This coming September, something unique will happen at Fisher Middle School. Or, rather, something unique will not happen. Barbara Brower will not show up for work.
In one capacity or another, Brower has walked through the doors of Fisher every September for 31 consecutive years. If you count her time as a student there in the 1970s, she’s actually seen the inside of the building in the Septembers of 39 years.
But after this school year, the teacher-turned-principal who oversaw the transition of Fisher from elementary to middle school will be basking in retirement. Maybe.
The thing is, Brower doesn’t know if she’ll be technically retiring. Yes, she’s leaving her position in the Ewing Township School District, but she doesn’t know what she’s going to be doing with herself after she punches her last time card in the district.
“I don’t have any definite plans,” Brower said. “I just know the time was right to let the people I’ve been working with continue on.”
She does have a few ideas. Maybe she’ll do something health-related. Brower started her career as a physical education teacher, so perhaps she’ll head into that area again. Maybe she’ll find a wholly different second career in camps or at a gym. Or maybe she’ll just bask in the sunny days, breezy nights and boardwalk fun of Point Pleasant, where she lives these days.
The point is, Brower doesn’t know. And she’s not even a little worried about figuring it out. She’ll find it, she said. Just not on a deadline.
Brower said she’s always been a seat-of-the pants type to some degree. Even so, as a kid growing up in Ewing, she knew she wanted to go into education. Then again, given her pedigree, a path towards education seemed almost preordained.
“I come from an education family,” she said, not exaggerating even a little. Aunts and uncles were teachers, her mother taught language arts and social studies in elementary and junior high schools, and her father was the dean of education at Rider University, when it was still Rider College.
In 1982, Brower graduated from Ewing High School and headed to West Chester University for her bachelor’s in health and physical education. She earned her degree in 1986 and came back to Ewing to teach phys ed at Fisher that year.
‘She cares deeply about Fisher Middle School and every child that has passed through those hallways during her long tenure as an educator.’
The school’s then-principal, Warren Schuster, had a knack for spotting leadership-oriented teachers and introducing them to the administrative side of education in small doses, Brower said. Things like monitoring lunches or covering the day-to-day duties of an administrator who was out sick for a couple days.
Because Brower was a coach, of softball, girls’ basketball and boys’ soccer, Schuster apparently saw her natural bent towards leadership and asked her to take part in his acting-administrator-style program.
“He saw something in me,” she said. “I did it maybe five times a year for three or four years. It gave me the bug.”
That was in the ’90s, and she decided to enroll in the master’s in education program at Rider. In 1999 she earned that degree, and in the 2000-01 school year she started as dean of students at Fisher. She then became associate principal, and in 2006 the principal.
She did a fine enough job for the school board to know they’ll miss her a lot.
“You will not find a more student-centered educator,” said Superintendent Michael Nitti. “The traits that put Barb into the Ewing High School Athletic Hall of Fame are evident in her professional behavior. She is selfless, dedicated and a team player. She cares deeply about Fisher Middle School and every child that has passed through those hallways during her long tenure as an educator.”
That tenure might seem like an ideal perch from which to spot long-term trends and growth over the years. But Brower sees things a bit differently. Because she’s been “engrained in it so long,” she said, she’s not sure she’s seen any monumental changes from the inside.
“There’ve not been any drastic changes,” she said. “The biggest change is in the demographics.”
While the district has always been fairly diverse, even back in the ’70s and ’80s, Brower said, it’s grown more so steadily over time. But past that, Ewing’s culture hasn’t changed very much. The kids are still kids, and state and federal education mandates still come along to throw a new challenge or two at school systems everywhere.
“It’s not just Ewing, it’s everyone,” she says. Overall, what’s changed, she said is the date on the calendar and not really much else.
One thing that is different, and largely because of Brower, is the district’s block scheduling. She was a main part of the move towards block scheduling in the high school a few years ago—80-minute classes that give students plenty of time to learn material, rather than being ripped out at the half-hour mark.
Brower’s impact on middle school scheduling has been to start introducing blocks at Fisher to prepare the students for the long classes in high school.
There’s also been increased focus on programs like STEM and the arts, both of which are increasingly recognized as important skills in the modern world.
In truly diplomatic fashion, Brower said there is no one student who has stood out to her over the years. There are numerous, and she said she’s proud of all of them. And she’s never surprised to see them staying connected to the district.
At first, it was people she was in school with who came back to Ewing as teachers. Then it was the children of those coworkers. Now, Brower said, she’s seeing the children of those children.
“We all come back to Ewing,” she said. And for her, it is testimony that the district has been doing something right all along.
Brower will of course miss the kids. She’s always had an affinity for kids of middle school age.
“I can be goofy,” she said. And she punctuates that statement fairly literally. “I have Goofy figurines all over my office.”
But she, of course, is an adult, too, so she knows how to walk that line between friendly and serious among kids who walk that line between childhood and young adult. That line’s not for everyone, and Brower knows that. She’s seen reluctance every time she’s worked with Rider’s sophomore education majors.
“We do a lot of work with Rider,” she said. “I always ask, ‘How many of you want to work in middle school?’ If I have 15 people, maybe three hands go up.”
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, most teachers-to-be find the blend of neediness and independence in kids between 10 and 14 fairly inscrutable. Brower prefers to think of these kids as unique.
“They’re at an age where you can still have fun with them, but you can be serious with them too,” she said. “They really just want you to pay attention to them and lead them. They’re still kids.”
Brower always knew she wanted to work in this range. Before she was tenured, as a phys ed teacher, she was subject to being assigned anywhere her supervisors wanted to put her. They wanted to move her to the high school, but she lobbied to stay put. This went on for a couple years, she said, but in the end, obviously, she won.
“I was meant for the middle school kid,” she said. “My personality fits with middle school kids. I can be a kid, and I can be an adult.”
The common denominator among kids in the middle school years, she said, seems to be that “they’re really just trying to figure out who they are.” If that’s true, then she really does fit in with middle schoolers. Because as she takes her final bow from Ewing, Brower is still trying to figure out who she is.
But she’ll find it, she said. She always has.