Back to School
By Craig Gemmell
Head of School
I taught nearly continuously for 27 school years before arriving at Brewster in July. Something like 5,000 days, perhaps 20,000 classes in total. I went cold turkey on July 1: I talked about animal energetics and human impact on the biosphere last year, energy budgets and personnel decisions now. What a difference a year makes.
I’m not wary about the work I do – I know deep down it is important because it lets the real work happen in the classrooms, the dining hall, on the playing fields, in the dorms – and I have no regrets. Like an athlete who has been sidelined, I still want to watch the game, yet caution has prevailed because my scientific training, owing at least in part to Heisenberg’s work, taught me long ago that the observer influences the system and becomes an unwitting variable, especially when the observer is the head of school and observation is perceived as evaluation.
Up until now, I’ve treaded lightly. Ambling into a class to return a coffee mug or to drop off a birthday card or to give a message to a student. I’ve listened for a moment and then departed during a natural break in the action.
But it is, after all, mid-February, and breaking up routine and my desire to really understand more intuitively why this place works have compelled me to go through a day with each academic team.
Today, Team Cook was the only item on my typically meeting-packed schedule, and I sat in the back of Algebra II at 8 a.m. sharp. Six hours later, I had learned a great deal. Brad Cook helped me finally to understand how all the approaches to solving a quadratic equation relate to each other; Janis Cornwell helped me to understand why it was that I never did particularly well on exams when I was 15 (because I didn’t plan ahead! Where was she!); Tom Owen brought chemical digestion alive through a shocking story of viscera disrupted and a telling demonstration; Shamar Whyte got me writing, processing my reality, sharing it with others, hearing their voices; and Jason Ouellet got me to ponder how scientists thought during the scientific revolution.
Kids were working, purposeful, progressing in all of these classes – I could sense it. Teachers were themselves but worked in a way that cohered with their colleagues’ work. Lessons were tight, focused, capable of reaching a range of students. Classes were fun and light but not soft. Kids could be curious and themselves. Everyone was on task.
And all of this got me thinking. Truly. Not just about the subject at hand. About my own thinking and learning. About what would have worked for me, cast against my own memories as a 15 year old – memories held deeply and liberated through the course of today. Memories of chalk dust, tired books, classes of 30, taught by nice, well-intentioned people who stood and delivered as I stared out the window, perhaps a bit much for my own good, and got lost in my own thoughts.
Memories of my life as a student bled into those of my past teaching life, a life during which I found my way as much as I found my way as a student – mostly alone and through trial and error. During the few moments when I drifted in class today, I wondered what sort of teacher I would have become had I been stretched here and been able to collaborate daily with others who are armed with such an effective toolbox.
As I searched through the moments that made up today, I saw my younger self – as teacher and student benefitting from the nuances, the patterns, the shared practices, the individualized approaches within a system so well-conceived and thoughtfully-engineered that our kids and, perhaps, some of our teachers, probably come to take it for granted.
I have a bunch more days blocked off over the coming weeks to visit the remaining teams, and, if today presages experiences to come, I suspect I know the punchline already: this is a rare place, and I am a very lucky person to work in service to it.