What follows is an edited version of a lengthy conversation that Page and I had late into the evening on Thursday, April 23.
Excitement for the Future
Page: What are you most excited about for the middle school next year?
Gil: I'm excited that we get to develop our own sense of unique identity and purpose, and that we’re going to have a dedicated group of faculty to do that. I'm excited to build that team. When you have a small team, you can get to know each other really well and move somewhat quickly. This group of teachers is going to teach all of our students, so they're going to know all the individual kids really well and also get a granular picture of the groups and the grades. So I'm excited to have a close knit community, both of teachers and students.
I'm also excited to build partnerships with middle school families. Given the developmental needs of sixth, seventh and eighth graders, it's essential to have strong partnerships with families. Obviously boundaries are important--the job of the school and the job of the family are overlapping but very different--but I think that partnership is powerful and important, particularly as we look at students coming out this pandemic. And particularly with students at this age.
I’m also just excited to start building amazing programmatic stuff. I'm especially excited to build out a powerful, relevant, hands-on STEM program. We've had so many great ideas bubbling for a while, and I'm excited to get them out of the pan or the pot and put them into...I don't know...some kind of vessel out of which we can...eat these ideas? I got tangled up in that metaphor.
I guess I’m trying to say that I'm excited to see big ideas start to come to fruition.
How about you?
Page: I have much less specific knowledge of Field, so my excitement is maybe a little more general, but I guess I would start with just hoping that we have a normal school year. And along with that comes a sense of renewal about next year. I feel optimistic about that, because through the experience of the pandemic, and online school, and hybrid school, and partial in-person school, and all of the variations that we've lived through, we've learned so much. And as hard as it's been, there have also been some important insights that we've gained as educators and as school leaders, and I'm excited to put those into practice and see how they play out in a more “normal” school environment.
I'm really excited about some of the specific things at Field that originally attracted me to the place. Of course, the academic program and continuing to build that out and to think creatively about that. I'm excited about the intersession program. That's something that I've always pushed for in schools that I've worked at, but have never actually managed to get off the ground. I'm very excited to be joining a school that already has that in place and to really build on it and to make it meaningfully integrated into the overall academic experience of the students in the school. I want it to stand alone and be different and feel different, and yet, at the same time, feed back into the rest of the kids’ academic and social lives in meaningful ways. So that they can see that there's more to learning than just going to school and learning one way. There are lots of lots of different ways to learn. And the learning can be deep and meaningful and interconnected.
And then also just to be a part of the school. I feel like one of the real strengths of the school is the strength of the relationships, the strength and closeness of the community. And I'm very excited to be a part of that and to contribute to it.
Gil: What else can you share about what you learned through the pandemic?
Page: A huge takeaway for me and is just how important a positive culture is and how necessary it is to be intentional and deliberate about how you're building that culture. A positive culture isn't like a bank account where you can store it up and stash it away for later; it doesn't sit and mature in a bank account. You have to be active and engaged and proactive about building and perpetuating positive school culture, and it takes constant work by everybody. It's worth it to invest that time and energy and intentionality, because it's just so powerful when it works well. That's something I'm excited to put into practice at Field.
Gil: How do you see your role in moving the school forward and also safeguarding the culture and the ethos that are essential to us and make us the school that we are?
Page: A huge part of that for me is to be receptive. That's my style, anyway, to be an observer who asks a lot of questions. I have a lot to learn about Field and about the community and the things that make us tick. So I'm looking forward to spending time talking to as many people as I can and getting to know the place. And coming in with some humility.
I think about it the way a designer would. The first stage of design is to make observations, do research and collect information. To figure out what works well and what doesn't. What are the pain points? What are the things that make people happy and bring them joy?
I also know that when someone new comes in they bring energy and ideas and a freshness of perspective and a willingness to ask questions that may be no one's thought to ask. That's also going to be a huge part of it for me: not being afraid to say: “Well, why do we do it this way?” Casting a kind of beginner's mindset on the place that I hope is helpful in moving it forward and accomplishing some of the things that we all want to accomplish at the school.
I'm sure there are things that I'm imagining will be big challenges that won't be and I'm sure there are things I haven't even thought of that will be huge challenges. And I'll be surprised by them. And that's okay. I'm open to that.
How is it different for you, as someone who's been in the school for a long time? You're coming into this role from a very different perspective.
Gil: One of one of the things I've appreciated about Lori coming in is that she has brought that beginner's eye to our school and a willingness to ask questions. I’ve been here since 2002. And I have often found myself in the position of pushing myself and the school towards newness and innovation, but I sometimes find myself getting hung up on the way things are in ways that surprise me. I have appreciated Lori pushing me on this and asking those why questions, particularly since behind those “whys” is a commitment to our mission and our students.
For me it all comes back to values, right? What are the deeply embedded values and the origin stories of the school? What is the best of what Elizabeth brought in creating this school? What have we learned as a school in our almost fifty years? I see that as being small (or feeling small) and seeing kids as whole people; I see it as being deeply committed to teaching individual children well.
Elizabeth’s teaching methods were actually pretty traditional. I think she would have big questions about our focus on things like competency-based learning and Project-Based Learning. She was very much about dialogue--her model was, essentially, a teacher and a student sitting on a log, having a conversation. That's still an essential part of what we do and that’s not going away. But I would also want our students to be working together to try to lift the log off the ground, metaphorically or literally, and to figure out how to move it across the forest floor.
Page: Yeah. There are inherent risks in change and there are inherent risks in not changing. One of the things that really attracted me to Field was that sense of daring and a devotion to student centeredness, at really looking at the kids in front of us and asking “what is best for them?” and using that as the rubric for making decisions. We are not necessarily using years of tradition for making those decisions, though of course, you want to honor meaningful traditions and be stewards of culture.
School culture can live in very healthy ways, in different traditions within schools. When you have a school culture where kids look forward to these big moments, or these experiences, or they think about, “when I’m a seventh grader”, or “wow, when I'm in 10th grade at Field, I'm going to get to do that!” Those are all healthy and positive parts of a positive school culture.
At the same time, embedded in that is a willingness to be bold. That willingness to dare a little bit and to weigh the risks of not changing alongside the risks of changing.
Gil: The other thing I would say about moving forward and not doing so recklessly is to be mindful that we don’t get out ahead of ourselves. In many ways, I'm looking forward to the team that we’re going to have next year, which is a powerful mix of “old-timers” like me and folks with vast and different experience. It’s tempting for me to think of just charging ahead, but we also need to keep each other in check on those values. I can be kind of impulsive when it comes to exciting learning opportunities, and I appreciate people reining me in when I get ahead of myself.
In some ways, it's an equity practice, right? You want to make sure that you have multiple eyes and multiple perspectives. We want our team holding each other accountable for moving forward intentionally.
Most things about school feel new right now, because we have had to reimagine just about everything we do at school a couple of times. And I am proud of how we have approached all of this, because when I look back on it, and I see how great the need was for our students, I can see them at the center of the decisions we had to make.
The driver for decision making had to be the wellbeing of the children and their education, in a really powerful way.
Page: One of my big takeaways is the different ways in which the online environment and the hybrid environment can amplify great and also amplify the not-so-great teaching practices. For me, it's made a more compelling case for teaching that is project-based, carefully backwards planned, tied intentionally to meaningful assessment, and rooted in authentic learning experiences. It's driven home for me the power of those types of learning experiences.
So I’m carrying a kind of recommitment to practices that I know are good for learning--that I’ve seen in my experience and in the research about learning--out of this pandemic and into this more hopeful more normal new year.
Creating a Sense of Belonging
Gil: So we're both white men, and we have responsibility as school leaders to ask the question: how do we ensure that all students feel a sense of belonging here at Field. How do you approach this question? And how would you approach that in the Upper School?
Page: That ties in to some of the things we've already been talking about already, as well as some of what I said before about the importance of being intentional and deliberate about building school culture.
When I think about a school like Field and that vision of two people sitting on a log, and sees learning as a dialogue, I think about how belonging springs from those relationships and the conscious decision to engage in those relationships. To reach outside of my comfort zone and have the kinds of conversations that will deepen relationships. I think about having conversations like that across differences. It's important to be able to talk about differences, and to be able to actually engage with people whose lived experiences are different. Two people often experience the same thing in very different and equally valid ways. I try to bring that kind of mindset to relationships; I see it at the heart of building a positive, welcoming school culture.
The other thing I think about is trust and delegation. This is something that can apply to students equally as it can apply to colleagues, faculty and to families.
We often think that a good leader is someone who delegates well. There can also be the presumption that they get other folks to “do work for them.” When I think about delegating, however, I don't think about it that way. I think about truly delegating leadership and authority.
It's crucial for kids to feel like the leaders of the school and to trust and respect the kids enough to delegate leadership and to delegate authority to them, and then to get out of the way to let the kids lead. School leaders, teachers and staff are there to be the guardrails and to make sure that all of the kids have the opportunity to lead.
And I rely on the people I work with to make sure that, as a leader, I'm not always delegating to certain kids or certain types or groups of kids. It’s imperative to be deliberate and thoughtful about that.
Belonging is really about ownership. That question of ownership is at the crux of white and historically white institutions. It’s the question of ”who really owns and controls the institutions?” It's important to be cognizant of that and to practice “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” of privilege, to quote Peggy McIntosh. That ownership has to be truly shared and shared by all members of the community--including people outside of the majority.
It starts with relationships, with a willingness to acknowledge and embrace each other’s differences and use those as a starting point for understanding people and situations. Those types of practices, that type of mindset around intrapersonal relationships, and then ultimately around agency, leadership and ownership are important. That's how I would think about and then go about building a truly inclusive community, where people feel a sense of belonging. How about you?
Gil: When you were talking about leadership, I had this moment of recognition that I would be actually leading this whole division next year, and that comes with a huge sense of responsibility. Two big practices come to mind.
The first is actively seeking out and being open to feedback. When I think about how to help everyone--students, families, faculty, staff--feel connected to each other and to the school, I realize that it’s not going to be perfect for everyone all the time. The struggle and the desire to be more humane and more inclusive is rooted necessarily in people being willing to share what's really going on with them. As someone who feels responsible for that, I know we have to have a deep and regular practice of asking for feedback. We then need to listen carefully and actually use that feedback. That feedback cycle is essential, particularly when it comes to how people with different experiences and different identities are navigating school. Especially in middle school, where the social landscape for students is complicated.
So cultivating a culture of honest and open feedback is key. Similarly is cultivating a sense of curiosity about people. That's what keeps me in the field of education: a sense of curiosity about people and the world. What are you passionate about? Where do you come from? What stories do you tell about yourself and your world?
Taking that approach with students, with faculty, and with families, can allow us to approach potential conflict in a compassionate and empathetic way. The question becomes “what’s that about for you?” rather than “why can’t you just be more like me?”
Young people are inclined to be curious, but they’re also under a lot of social pressure to be similar. So encouraging that curiosity and empathy is powerful and developmental.
I also know that, as someone who is white and male and in a position of authority, I have to be curious about my own limitations, and how I can utilize that privilege to support and uplift others. This gets what you were saying about creating space for people with different perspectives. Part of what I love about teaching and learning is that you get to see the scope and limits of your understanding. Concepts and ideas may click into place where you can see the boundaries of your own mind. They may expand out or focus in tighter over the course of your life, but for me, it's a lot about trying to get a handle on what you can and cannot see. From there, it’s asking folks to see with you, so that you can get a sense of your perspective and others.
Page: We ask our students to do this all the time, so why shouldn't we ask ourselves to do the same kind of thing? Where has our growth floundered? What do we have to learn, and then how do we make space for students to do this? For us, as adults, we do this to reflect. If you can do that, and if you can do it constructively and collaboratively, and if you can build a culture where that's part of the feedback process, you can make real progress.
I also think about institutional practices and policies. For example, I've never taught in a school that's on a first name basis. At one of the schools where I used to work, there was a practice where the teachers and administrators were “Mr” and “Mrs” and “Dr” and so forth. The people who worked in the cafeteria, and the custodial staff, however, were all known within the entire school community by their first names. That was an informal practice at the school. It wasn't a codified rule or a policy, but it certainly was worth examining and unpacking. What messages does that send to everyone? What do kids learn from that?
I think it’s important, especially being in a position of responsibility and authority, to not be afraid to look critically at those types of practices, policies, and informal cultural things that are embedded. Again, there's that sort of beginner's mindset perspective that I'm looking forward to bringing to the table.
Gil: I'm looking forward to that too, and I think this gets to what I was saying about seeing my own limitations. As one of the people who has written many of our policies, I'm grateful to have another set of eyes on where we are, and particularly someone who isn’t swimming in what we've been swimming in lately, and what I've swimming in for the last 20 years.
Page: To your point about blind spots and everyone's own limitations: it’s important to have humility and to make space. There's so much compelling research about how groups that are more diverse make better decisions that lead to better outcomes--that’s what I mean when I talk about creating that sense of ownership and delegating responsibility and authority and leadership. Every school needs to be working on this all the time, because there's no such thing as a perfect school or a perfect society. One of the compelling things for me about working in schools is that schools have the opportunity to build cultures and to determine the types of relationships that they want to build. Schools can be better than the world around them. I would argue schools have an obligation to strive for that.
You were talking earlier about middle school kids, and the precariousness of that age in terms of identity and connection to their peers. I've had the privilege of working alongside some amazing early childhood educators. Early childhood teachers do this instinctively - they understand that emotional security is a necessary precondition for learning. If a student has some kind of sense of vulnerability, then you can forget about whatever you're hoping they'll learn.
I've worked for a long time in schools that have had students ranging from age three up to age eighteen. There is sometimes a tendency of Upper School educators like myself to brush off some of that stuff and say, “Well, you know, the student's emotional needs aren't as great, because by the time you get to high school, it's all about the disciplines and the math and the practice of the craft of writing. We don't have to worry about those things anymore.”
I frankly don't believe that's true. When you start talking about identity and people's sense of belonging, you start to see that if people don't feel that, then you're not going to accomplish the academic goals that you have for yourselves as a community. You just aren't, because people need to feel emotionally secure, before they can learn. That's true, whether you're three or four, or an adult of any age, and it is certainly true for all the students that we work with.
Gil: I used to teach this class called “Learning and the Brain”. I kept coming back to the idea that stress quite literally shuts down the frontal cortex and makes you neurologically incapable of learning. So it is important to think about that physiological reaction affecting a student’s capacity to learn, particularly a student trying to learn something as complex and abstract as calculus, for example. If they're going into that already feeling a sense of racialized stress or stress because of their sexuality or some comment that a peer or teacher made then they’re ability to learn is limited.
Page: Especially something as pernicious and prevalent as stereotype threat, right? The research around stereotype threat is unbelievably compelling. The good news is that it's actually relatively simple to combat stereotype threat. That isn't to say, it's something we shouldn’t take seriously, because it absolutely is. But it is something that we have agency about.
I love Lori's thinking and approach about what it means to be progressive. Being progressive is that intersection of research and best practices and through the interview process, I feel like I heard her say that 10 times. I love all that research! I love reading about it, I love learning it, I love sharing it with colleagues, I love sharing it with parents, and I love sharing it with students. One of the things I'm excited about is to be able to really think about putting that into practice in a community that values that and where that's a clear and important value, coming directly from the Head of School.
Congratulations on making it this far -- I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this conversation half as much as I enjoyed having it with Gil. We signed on to Zoom pretty late in the evening (at least for a couple of early risers like the two of us) and I remember starting the call with an admission that I was exhausted after a long day. When we signed off almost 90 minutes later I felt alert and energized -- always a good sign! I look forward to many more discussions with Gil, and to finding more thought partners in the Field community who will challenge and energize me.
About Page Stites
Page Stites most recently worked as the Director of Teaching and Learning at the Whittle School and Studios, where he led the design of the school’s academic program and, like Gil, was involved in hiring, admissions, parent education, and faculty evaluation. Previously, Page spent many years at the Wheeler School in Providence, Rhode Island, where he served in several roles including Upper School Dean of Students, Mathematics Department Chair, and coached both cross country and soccer. Prior to that, Page was a dorm parent, physics and mathematics teacher at Walnut Hill where the entire faculty voted to award him the E.E. Ford Award for Excellence in Teaching. Page received both his B.S. in Geological and Environmental Sciences and his Master’s degree in Geophysics from Stanford University.