After 10 years at Fox Lane High School in Bedford as the director of health, physical education and athletics and then as dean of students, Chris Coughlin, 45, has moved to Scarsdale Middle School in a new role as assistant principal, replacing Larry Chatzinoff who retired at the end of June.
Though Coughlin started out working in insurance, he found more inspiration in the field of education. He said his 11th grade social studies teacher who helped him find academic success even when he struggled, coupled with a friend’s passion for education, led Coughlin to pave a new path for himself.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York, and went on to attain a graduate degree in criminal justices from Suffolk University in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1998. He returned to school in 2009 to get a master’s degree in education, leadership, administration and policy from Fordham University and in 2018 he received a certificate of advanced study as a school district leader from Manhattanville College.
In Armonk, Coughlin taught social studies and physical education, then moved into administrative roles in Bedford where he oversaw the athletic department budget, served as the chairman of the Bedford Central School District Wellness Council and implemented new operational practices. He joined Scarsdale in July with a base annual salary of $183,000.
Coughlin said the Scarsdale School District is, in many ways, a model for how public schools should operate.
“How schools allocate their resources shows where their values are,” Coughlin said. In Scarsdale, he said, “There’s an emphasis on teachers, which [has] huge dividends for the students. The team of administrators here, led by [Superintendent Thomas Hagerman], are progressive, thoughtful and focus on what really matters.”
Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources and Leadership Development Drew Patrick, who came to Scarsdale from Bedford schools, had worked with Coughlin in that district. He described Coughlin as “a student advocate and a great colleague.”
“I think he’ll bring a tremendous amount of empathy and care and professionalism” to his work at SMS, Patrick said.
Coughlin said he aims to be open and honest and to help the students, families and teachers have a good experience. Middle school students can be fragile, he said, so he wants to make sure the students feel the support from the school.
“These are some of the most developmentally critical years of their lives,” Coughlin said. “[Students] should be supported by rigorous academics. But, we want to make sure they can create patterns of success, like wellness, and focus on academics.”
Since 2015, Scarsdale began a wellness initiative that has spread throughout the school district with age appropriate curriculum and activities at every level.
At the middle school, the wellness initiative includes the CORE program and positive psychology.
Positive psychology is the scientific study of strengths that help people thrive and flourish. It relies on evidence-based methods to help individuals reach success and achieve goals.
Coughlin said he’ll be learning and listening to what goes on in the school district throughout his first year at SMS, while working to build relationships with the faculty. He said he also wants to help students and staff embark on new experiences in and out of the classroom.
“When it comes to dealing with kids, a lot of [what wellness is] involves supporting their ideas and giving them direction,” Coughlin said. “The typical student here likes to be involved in school activities outside of the classroom. The school does a great job offering an array of activities out of the classroom.”
A lot has changed since Coughlin started his career in education 20 years ago. “The classroom experience had the teacher at the front of the room and students were more passive learners than active learners,” he said. “But now, it’s very different. Kids are meant to be active learners. Classrooms look different, both physically and psychologically.”
Today, Coughlin added, it’s important to foster the spirit of kids to be intellectually curious in different fields. He said teachers need to spend time with the students to know what teaching methods will be effective and to be attuned to what the kids and their families need. “They need to absorb the learning content, but a lot of the content involves skills about thinking and being progressive,” he said, and added, “You have to evolve and laugh with the kids.”