Learn Why Four Boarding School Heads Keep One Foot in the Classroom

| November 16, 2015

Modern boarding school heads face an amazing array of time and intellectual demands- everything from the school's daily operation; to strategic planning; to fundraising; to attending meals; to student discipline; of course students and faculty are also part of the equation. These constituencies pull heads in all sorts of directions- daily.

Given these demands my interested piqued when I came across a school head who still teaches.

"Class time is seriously the best part of my day. When my Board said that they felt that I could not afford to remain in the classroom, I helped them understand how wrong they were. This is what we do. No head will ever convince me that his time is so precious or important that she/he cannot teach," Rick France, headmaster, Miller School."

Why, I thought, given everything swirling around a headmaster's office do some heads still make it priority to leave the office and teach a class every day?

Teaching heads used to be closer to the norm. I started calling around for this piece, I realized that teaching heads have become fewer, and father, in between.

I found three heads who continue going into the classroom each day and one who coaches his school's golf team. Rick France, headmaster, Miller School, Frank Henry, interim head, The Bement School and Daniel Baillargeon, headmaster, St. Bernard Prep, each teach a class and Trip Darrin, headmaster, Blue Ridge School, coaches golf.

I asked each:

Why do you make it a priority to continue teaching?

What does your classroom time give you that you don’t get in the rest of your work?

[caption id="attachment_12037" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Frank Henry, interim head of school, The Bement School[/caption]

Frank Henry, interim head, The Bement School

I began my career as a teacher. So, when I moved to the head’s office, I knew that I wanted to keep at least a foot in the teacher’s world. Because I have often complained of heads who were deeply divorced from a teacher’s experience, I knew I wanted to be immediately alert to the daily life of a teacher. 

When I am in the office I can be distracted by questions from admissions, development, the deans, and business manager, and I forget the fundamental business of the school. But when I arrive in the classroom to meet my eighth graders, I am thrust back into the experience that has kept me in education since 1977.

Not only can a head be remote from a faculty, but worse, a head can be quite distant from the students. Every day in my class, I have an opportunity to glean a bit about the emotional and physical health of at least some of our students at Bement.  If they are glum or worn thin, I can imagine that all of our students might be equally drained.  Being attuned to my class gives me an understanding of our students I would miss if I were in the office or meetings all day.  My class is as much a means of monitoring the school as a meeting with the director of admission or dean of students.

Ultimately, I love teaching.  I am a head because I believe I have the skills and background to know how to support teachers, but selfishly, I simply like being in a classroom and puzzling over a novel or poem with a group of students who are encountering the text for the first time.  Mine is a privileged position— I have to recover “beginner’s mind” for at least part of the day every day of the week.  That is an exercise that refreshes me and restores faith in what we do at Bement.  After a term in class, I can look back and be satisfied that I have helped students ask better questions and prepare better assertions than they did three months earlier.

[caption id="attachment_12032" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Rick France, President/HeadmasterMiller School of Albemarle[/caption]

Rick France, headmaster, Miller School

In this my 48th year as an educator, I have taught all but one, and that one year [I didn't teach] made it even clearer why I believe in teaching.

Why do you make it a priority to continue teaching?
1. There is no better way to stay in touch with your students. While it may only be a small group of the overall enrollment, one notices learning styles, student behavior, the scuttlebutt that floats in schools, and the level of student you enroll, not to mention the quality of the program if one teaches an upper-level class.
2. A teaching Head has instant credibility with the faculty. It’s a little more difficult for a teacher to complain that the Head just doesn’t know or understand what she/her faces every day.
3. It helps you stay abreast of your systems for communicating with families, that is, reporting grades and comments.
4. It keeps you in the halls every day.  Students see you, and they see you carrying your books, etc.
5. It keeps your mind attentive to something other than board reports, finances, and fundraising. It’s more than a lesson plan; it also requires formulating the best method to deliver the lesson or inspire learning.
6. Families love hearing that you teach. It leaves them with an impression that you actually have some expertise as well as that you believe in the mission of the school.
7. It keeps you in touch with the school schedule, the ebb and flow of the year.
8. It helps you recall daily why you got into this profession in the first place, making it easier to know what schools do.

What does your classroom time give you that you don’t get in the rest of your work?
1. Time with students that they can relate to their own lives.
2. You gain a perspective on school climate from students’ point of view.
3. You get out of your office and give your administrative Assistant a break daily from you.
4. An appreciation for a set time for a set activity.
5. The regularity of at least one thing in your day.
6. A chance to hang out with faculty and share student humor.
7. It forces you to always be on your game for your students.

I could go on for days but will stop here. Class time is seriously the best part of my day. When my Board said that they felt that I could not afford to remain in the classroom, I helped them understand how wrong they were. This is what we do. No head will ever convince me that his time is so precious or important that she/he cannot teach. I would think that they never liked teaching in the first place.

[caption id="attachment_12052" align="aligncenter" width="576"] Blue Ridge golf team with headmaster and coach Trip Darrin[/caption]

Trip Darrin, headmaster, Blue Ridge School

At Blue Ridge School, every faculty member and administrator is involved with coaching or leading a Co-Curricular Program. This allows us to offer a wide variety of sports, visual & performing arts programs, and activities within our Outdoor Program. It also allows every educator at Blue Ridge School to spend quality time with students and it’s this reason, above all else, that coaching the Varsity Golf Team is one of the best and most important parts of my job.

Every spring, I get to spend a few hours each day with a group of Blue Ridge boys out on the golf course or driving range. Certainly, mentorship and coaching are significant parts of the role – helping players to develop skills, technique, and the self-confidence to compete at their best in matches. Another part of the role is the education that I get from students. Strong relationships are formed over the course of the season, relationships that only come from spending time together on a daily basis. Not only do I come to know the boys as athletes, but I get to know them on a personal level. Members of the golf team also help me to better understand their experiences as Blue Ridge students and that is invaluable information that helps me lead the school.

Blue Ridge is an all-boys, college-prep school. BRS educators understand that boys are ‘relational learners’ - their growth as students, performers, athletes, and young men of character is accelerated when a strong relationship is established, when a person feels known as an individual. Coaching provides a venue for that to happen.

[caption id="attachment_12083" align="aligncenter" width="344"] Daniel Baillargeon, Headmaster, St. Bernard Preparatory School[/caption]Daniel Baillargeon, principal, St. Bernard Prep

Why do you make it a priority to continue teaching?

I continue to teach because I am a teacher. I know that might sound like a non-answer to your question; however, I believe that it fully answers the question.

When I started in education, I wanted to make a difference in the lives of children. I understand that as a principal, I can help teachers in the craft of teaching, but I still feel that it is important to connect with the students and continue to improve my own craft of teaching. I also have to assume the same responsibilities as the teachers who work under me, or better, alongside me. I have to lesson plan, design and correct assessments, pay attention to the changing demography and needs of the our students, conference with parents, and communicate consistently and regularly with the families as a teacher. This makes me a stronger administrator as it keeps me connected with the teaching and learning process.

What does your classroom time give you that you don’t get in the rest of your work?

The classroom time gives me a different level of connection with the students and teachers. It provides me the opportunity to connect with students in the important instructive process along with all of the benefits that flow from that process, moral connections, spiritual connections, emotional connections, and a relational connection where they know my expectations for them as students, learners, and people. With respect to the teachers, I can communicate with them not only as a mentor, but also a colleague who is trying to inspire a love of learning in the students in the same way.