Getting to know Superintendent Stephen Cochrane

graphic: Elizabeth Teng

graphic: Elizabeth Teng

Why did you decide to apply as a superintendent here?

The superintendency wasn’t [a position] to which I aspired, but there was something special about the superintendency in Princeton, and I think it’s because this community has the resources and the reputation and the challenges that enable it to be a lighthouse district for the nation.

In what ways were you involved in education prior to this position as superintendent?

After three years as an assistant dean at Princeton [University], I left that job and made probably the most important and naive decision of my life. So I started teaching 4th and 5th grade … and I will never forget that; it was probably the first time in my life I thought I would fail at something. I thought that how hard can it be to teach nine- and ten-year-olds? I had to figure out how to engage them, how to line them up, how to collect lunch money—and all those things—when they should sharpen their pencils or go to the bathroom, as well as what to teach them, and I think I discovered in that first year how hard it is to be a really great teacher … So I learned a lot as a young teacher in elementary school.

What has been the most challenging part of your transition into the new job?

The thing, in fact, that I was most nervous about in the job was having to call the snow days. And of course, my very first day, I had to call a snow day, and then it hasn’t stopped since then … There hasn’t been anything challenging about this job, in the sense that there’s just been wonderful surprises and rewards so far. I mean, I’m only a month and a half into it, so I know there will be difficult times ahead, I have no doubt about that. But the people in this district are extraordinary. So even with the snow days, it’s not as if I’m alone in making that decision at 4:30 in the morning in my pajamas at home. I actually have other superintendents in the Mercer County area who come together to talk about that.

What has been different so far about Princeton than other districts you’ve worked in?

There are incredible people and programs here … Think about the high performance of our students, whether it’s the Berklee music festival, whether it’s the orchestra touring Europe, whether it’s the debate team, one of the top 50 in the country, whether it’s our swim team winning States. You can turn to any program and see world-class students.

What do you hope to learn from meeting with the students?

I want to hear what they want to do with their lives, where they’re going, because I think sometimes in a school system, especially in one that’s high-powered and high-performing like Princeton, I think the focus can be on ‘I want to get good grades, and I want to get into a good college,’ and yet I have a feeling that the students here see beyond that. And for me, the mission of a place like Princeton is to prepare students to change the world.

What should students know about you?

I’m from Seattle, [a] huge Seattle Seahawks fan, so [I am] thrilled with the Super Bowl result. I’ve been racing bikes for over 30 years on the state and national level, so I’m still trying to maintain some level of competition with that. That’s an important part of my life, so I try to maintain that as a model of balance for me.

What are you reading?

Right now, I’ve got a lot of books that I’m reading, mostly, sort of professional literature, so it’s been a while since I’ve picked up a good novel. But I was an English major, so I love [books] … Billy Collins’ The Art of Drowning is what I’m reading [now] … he’s very funny, he’s got a good sense of humor.

Favorite TV show?

I enjoy TV. I don’t get to watch it often enough because I’m focused on the Weather Channel now. Big Bang Theory, we watch that regularly. You gotta love Sheldon and company.

How do you hope to be perceived?

[I hope to be seen as] someone who cares deeply about students [and] who’s genuinely committed to their success and their happiness and can promote for them … the skills to be successful … I want to be a person who’s perceived as caring, someone with integrity, and very down-to-earth and approachable. I want students to feel like they could email me, talk to me, stop me in the hallway, give me advice, or tell me how they’re doing.