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HEAD OF SCHOOL BLOG

Post #3: It’s About Relationships (Oct. 16)


In my first blog post, I discussed the partnership that exists between the school and parents.  In this blog post, I would like to drill down into an essential part of that partnership: the relationship between teacher and student.  There is an old saying in education, “they don’t care what you know until they know you care.” School is a relational business at its core.  When a teacher really gets to know a student, then they can get them to stretch that much further and that is when growth occurs.


I know each School Division Head has been exploring teacher-student relationships with faculty during monthly meetings this fall.  After reading a recent compilation of Upper School teacher reflections about how teachers know students feel connected to them, I felt compelled to share some of those quotes…


“I know by how comfortable they are just “hanging out” in my room.  Often times we will laugh and chat together, but also the student will simply find their “place” in here, and they know that I am totally fine with it and love that they are here.  I make sure they know that above all...they are loved, accepted for who they are, and that I enjoy their company.”


“If they offer up an unsolicited personal story of their day/week/etc. I’d say they see me as more than just someone that grades their tests.”


“I would say the biggest sign to me is that they seek interactions outside of normal class time.  I have students come in the morning and after school to chat with me. Some of them do not even have a class with me this year.  The fact that they (seek me out) just to chat with me indicates that they must feel some connection with me. I also have students, past and present, emailing me comments and articles they think may interest me.  That goes above and beyond any classroom obligation. I think that when they want to spend time with you, they are demonstrating that they feel they have a connection with you.”


“You get an invitation to their wedding.”


As someone who has spent two and a half decades in education and as someone just joining this community, I feel buoyed by such reflections of what relationships are like in our Upper School.  I imagine I can find similar stories from the other two Divisions too. I have heard so many parents talk about how they value the quality academic program at Prep. I know that these types of teacher-student relationships are the bedrock on which such a tradition of excellence is built.



Post #2: Known Water, New Water (Sept. 9)


Preface: I was recently asked to write a piece about my transition to a new position at a new school for a website called Well Schooled: The site for educator storytelling. This is that piece of writing.


Known Water, New Water

 

Canadian statesman and author John Buchan penned the only quote displayed on my office wall: “The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive but attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope.” My love affair with both fishing and education started with and continues to be driven by this idea. Every new cast I make holds the hope of a great fish; every new class I teach holds the hope of continued growth for each child; every new year I lead holds the hope of something new and exciting in the life of my school.

 

Educator from the Start

I was raised by two career public school educators. Much as I imagine a fish cannot remember a time without water, I cannot remember a time without school. In my small North Carolina town, I was known as “Coach Willard’s son” or “Ma Willard’s kid.” Both of my parents were beloved teachers at our one and only county high school. 

 

My life in education began by listening to discussions of school politics at the dinner table, helping my football coach dad put stickers on football helmets, and running up and down the long halls of Scotland High School. I could never get away from connections to my parents or to school life. My pediatrician knew my dad, who taught and coached his two boys. When I totaled my dad’s car, the policeman chuckled a bit because, as a former student of my dad’s, he anticipated the reaction my dad would have once he knew I was not hurt. 

 

For a time, I escaped my small town for college and military service and broke free from the lure of academic life. But just when I thought I was headed for something other than education as a career after my first year of teaching, the former Dean of Students at Davidson College invited me to his house, cooked me a meal, and explained why I should stick with it. And I did. 

 

Learning to Read the River

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I took up fly fishing at the same time I started teaching high school. I instantly took to fly fishing because it requires following an intricate set of problem-solving steps involving selecting the right fly for the moment, reading the ever-changing river current, and delivering a precise cast to present the fly to the fish without spooking the fish. Fly fishing is also the one thing I can do and lose all track of time. If you are familiar with the concept of “flow,” then it is on a river that I am in that zone. 

 

Not unlike fly fishing, working with others to solve complex problems has always fascinated and satisfied me. I have been fortunate to have had wonderful mentors in the education field who helped me to “read the river” — selecting the right fly, making the next cast in my career. Over the last 25 years, each of these sponsors and mentors has helped shape my leadership style. In every phase of my life, a teacher or mentor recognized my potential and encouraged me to pursue “the next step” even when I did not see the opportunity in front of me. Not long after I started teaching in a private school, the Head of School asked me to be the Honor Council Chair. A few years later, that same leader encouraged me to earn a Master Degree in Educational Leadership at nearby Winthrop University. Another Head of School sponsored and mentored me on my most recent journey to become a Head of School myself.

 

Casting for Promise, Catching Hope

While all my mentors imparted sound advice on leadership, I do not recall any of them saying “make sure you have a hobby.” But it is great advice, and I give it to anyone I mentor: Find an activity you can lose yourself in periodically. The work in schools can be emotionally draining, and the ability to lose myself in another activity has strengthened my own well-being. 

 

I am often struck by the insights that come after being “lost” in my hobby. On a recent fishing trip, I reflected on spending 22 years at the same school and anticipating my first headship this year. My fishing buddies and I had chosen to float a stretch of “known” water in the morning — water we had fished many times over the years. The fishing was fabulous. 

 

In the afternoon, we decided to push into “new” water — water we had not rowed and fished before. Within the first half mile we came upon a gorgeous waterfall we had never seen (see photo above)! We landed a few big fish and soaked up the scenery. As the afternoon heat set in, however, we caught fewer and fewer fish. Soon we realized the lower end of our journey was through a lake that dropped 30 feet due to a leak in the dam — the shores were littered with weeds and decaying docks. Worse, we had a really tough hour and a half rowing out to the boat ramp in 90-degree heat. Regardless of the hardships of the afternoon, we happily pulled the boat on the trailer and drove back to the cabin for a relaxing night on the back porch grilling steaks and telling stories.

 

After the trip, it occurred to me that, although I like the comfort of known water, I am excited by the unknown of new water. Unknown water may bring harsh trials and hard work, but it also brings hope. What could be more invigorating as a new Head of School than embracing daily all these “occasions for hope”? I am so thankful that my hobby and profession satisfy a passion to pursue what is “elusive but attainable” both in a stream and in a school.
 




Post #1:  A Fresh Start  


Well, it is the eve of a new school year. Excitement is building at school as faculty are back preparing their spaces and lessons, coaches preparing their fields and strategies, support staff preparing their plans and purchases--all we need is the students.  


This is a fresh start for me as the new Head of School at Augusta Prep. This is a fresh start for your student(s). We will all face new challenges which are opportunities for growth. I am very mindful you parents will also face new challenges as your children move up a grade or division and into new stages of development. 


In the spirit of the Augusta Prep core belief that “That a quality education involves a partnership between home and school,” I thought I would offer some parental “homework.” After 24 years in education, I have found some wonderful reads that have informed my practice as a professional and as a parent (of two independent school graduates). Wait? Did I just write parental homework? Yes. Let me explain...


We all come to this parenting journey with a range of skills and a variety of mentors. How does one get this right? It is hard. Each stage of life brings different challenges you must face. We want to be good partners with you in this journey. That is part of what we mean by “Prep for Life.”


Lower School parents: I recommend a few titles for you to consider this fall. First, consider the The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Timeless Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children, by Dr. Wendy Mogel. This is a classic by the well-published clinical psychologist leaning on wisdom of Jewish teachings, but is wonderful advice for folks from any ethnic or religious persuasion (I promise as I have heard her speak twice). If that title does not pique your interest, then consider Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, by Richard Louv. While I am not sure I subscribe to his hypothesis of “nature-deficit disorder,” I do admire his analysis of the factors of modern life that tend to keep our kids indoors and the potential impacts that has on children.


Middle School parents: This may seem a stretch, but I recommend you read How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid For Success by Julie Lythcott-Haims. A former Dean of Freshmen at Stanford University, she draws on her experiences with students and parents as well as research to caution against “overparenting.” I have heard her speak and she presents simple advice to prepare your child to self-advocate and learn sufficiency long before you send them off to college. If that title does not appeal to you as it seems too far away, then try Teach Your Children Well: Why Values and Coping Skills MATTER MORE Than Grades, Trophies, or “Fat Envelopes", by Dr. Madeline Levine. I have seen Dr. Levine speak, and she brings thirty years of clinical experience to the table along with the latest research.


Upper School parents: Well, you are in the thick of the college match journey. I really feel your angst as I have just recently travelled this road with my two college students. Please consider Colleges that Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges, by Loren Pope. Have you or your child already plotted the one path to one choice? If so, I challenge you to read this book and investigate options you may not have ever considered. After reading this book, my wife and I encouraged our son to look at a few in person and he found a perfect fit. Or, consider the newer title Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania, by Frank Bruni. While I have not read this book yet, I am intrigued by it given good reviews and having watched the process change (and become corrupted) over the last two decades. Having just survived two college searches, I encourage you to prepare yourself to ease anxieties your student(s) will face as they try to find a best fit. By best fit, I mean the two or three places they and you think they will thrive.


So, again I challenge you to take on some homework yourself this year. You will model the life-long learning we promote in the Prep mission statement and you may find something to help develop or reinforce your parenting strategy. I would love to partner with our Parent League on a book group for each division this year - I would love to read along and participate in small group discussions with you around any of the challenges for each stage. In that spirit, please click here to select the title you would be most interested in reading along with me and discussing over coffee. We look to announce the results in the coming weeks and get started in October.


Hey, we are in this together!


Best,

Derrick





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