Good Talk: Ms. Dirda

Meet NASH's new principal

photo by Meg Rees

Jonathan Ross, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Where are you from?

I’m actually from the area. I went to high school at Montour, and my parents still live in Robinson. I did go to Virginia Tech for college, but I came right back after I graduated. I was born and raised a Pittsburgher, and that’s the way it’ll stay for the foreseeable future.

What were you like during high school?

I played a lot of sports — soccer, basketball, softball, and track. But I was also highly involved in the Mathletes and Student Council. I was just trying to get as much out of the experience as possible, so I also took leadership roles in outreach programs and SADD. 

Did you know that you wanted to be an administrator?

Both of my parents were educators. My mother taught Spanish and my father taught math — and I wanted nothing to do with it. I had aspirations of being an engineer until I realized that mechanical engineering wasn’t really fulfilling to me. I did co-ops, studied abroad, and figured “this isn’t forever,” so I moved home and coached youth soccer camps and got my teaching certificate. 

What inspired you to change from being a teacher to an administrator?

There’s something absolutely beautiful about teaching and having that personal relationship with your students, but I was interested in seeing the whole system. I wanted to help support student and staff visions and ideas. As a classroom teacher, I didn’t feel like I had the ability to do that. 

What do you see as your main purpose as principal?

I believe that, beyond academics and learning, schools should provide a place where every student comes every day and feels valued, supported, heard, and appropriately challenged. As a building principal, my perspective is my life experience, but hearing from the students and staff is important. They’re living lives very different from the one I lived. I think it’s very important to hear what the students want and value. I want to meet everyone and get to know everyone. It’s North Allegheny, so success in the arts and athletics will always be here, but I want NASH to be the most loving and supportive school community for everybody. 

Do you want a personal relationship with your students?

That’s why I do the work that I do. Without personal relationships, I wouldn’t come to work every day. I’ve already been invited to a few classrooms and activities — jazz band, the musical, and MSU — and that’s what I want. There are parts of the job that are about running the school effectively, but the personal relationships are the highest priority, for sure. 

What do you do on a day-to-day basis?

A lot of my job is making sure all the classrooms are covered, making sure the school is safe, receiving observations from teachers, meeting student and teacher organizations, and even collaborating with NAI. I have a lot of meetings, but it’s really all focused on making sure the students are getting what they need. It’s only day two, though. 

You wrote an article a few years ago that emphasized “the time is now!” Does that still relate to you now as principal?

I haven’t thought about that particular article in years. However, I feel like it’s such an important philosophy and vision for me personally. I’m a huge believer in the present day. People have a tendency to only look back at the past or look to the future. And while we can learn from the past, and we need to plan for the future, now is the time to soak in the experience. We’re always going to have aspirations, but that journey makes us who we are. 

Last year, there were two controversial suggested changes at NA: limiting AP classes and starting school later. What are your thoughts on them? 

They’re both two very important topics, and I’ve found that, in critical issues, there’s always a spectrum of beliefs. We have people in support of unlimited AP classes, and we have people in support of setting a maximum. I simply believe that we need to provide the best possible learning environment, and that relates to starting times, too. I’m coming from a district, Mt. Lebanon, where there’s a significantly different start time because there were no buses. It was a six square mile area, and the students walked. In North Allegheny, though, there are forty-seven square miles, so it’s a very challenging issue to solve. However, most of all, these are topics where I want to involve the students.

What would be your elevator pitch to current seniors, given they won’t have as much time to know you? 

First, I want to make the most of what limited time we have together. It’s about us supporting each other and being kind to each other. I know that there is a level of expectation that comes along with being a senior at North Allegheny. There are younger students who look up to you as role models, and you should relish that. When you graduate in June, you’ll love every part of life afterwards, and I want to make sure that each one of you enjoys the last few months here. I don’t know you all yet, but I can tell that, come commencement, I’m going to feel cheated that I only had a few months of time with you. 

Any advice to seniors struggling with senioritis?

This is a microcosm of life, in that senioritis is a real thing. I remember pushing through the last few months of school. That resilience is a skill because there will be times when you don’t want to persevere. While there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, you still have to get there. Eat some good treats and relish the moment. 

As a former soccer player, which position on the field is most like the job of principal?

I feel like my own position, a goalkeeper, is the most similar. As a keeper, you were required to see the whole field, and at times, other positions don’t get to see that whole picture. As a building principal, you have to see each stakeholder group, each part of the system and what makes it work. You need to see how one thing impacts another, how the strategy works. It really aligns very closely with the game of soccer. Still, it changes with the day. There are days when I feel like a forward. 

Do you have a favorite soccer memory?

I was coaching at Montour at the time. We were getting ready to play Upper St. Clair, and their program was significantly better than we were on paper. I had an open house that night at North Hills, and the athletic directors couldn’t get the game moved. I told my team I would get there as soon as I could. As I pulled into the stadium, the scoreboard showed us winning. We had never, ever, even competed at that level. I got out of the car, and the girls were sitting, waiting for me, and started slow clapping as I walked over. They had beaten USC for the first time ever, and at that moment I saw a group of young adults who believed in themselves, with all of their hard work having paid off. I hope I never forget that — soccer really is a beautiful game.

Will you be generous with giving snow days? 

I’m new here, so I’m just trying to learn how it goes. I’ll say that we will work closely with our central administration on making sure that it is a safe driving environment, but I will take a mental note of your question. 

Do you have a favorite movie?

Shawshank Redemption. I love that movie. 

Favorite book? 

I love reading, but all of my recent reading has been for my dissertation. Outside of that, though, definitely To Kill a Mockingbird. Right now I’m reading Economics on Public Investment and Private Consumption, but I don’t think that’s quite as popular. 

Favorite ice cream flavor? 

I’m not a huge fan of sweets. I’m a big fan of salty food — Doritos, potato chips, popcorn, anything. When I do eat sweets, I always go for cookies and cream, though. It’s rare, but that’s my go-to.