On July 1 Pamela Bylsma walked in the door and began work as the new principal at Riverside-Brookfield High School. The 52-year-old former assistant principal at Hinsdale Central will bring a new style to RB and is expected to provide stability and long-term leadership at a school that last year had “interim” before the title of three of its top four administrators.
Bylsma’s office reflects her personality and her passions. Behind her desk is an untitled work of abstract art, watercolors and colored pencil, which the former art teacher and professional artist created in 1995. On the walls are sayings from the Roman emperor and stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius and Gandhi, ones reflecting her belief in character and the power of change.
“As the new leader, I think the most important job I have is to ask good questions,” said Bylsma on Monday morning when she sat down with the Landmark for her first interview since taking over as principal at RB.
“I’m a catalyst for growth, and in order to do that successfully, I build relationships. I ask questions. I help nurture that growth so that it fits where we want to go with the whole organization.”
Bylsma comes to RB after 11 years at Hinsdale Central, five years as a dean and the last six years as an assistant principal. She was instrumental at Hinsdale Central in implementing the Character Counts program, which she may eventually bring to RB. Before going to Hinsdale Central she was a dean for four years at Plainfield High School and previously taught English and art at Downers Grove South and Fremd high Schools.
Between her teaching stints she took time off to raise her daughter. Working as a professional artist, specializing in water colors and mixed media, she taught part time at a psychiatric hospital. For a while she worked part-time as a proofreader for a local newspaper in Lemont, where she lives.
Her experience teaching at Rock Creek Psychiatric Hospital and working as a special education dean at Plainfield deeply influenced Bylsma’s approach to education.
“I loved working with students, and I have a real soft spot for the most vulnerable students,” Bylsma said.
Bylsma says she believes strongly in teaching kids the skills necessary to make better choices and not merely punishing kids for bad choices and actions. She believes in getting to roots of bad behavior.
“I never yelled at kids,” Bylsma said. “I’m passionate about social, emotional learning and building skills and competencies in students.”
But she was no pasty.
“I had a reputation as a pretty tough dean,” Bylsma said.
While an administrator for many years now, Bylsma said she enjoyed teaching and still misses being in a classroom.
“I loved to teach,” said Bylsma. “It’s the most alive, probably, that I’ve ever felt. I do some amazing, really wonderful things now, but being together with a group of young people is just energizing. It’s fabulous.”
She had no idea of becoming an administrator until her principal at Fremd, Tom Howard, encouraged her to go to graduate school and think about becoming an administrator when she was only a second-year teacher.
As a high school student in Grand Rapids, Mich., Bylsma was the captain of the cheerleaders and she still relishes that supportive role of cheering on others. It was in high school that she decided to become a teacher.
“I loved being in school,” Bylsma said. “I loved education. I loved literature. I loved painting. I just blossomed in school, and I felt home in school.”
Although she almost never got a grade less than an A throughout her education, her focus as a teacher was always more on the student than the curriculum.
“I got into teaching for the kids, not the subject matter,” Bylsma says. “I love art. I love English, but I’m a teacher for the kids.”
She believes in listening to students.
“Adults live in one school and kids live in another,” Bylsma says. “Kids are brutally honest. They’re incredibly creative. I’m really big about activating student voices and getting feedback so it’s not the adult perspective. Certainly, we have a lot of expertise in the area, but we really want to know what it feels like from their perspective.”
Since her hiring was announced in February, Bylsma visited RB eight or nine times to meet administrators, faculty, staff and students. She also made a request to meet with students who were not very involved with RB. And at RB, Bylsma believes that she has a staff full of good people.
“I feel like I have an amazing team,” Bylsma said. “People have been so supportive and helpful. The support staff here are phenomenal. I wake up every morning and tell my husband I get to go to RB. I’m so lucky.”
Around the building, people at RB appear happy that Bylsma has arrived, and that a permanent principal is finally in place.
“I’m excited about what the future holds for RB with Pam in charge at the principal position,” said RB Assistant Principal John Passarella. “I think we’re moving in a great direction, and she’ll be part of it.”