Q&A with new Molalla High School principal
Brad Berzinski is the new principal at Molalla High. Formerly a middle school principal, he, along with his wife and three children ages 10, 8 and 4, have relocated from Winona, Minnesota. Superintendent Tony Mann is thrilled about having him aboard. Berzinski's former supervisor told Mann that Berzinski and his wife could be found at every home high school football game in Winona, his children dressed in school spirit gear.
"They're out there as excited to be a part of the community as their dad is," Mann said. "That means a lot to me."
Berzinski graciously chatted with me after having slept in an airport that morning and spent the whole day in interviews. Here's what he had to say.
The Molalla Pioneer: Your last name is a bit of a doozy…do you have a nickname that your students use?
Berzinski: The way I introduced myself to the students that were just on the interview team—they said, 'How do you pronounce your last name?' I said, 'Think about it this way. I'm from Minnesota. If you were in Minnesota, you would be cold. It's 'Burr…zinski.' When I was teaching, students would call me Mr. B, but no I don't have any fun or crazy nicknames or anything.
TMP: What inspired you to move to Oregon?
Berzinski: We've talked about this honestly for a decade. And we're finally doing it. I can trace it back very specifically. In 2008, I had just finished my master's degree, and we were just as a family saying, 'Okay, what's next?' I had taken a real serious look at a doctorate program at University of Oregon in Eugene. That kind of put this region on our radar. Both my wife and I are born and raised in the community that we're leaving. We just got that itch to say, you know what, there's another world out there, we want to go out and see it and experience something else.
TMP: What are you most looking forward to about living in the area?
Berzinski: Just exploring the physical space. I've already done a lot of that on my own on the weekends here. I went down to Silver State Falls a couple of weekends ago, and I went up to the gorge. I started doing some hiking in the Table Rock Wilderness last weekend. I'm very excited about the physical space.
TMP: What are you going to miss about Minnesota?
Berzinski: What's hard for us is we're leaving our families. Both of our families are in the Winona community, and it's going to be tough. It's been hard on [the families] already. But I think they've come a long way too in their mindset. They've realized we're not going to vanish off the face of the earth. We're still going to come home and visit, and they sure can come out here and see us too. The grandparents are upset about it, and understandably so. It's also a small world. It's only a three-hour flight back.
TMP: How is your family feeling about the move across country?
Berzinski: They're very, very excited. My daughter, my oldest, was initially a little apprehensive. She's got a good circle of friends. She's getting to that age where it's hard for her. But over the last couple of months as the reality of this has sunk in, she's grown to see more of the positives of it. She's an adventurous little girl too, so she's excited to try something new. The boys are more go-with-the-flow. And my wife is very excited. I think she probably drove this decision as much, if not more, than I did. This was a family commitment. This is not me dragging them to Oregon kicking and screaming. We've talked about it for a long time, and we're excited to get settled into a new existence.
TMP: What's your favorite hobby and why do you love it?
Berzinski: I'm a runner. I would say that if I've got an hour of free time, I'm going to try to go out and run. I actually already connected with the Molalla Running Club. Saturday mornings, there's a small group that runs; so the last two Saturdays I've run with the Molalla Running Club. That's been a great connection for me already in that I've found a group with a like interest to me. It's been neat because they've connected me to, you know, here's some good routes and good trails and ways to avoid traffic and not get run over by a logging truck.
TMP: What should the Molalla community, especially students and parents, know about you?
Berzinski: I want to hear from them. How can we continue to make this an even better place for our students, for our families, and really try to continue to build connections between the school district and the larger community? I think that's so important. As a school district, we are here to serve the community, and on the flip side of that, we need the community to support us. I think that maybe as a teacher and as an administrator, I would say that maybe my number one quality has been the ability to connect with students and build relationships with students.
TMP: If you could only say one thing to your soon-to-be students at MHS, what would it be?
Berzinski: I would say don't be afraid to be the best you that you can be. That's a little gimmicky, but, don't be afraid to push yourself, to challenge yourself. Don't be afraid to be good at something. I think it's important for our students to be willing to show their strengths and capitalize on those strengths.
TMP: What kind of principal are you (scary, cool, friendly)?
Berzinski: No, I'm not scary. I'm a principal who wants to get to know the kids, who wants to get to know my staff, who wants to be engaged in my community. I don't need to be the scary principal. I think that students respond to relationships. I think that good learning is rooted in good relationships. I believe that that's true in the classroom between students and teachers. I believe that's true in the school community as a whole. When there are strong relationships in place, I think good things happen in schools.
TMP: What do you hope to bring to Molalla High School?
Berzinski: I need to see this thing in action for a little bit first. One of my philosophies of leadership is: don't get in the way of good work. I'm not here to be an obstacle, I'm here to be a support. So, the good things that are already happening here, let me support them. And then the things that maybe we can try to build on a little bit, hopefully I'm able to offer a whole new set of experiences.
TMP: Are there any changes on the horizon for MHS?
Berzinski: No, I don't want to say we're going to change X, Y and Z until I know what X, Y and Z are. I don't think it's fair for me to come in without first listening. I think that's the important first step for me is to simply listen to the students, to the staff, to the community.
TMP: How would you go about community-building?
Berzinski: I think the way you build community is to be a part of the community and to reach out to the various stakeholders, to be visible with the students, to get to know your staff and get to know your community. And the way you get to know people is to simply Be around them. Be involved with things. Be at the evening events. That's what I've done in the past. That's why when you go to the grocery store, everyone knows you. That's something I enjoy. I enjoy getting out and meeting people, and hearing their stories. That's how you learn the fabric of the community.
TMP: Since you've been a teacher in the past, what's your favorite grade or subject that you've taught?
Berzinski: I love teaching seniors. They're on the brink of going out there on their own. There's something exciting about that. They would never tell you this, but they're nervous. They of course are excited for graduation, but so many seniors are also nervous about graduation. The fear of the unknown. Like okay, 'I've had a very predictable existence for the last 13 years; there's some unknown immediately in front of me now.' And I liked working with seniors because of that. I liked talking to them about what's next. My favorite class that I actually taught was a senior class, and it was an economics class. I was a social studies teacher. It was an economics class but I wasn't up there doing supply and demand curves. It was like a personal finance. It was like, hey, here's how to apply for financial aid for college, or here's how to go about renting an apartment, etc. I loved that real life aspect, and maybe even easing some of that nervousness that students had about going out there for whatever was next for them.
TMP: Anything to add?
Berzinski: I'm very excited to be here as part of, not only the Molalla High School community, but part of the larger Molalla community as well. So far, I have just felt very, very welcomed by the staff that I've met, the students that I've met, and the community members that I've met. So I'm very excited to have my family join me here so it will truly feel like home. As I was flying back in today, and I was driving here from the airport, I actually had that thought. I said, 'You know what? It does feel like I just flew home—not flew to Portland, with the lone exception of the rest of my family is not here. I think once they're here, it will truly feel like this is home now. I'm counting down the days.
This interview has been edited for clarity and space.