“Everything I need to know I learned in kindergarten”
I finally understand what the adage above truly means, and it only took me 25 years of school to get there!
I just completed my first year of headship, and it was a wild and wonderful experience. In July of 2016, after 24 years spent working in a variety of roles at the secondary level of three different independent schools, I assumed the role of Head of School at a K-8 coeducational day school in Manchester, Vermont. By some measure, I had come full circle in my career. I still consider my youthful summers as a camp counselor working with ten year olds to be the genesis of my desire to be an educator.
Fortunately, the first chapter of this learning curve ends well. I would even go so far as to proclaim the past year a possible career highlight for me because I was able to once more play the envious role of student. I am not yet an expert in primary or middle school education, but I have learned enough to realize that career secondary school educators could learn a thing or two from the K-8 world. Since sharing is caring, here are my top three takeaways from a year-long deep dive into the fun and chaotic world of elementary and middle school curriculum:
1. Character education remains the most important goal of an independent school, no matter the age-group, size of school, or academic focus. In the K-8 world the focus – on a daily, if not hourly, basis – is on effective communication: how to talk, how to listen, and how to relate to others. Is there anything more essential in today’s world than social/emotional maturity? The best independent schools flourish because their mission is to teach respect, kindness, and inclusion. Academic excellence matters, but it should also be assumed given our price point in the market. What should never be assumed is the intent of all schools to promote an ethos of service to others.
2. Joyful learning is the key to a successful year and creates community. Has the fun of school possibly been lost on results-driven secondary school educators? All our students work extremely hard, but at times school needs to become a tech-free fun zone. I would challenge all educators to ponder adding activities that promote play and relationship building. Long live recess! Let there be enough songs, dances, skits, drum circles, field trips and field days to fill an entire calendar. Let them build castles and igloos and grow vegetables with minimal adult assistance. Children cherish these moments and they promote an effective model of teamwork. Critical thinking happens on the playground, on the stage, and in the woods. The addition of more “fun” in the school day does not mean an end to learning, it is simply learning in a different way.
3. Reading is a lost art. Put down the screens, pick up a dusty old book from the library, and sit down for 20 minutes a day and read. Our “DEAR” program (drop everything and read!) is a scheduled period during the school day when everyone enjoys uninterrupted reading time. DEAR is a reflective and meditative moment for students growing up in a world dominated by technology.
I feel fortunate to have had this past year to ponder the unique differences between K-8 and 9-12 educational systems. To that end, I would suggest more cross-pollination between lower, middle and upper school divisions during the school day. By asking faculty and staff to switch seats for a day you are encouraging productive and cost-effective professional development that no “expert” can provide.
Oh, and don’t forget the snacks!
About The Author
Fanning Hearon is the Head of School at Maple Street School in Manchester, Vermont. He started his career as a dorm parent, coach and Spanish teacher at his prep school alma mater, the Woodberry Forest School in Virginia, before returning to New England where he spent over a decade at the Brunswick School in Greenwich, CT. Before moving to Manchester, Fanning was the Assistant Head of School and Academic Dean at ISANNE member school, Vermont Academy, in Saxtons River.