Dr. John O’Breza: Saying goodbye to East

Juliet Brooks ('13)/Eastside Editor-in-Chief

Dr. John O’Breza, principal of Cherry Hill High School East since 2002, is ending his career at East this summer in order to pursue other interests and opportunities.

O’Breza does not call this a retirement—and indeed, he intends to remain as active as ever. He looks at the change more in terms of seeking new experiences. He has been working in Cherry Hill since East first opened in 1968. His first teaching job was an internship at summer school at East, and from there he taught at West for a few years. He said, “I was both blessed in where I was invited to do my student teaching and then I was blessed to be hired.” Although he has bounced back and forth a few times between the high schools, he has not left the district.

The majority of East’s students picture O’Breza only in his administrative role, but he spent most of his career in the classroom. O’Breza was an English teacher until 1987; he taught all grades and levels of English, and taught diverse electives from Creative Writing to Great Books. O’Breza said of his decision to be a teacher, “I like school. I like books. I like the environment. I like the other people. It was actually when I started high school and went to college I just knew I was going to wind up somewhere in a high school, teaching.”

 

The Teacher

When asked how he would describe himself, O’Breza said, “As a person of service.” O’Breza added, “Work has never been a burden or a chore, and people do different things in their world, in their lives, for different reasons… Service, work-slash-service-has always been easy. You want to be purposeful, for whatever reason, I have a sense of service to others… Service to others is really service to self.”

O’Breza enjoyed his time as a teacher because he enjoyed meeting different students. He said, “As a teacher I worked a lot with students who loved school, and I also worked a lot with students who, school was all right for them, it wasn’t a wonderful place to be… and both types of teaching made every day very different.” He liked the challenge of adjusting his teaching style to the various tendencies of his students. Even though not all of his students appreciated the subject he taught, O’Breza did not mind. “You have the challenge of engaging people who didn’t want to hear about books or writing or anything like that so it was more of a real and genuine world in which they lived, and I appreciated that,” he said.

 

The Administrator

In 1987, O’Breza took on a part-time job as a supervisor in the English department. By the 1989 school year, he had moved to work as an administrator at West, where he stayed until 1996. He returned to East and an administrator position.

O’Breza said of his career, “You’re only as good as the people around you, and when the people around you have such a great spirit of not only professionalism but also voluntarism… those kinds of things are things that I am proud of in the sense that my job was to help it to happen wherever I could, and to recognize that probably these things would not have happened had I not been surrounded who they had an interest and they were willing to share it.”

 

The Leader

Dr. O’Breza has not been an overbearing leader. He believes that leading is about working with good people. His philosophy has always been, “It’s a matter of making it happen for people.”

He tends to always believe the best of people.  “When you presume the best, which means taking a chance—I trust you. Step up, show your judgment. Have a sense of community.” O’Breza said that by placing trust in his students from the beginning, he encouraged them to take responsibility for their actions.

Another part of his job, according to O’Breza, was to ensure that his students and staff could do what they were passionate about, within the bounds of the district’s rules. O’Breza said, “There are certain rules. My job is to know what the rules are and figure out what’s permissible. And therein lies the art. I could well imagine others saying, at other places, ‘you can’t do that.’ Well, why not?”

Ultimately, O’Breza said, he has rarely been disappointed. “I don’t think there are that many things that disappoint us, largely because people who work at East and come to East… generally are happy.”

O’Breza views his work not as a chore, but as a sort of life mission. “Whether in the classroom or in a leadership position in the school as we care for others we care for ourselves. It’s a tidy kind of package. It’s a good way of thinking about the world and one’s purpose in the world… In truth as an administrator you do what you can in maintaining and advancing your school, this enterprise, providing opportunity for others… Schools are easy places to see the sense of service, but you can see it in professions, you can see it in medicine, you can see it in law, it’s looking beyond yourself to others that helps one’s soul. That’s at least the way I think about the world.”

 

The Mentor

As someone who has worked in the district for over forty years, O’Breza has obviously seen a number of students pass through the system. When asked what it’s like to not see his past students anymore, O’Breza said, “One thing I’ve learned over the past six weeks especially is that they make contact.”

Even though he will now be leaving the school system, O’Breza does not think that this will affect the relationships he has built with his students. He said, “I don’t think you ever lose the connection. While you don’t see people on a daily basis, and you know sometimes the last time you see them is when they’re seventeen or eighteen and then you don’t see them for thirty years, and they change a lot… they don’t need to be immediate to you, and I think you’ll find this with friends… what you share is some kind of common bond and I guess memories and the spirit of good feeling.”

Perhaps most telling of O’Breza’s mentorship is the fact that students who he has not seen in twenty or thirty years will stop by when they are in town, just to chat. He mentioned that several past students have dropped by to see him, rarely with any prior notice. But he loves seeing these students.

 “The best part is when you can come together, not dwell on the past, and begin your conversation as if no time passed.”

 

The Arts Enthusiast

O’Breza believes wholeheartedly in the idea of a “journey” that everyone undertakes during his or her life. One of his favorite works of literature is Dante Aligheri’s Divine Comedy, a three-part work that follows a “Pilgrim” on a journey of self-discovery that ultimately leads this Pilgrim to greater understanding.

An integral part of John O’Breza’s personality is his great love of the arts.

He has always been an avid reader. Upon retiring, he will revisit the metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, who he read with one of his favorite professors in college. He said, “You sort of decide, it gives me more reason to visit more old bookstores, and just map things out, and see what the next part of the adventure is.” He will attend more theater productions, expand his musical tastes (see Eastside’s Humor section, and travel to China to visit his son, who has been teaching there for two years.

 

The Good-Bye

Working as principal has been a full-time occupation for O’Breza; he often stays long after the late busses have left the building and arrives early every morning.

O’Breza, who has a number of tasks he needs to accomplish abroad, said that he finally decided it was time for him to move on after months of deliberation.

He said, “I could probably ask and work out some kind of arrangement to be gone for a month, but that wouldn’t be right for the school. And what I would be thinking about all the time from a distance is what’s going on back there? You know, and you get into that. So it’s just time.”

Even though O’Breza will miss the school, he believes in his decision. “I’ve had a sacred trust for a while. It’s now for somebody else. Nothing is forever. It is not an easy thing to decide… I’ve loved it all…  I remember what Jim Gallagher said, we were all happy to be in Cherry Hill with a supportive community, and I loved West, I loved East. It’s just time. And I think that kind of consideration doesn’t come easy. It’s something you think about a lot.”

Cherry Hill East thanks you, Dr. O’Breza, for your dedication to upholding that sacred trust.