with an academic tradition like this needs a modern, sufficient athletic center with locker room space, programming, to support the needs of the school. The school needs stronger arts facilities. I’m troubled by where our arts facility is located. I think our strength is our teachers (and I’m not just saying that because one’s your mom), but we will reach a broader spectrum of kids and serve the kids better, that we have, if we have a, not a sort of luxury arts center, but an appropriate one. And we need, we have a lot of needs in this area, but we need dormitory space to have a more gender balanced student body. I’m not okay with 68% boys to 32% girls. So I’d like to be better. In order to retain and continue to identify the best teaching faculty, we need more faculty housing, so I have plenty to do.

What is the Headmaster’s Council and what do you plan to accomplish with it?
The Headmaster’s Council is groups of villainous childs that terrorize the headmaster. I am used to a lot of hands on work with kids, as a head of school, and that was the case at my first school, and my second school, and when I arrived at Northwood, I was surprised that there wasn’t a group of students that worked with the headmaster directly. Both so the headmaster could understand from the kids what was going on in the school, daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, what they cared about, and also I believe that kids can solve important things and that they should be asked to. In the absence of that being in place and not wanting to overturn what was already going on, I wanted to make sure there was some thoughtful group of kids that could help me understand the place and make things better. I don’t think I got the right ones though, just kidding [Ed. note: Maris Van Slyke is a member of the Headmaster’s Council].

Lots of people have commented on hearing you play piano and sing at the Interlaken, what got you started in piano?
Number one, they don’t hear me sing, because I don’t. Number two; I like to play the piano.  I grew up in a community where it was fashionable to be both a musician and an athlete, so carrying my French horn into school was not a risk socially. I grew up in a household where a piano was available, and everyone knew how to play on their own, so I was just part of that. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed. It’s a lifelong interest and passion that I continue to do and in the case of my job at Northwood it’s a good way for me to get to know other members of the community, not just members of this community.

For me, my high school life has been Northwood. What was your high school experience like? Did you like school?
My high school experience was a very sort of traditional American high school experience. I went to a large high school in the suburbs of St. Paul, Minnesota. I didn’t know anything different. I was relatively successful as a high school kid, so I was always happy, but I certainly wasn’t as prepared for either life or college as kids that come out of Northwood, because I wasn’t asked to develop the same sense of independence, I wasn’t asked to do rigorous work, and I was allowed to be more interested in social and athletic and musical activities than academia.

Do you have any funny stories about [math teacher, hockey coach and long-time friend of Mr. Maher] Mr.Riffle when he was young? I hear he was the stick boy when you were on your college team.
No comment on the first, yes on the second. But nice try, and I would not respect you if you didn’t try to dig for that.

What are your hobbies?
Music, golf, politics, walking.

What was your first job?
I’ve always created my own jobs, outside of my job here. I ran little businesses from the time I was old enough to know the difference whether it was a snow shoveling business in the neighborhood, a lawn service business – College Clippers, was quite successful, but helped me. I needed to pay for all my expenses in college and so that was an opportunity to do that. Those are kid jobs, my first real job was in boarding school and then my other real jobs when I became an adult were a company ICS – International Cultural Exchange, which I started in college with five other people to foster cultural exchange with the Soviet Union and China. I was convinced that the five of us could solve the Cold War, which we certainly didn’t do, but we did our own thing. ICS came off our common interest in hockey. Then I started the National Hockey Training, which I still run and own and then the Kerry Cup. So they are all dedicated to sort of enhancing educational opportunities for kids, like International Hockey Training and the Kerry Cup.

What is your biggest pet peeve?
Whining.

What is your biggest fear?
Probably failure.

How many hours a day do you sleep? You seem like a busy person.
These are coming from teachers? Does that come from the perception that I work hard? No, I am much better in this headship than I was in my prior school jobs about keeping some kind of balance. So I probably sleep 7 hours, 6 hours a night, which for me is much more than I ever had. But I put in pretty long days generally, I tend to work pretty steadily from 6 in the morning until 6-7:30 at night, and try to make the best use of that time.

Will adventure and foreign travel factor into your pedagogical approach and design for the school?
Were in the middle of this portrait of a graduate exercise, it’s one I’m going to pitch to the Headmaster’s Council of villainous childs, and that’s designed to identify the skills and experiences and values that we think kids should have here. So that’s one of the issues, and on the list of experiences that we should all consider. Personally I think it is a valuable experience for kids and I’m hopeful that the school feels that way, but we will see.

What will the future Northwood graduate look like?
If I had the answer, we wouldn’t be doing the damn project. So I don’t know.

Maris Van Slyke ’15 PG’16 is a postgraduate who began at Northwood as a ninth grader, making her a rare five-year student. This interview was conducted as a part of her Independent Study in Oral History.

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