Head of School Blog
I was a chicken in High School. I always wanted to try out for the school plays but never could face the fear of that intensely vulnerable moment of audition. Twice, I made it to the lobby of the theater, felt nauseous and left before entering, full of self-loathing. Luckily, Mr. Van Meter, our legendary theater teacher and director, caught wind of my dilemma. He pulled me into his office one day and asked if I would join the cast of Hamlet, not as a lead, but as one of four guardsmen who enters the stage at the end of the play to carry off the dead body of Hamlet himself. On and off stage in seconds with no speaking lines— I don't want to brag but I nailed my performance! My mother was so proud that she attended every show.
While this story reveals my limited participation in the arts, I hope it also conveys my deep appreciation for the role of the arts in education. In particular, I value the artistic process as a powerful source of enrichment in each of our lives.
The artistic process begins with a creative spark. As educators, we want students to think for themselves, be empathetic and view life from multiple perspectives. Crafting an original piece or performing on stage is critical to honing these art/life skills. The process also involves self-discipline, tenacity and practice as the artist struggles to turn inspiration into a finished product. Frustration is inevitable— a former art teacher and close friend of mine posted a sign above the entrance to her classroom that read, "A mistake is just a chance for a rapid design change." True in art and life! Finally, the process ends with a performance or exhibition because art should be shared. Artists must rise up and face the self-doubt and fear of failure at these culminating moments that celebrate their self-expression and creative work.
I know that I am biased, but I believe MA has the finest arts program in the River Region. If you don't believe me, I encourage you to attend one of our many K-12 plays, choral performances or art exhibitions. These celebrations of the artistic process will speak to your heart and nourish your soul.
on Wednesday March 4
Every summer, before the full faculty returns to prepare for the year ahead, we host an orientation for new faculty members. I love spending time with new faculty members because they arrive on campus with an energy and appetite to make a difference. During orientation, we immediately encourage them to become "impact players" on campus. Two years ago we hired Denise Dubick, fresh out of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to teach in our Upper School Technology Department. In short order, through personal conviction and collaboration, she has revamped our curriculum, ignited a passion for learning in her students, and become an impact player on campus.
While she could have dutifully taught the courses in place for a few years, Denise had a passion for STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and (as a rookie teacher!) brought together a team of faculty members to devise new engineering courses that would emphasize exploration, research, and application. After several collaborative sessions last spring, the faculty team settled on three goals for the new courses:
1. Spark a curiosity in some field of STEM
2. Foster active investment in student learning through engaging, hands-on projects, and student driven curricula
3. Develop independent research and modification skills that build on what students are learning in their math and science classrooms
The first course, Introduction to Engineering, was offered for the first time this semester. The students in the class are completely engrossed and engaged in class projects that include building airplanes, bridges, houses and robots that engage in battle! Next semester, students will have the opportunity to enroll in Advanced Topics in Engineering where, as a class, they will explore and investigate a current problem in the River Region and develop a proposal to address the issue.
Denise, like all MA faculty members, recognizes that the educational landscape is shifting. The old three R's of education have been replaced by three new ones: Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships. Continuing the MA tradition of academic innovation, our new engineering courses encapsulate these themes of a 21st century education.
on Wednesday November 12, 2014
Over the course of their K-12 education, students log over 18,000 hours engaging in academic, artistic and athletic pursuits. Many students graduate well versed and skilled in solving complex calculus problems, hitting a curve ball, and delivering an ovation-worthy dramatic performance. But if you ask those same accomplished young people to define ethical behavior or to explain what constitutes the good life, you will likely get blank stares.
At Montgomery Academy, our mission is to develop leaders of character. Everything else we do on campus is in support of this. During our opening faculty meetings in early August, we hosted a guest speaker, Dr. Martin Stegemoeller, who spoke on the topic of building a culture of ethical leadership. It was an informative and engaging workshop that affirmed much of what we do on campus and challenged each teacher, regardless of the age group or subject matter they teach, to place ethics and leadership training at the center of their work. I offer below a few key concepts that were covered during the session.
To Care is to Lead: Most young people believe leadership is synonymous with authority, a position of power where you “get to boss people around.” At MA, we define ethical leaders as potent caregivers who are eager to serve. In life, children receive care and adults provide it-- 95% of adult life is spent providing care to others: spouses, children, friends, employees, co-workers, etc. Once students understand this basic premise, they can begin preparing for the good life, a life of meaningful service to their families and communities.
Why Care? This is the most important question that rarely gets answered in a school community. Young people have an appropriate level of cynicism when adults tell them what to do so we need to have a compelling answer. Young people should build their capacity for care because there is an overlap between their self- interest and the world’s interests. Each of us is nurtured and supported by various communities (families, schools, places of worship, etc). Our lives would be impoverished without the direct support of those communities so it is incumbent upon each of us to engage and respond to their needs. Put another way, an ethical leader is aware that the community supports him/her and responds with reciprocal care.
Small ball leadership: If ethical leaders are potent caregivers who serve their communities, how do we fulfill our school mission of developing such people? Community service is critical to our mission but it is not enough as it takes place too infrequently. We want our students to view every day, every class, every practice, and every interaction as opportunities to provide care. This concept of “small ball leadership,” the conscious decision to respond to the needs of others, is the key to building a culture of leadership. Similar to lifting weights to build strength or training for a race to build speed, practicing ethical leadership on campus daily helps our students think beyond themselves and grow into generous young adults who are eager to serve.
As our children receive conflicting, often toxic, messages from popular culture, our work of educating leaders of character takes on a greater urgency. Our country needs mission-based schools like Montgomery Academy and the graduates they produce.
Mr. John Harvey McWilliams
on Monday September 15, 2014 at 11:16AM
As a Head of School, I spend a good bit of time in meetings with adults, primarily teachers, parents, administrators and trustees. The work we engage in is critical to advancing the Academy’s mission and I feel blessed to partner with such talented and devoted people. But I must be candid—when I reflect on the moments of joy of the 2013-2014 school year, they all involve kids. A few personal highlights of the past year that make me proud to serve MA are below.
Courtyard Convocation: This is a new tradition that officially kicks off the school year. Held in the Courtyard, it is one of the few times during the year where we bring the entire K-12 community together. Seniors escort the newest members of our community, their Kindergarten buddies, into the Academy Family. The atmosphere is thick with anticipation and everyone gathered on that August morning, including yours truly, is nervous and excited about what lies ahead.
All-School Choral Celebration: A beautiful celebration, this is an event where our Lower, Middle, and Upper School choral groups perform for the MA community. To end the evening, all of the groups join together as one group to sing the finale. I am always moved to tears at this event and am reminded that music is a powerful source of truth, beauty and inspiration. Our choral groups are true gifts to the MA community.
Cum Laude Society Induction Ceremony: Established in 1906, the Cum Laude Society recognizes the Pursuit of Excellence in scholarship. The presence of a Cum Laude Society chapter at an independent school is an indication that superior scholastic achievement is honored on campus. There are only three schools that have chapters in Alabama: Randolph School in Huntsville, UMS Wright School in Mobile and Montgomery Academy.
The ceremony gives us the opportunity to recognize the top scholars in the 11th and 12th grades and to celebrate the Academy’s commitment to intellectual curiosity and academic integrity. It is a moment of hope and joy at MA because the inductees represent the promise of the future.
Any one of our six athletic state championships: The strong tradition of excellence in the Academy’s academic program spills over to the playing fields, courts, and track. With the addition of six more state championships this year, the Academy now owns, by a long shot, the most of any school in the River Region with a grand total of 59.
It never gets old watching our student-athletes and coaches lift the trophy in triumph. To me, the championships are affirmations of the core values of courage, leadership, and sportsmanship and celebrations of the relationships and bonds between players and coaches.
Time spent with Seniors: I spend a lot of time with seniors. I host advisory groups for breakfast throughout the fall, for dinner at my home in the winter, and for MA reflection meetings in my office in the spring. I clear my schedule for these visits for two reasons: (1) Seniors’ energy, enthusiasm, and humor are contagious and remind me why I love my job and (2) their perspectives, insights and opinions teach me a great deal about our school culture and make me better at my job. The irony is not lost on me that my greatest teachers are the very students under my care!
Commencement: A dignified and reverent ceremony, our commencement does not include any individual awards or honors but rather celebrates the class as a whole. These young men and women will leave campus to pursue new adventures but they will always be the Class of 2014, united by the bonds of friendship and shared experience.
During their spring concert, our Upper School Chorus sang a wonderful song entitled “Draw the Circle Wide.” The words to the song, written by Gordon Light, will always remind me of the Class of 2014:
Draw the circle wide, draw the circle wide. No one stands alone, we’ll stand side by side. Draw the circle wide; draw it wider still. Let this be our song! No one stands alone. Standing side by side, draw the circle, draw the circle wide!
May the members of the Class of 2014 carry this anthem of unity and compassion in their hearts forever.
on Wednesday June 18, 2014 at 11:10AM
Two weeks ago I received an email from an alumnus congratulating the Academy on its recent honor as the top sports school in Alabama. This was news to me so I clicked on a link in the body of the email to get the details. Sure enough, MaxPreps.com bestowed the honor on us using a formula that “awards points based on size of state, size of school, type of sport and place finish.” There were four Varsity state championships awarded in the fall—MA won three and made it to the quarter-finals in the fourth.
Winning is fun, and I am obviously very proud of our athletics program for its tradition of success. But winning is not the point, or the purpose, of our athletics program. The purpose of athletics is to advance the mission of the Academy to develop leaders of character. Recently, a college president lamenting the national push for ratings systems for colleges wrote, “The danger in any ratings system is in measuring what is easily measured rather than what is truly of value.”
MaxPreps.com measured our victories and championships and determined that we were the best in Alabama, but it is far more difficult, perhaps even impossible, to measure what really matters in our sports program— relationships built over a season, character forged in the daily grind of practice, and life lessons learned in victory and defeat.
There was not a loud or raucous celebration on campus for the MaxPrep.com ranking because our student-athletes and coaches have always been humble in victory and gracious in defeat. That’s something to cheer about.
on Wednesday April 16, 2014
The Pursuit of Excellence is a tradition that demands change. As I reflect on the past several years, MA has indeed changed quite a bit. I’m proud to serve a school community that recognizes the importance of change and embraces the struggle that often accompanies it.
Our most significant recent change was the development of a bold new mission statement that reads: The Montgomery Academy develops leaders committed to honor, scholarship, service and the Pursuit of Excellence. This fifteen word statement defines the MA student experience and informs every decision we make on campus.
Advances in technology are clearly revolutionizing our classrooms. We have successfully launched a 1:1 iPad initiative and expect the pace of change in blended learning to be brisk. Technology is also transforming our faculty professional development and evaluation programs. We have partnered with a Maryland based company, Folio Collaborative, to introduce electronic faculty portfolios and online evaluation programs designed to give students, faculty, and administrators the opportunity to provide constructive feedback in our collective pursuit of excellence.
Other recent changes have strengthened our commitment to relationships and community. Our new Fall Courtyard Convocation and Kindergarten-Senior Buddy Program celebrate the K-12 student journey. “Family Nights” have been a big hit-- sprinkled throughout the year, we close the campus at the end of the academic day and cancel all athletic practices, late meetings and homework in recognition of the importance of family. As Ronald Reagan once said, “All great change in America begins at the dinner table!” Embracing the philosophy of servant-leadership in support of the broader community, the entire MA community now partners with one non-profit organization for a full academic year. For the 2013-2014 year we are supporting Habitat for Humanity.
In the midst of all this progress, we are also returning to our roots by affirming treasured MA traditions. Perhaps our greatest tradition is our culture of academic integrity and honor. Our student-led Honor Council remains vibrant and central to school life and we emphasize honor by gathering each class to publicly pledge their commitment to our Honor Code and to write out and sign the full honor pledge before every major test or paper. We are also returning to our “Standing Tradition,” where students rise at the beginning of each class and when adult guests visit their classrooms. As civility and honor erode in our larger culture, we believe these traditions differentiate and define a Montgomery Academy education.
on Wednesday April 2, 2014 at 09:06AM
I admit it… I have Feedback Fever. Over the past month, I have been meeting with first year parents and teachers to ask them for feedback on the MA Community. Their fresh insights and observations are invaluable, and they are just the tip of the iceberg as we systematically seek out feedback in our drive to improve and innovate.
It is an understatement to write that our community has embraced the importance of feedback. Five years ago, the Board of Trustees led the way by clarifying and deepening the relationships among its members and with the Head of School. Specifically, they committed to completing an annual online survey to assess and measure their effectiveness as a group and the performance of the Head of School.
Support for feedback runs deep through the entire MA community. In addition to the annual surveys we send out to parents and alumni, the Academy recently invested in a faculty evaluation software program. The program allows teachers to create electronic portfolios and receive regular feedback from their division directors. The evaluation system is driven by the idea that honest conversations are at the heart of meaningful growth.
Starting this semester, middle and upper school students will complete online surveys for each of their teachers—a process that benefits teachers but also empowers students as campus citizens whose input is valued. In that same spirit, I will continue to host small groups of spring-term seniors in my office for a time of reflection on their MA experience. Of all the meetings I host, visiting with the seniors is always the highlight of the year.
Gathering, processing, and distilling all of this feedback is exceptionally time consuming but undeniably vital as we build upon our successes, learn from our mistakes and envision a brighter future.
on Friday March 7, 2014
President Obama recently stated that while marijuana is a vice, a waste of time, and not very healthy, it’s no more dangerous than alcohol. His comments and the national media coverage of the legalization of pot in Colorado are deeply troubling to me as a parent and educator of adolescents. Our children are watching and listening and they need to hear from us on these topics as well.
“No more dangerous than alcohol?”
Alcohol IS a powerful and dangerous drug, particularly for young bodies and developing brains. A few sobering facts on the effects of alcohol on our children:
- Each year, approximately 5,000 children die as a result of underage drinking
- More than 190,000 children are sent to emergency rooms for alcohol-related injuries each year
- 90% of alcohol consumed by children is in the form of binge drinks and binge drinkers are 14 times more likely to drive impaired.
While the push for legalization of marijuana is popular, the research on its effects on developing brains needs greater media attention. Studies have shown that adolescent pot smokers exhibit deficits in attention, executive functioning, and memory. Other research suggests heavy use leads children to becoming withdrawn, less motivated and apathetic. Matthew Smith, a researcher at Northwestern University School of Medicine, offers common sense on the topic: “Adolescents are at a very vulnerable stage neurodevelopmentally. And if you throw stuff into the brain that’s not supposed to be there, there are long-term implications for their development.”
This is not a moral issue but rather a major health issue for children. In that spirit, I am pleased to support Parent Connect, an MA parent program that provides opportunities for parents to engage in meaningful conversations on these topics and to play an active role in keeping their children safe (click here to learn more). Under the outstanding leadership of MA parents Kelly Waites and Bonnie Trulove, I believe Parent Connect will advance our mission of developing leaders and pursuing excellence.
on Tuesday February 4, 2014 at 01:24PM
I’ve spent twenty years working for independent schools and my advocacy for their role in American education grows stronger every year. Common traits for the great ones include a clear and focused mission, passionate teachers who love and challenge their students, and a strong parent-school partnership. Of course, the great ones also differentiate themselves from the competition.
I knew early on that the Academy was a great school, one that differentiated itself by an incredibly high level of student engagement in all areas of school life. I have never worked at a school where so many students are on the honor roll, build Habitat houses on weekends, sing like angels in the school chorus, compete regularly for state championships in sports, perform on stage with confidence, travel the country for debate tournaments, and produce award-winning art! MA is unique because our students have voracious appetites for and engage in all that we offer in academics, the arts, athletics and community service. While I recognized this core strength early on, I’m embarrassed to write that I just recently figured out MA’s secret sauce or, put another way, how the Academy achieves such high levels of student engagement.
MA’s secret sauce is our philosophy of early exposure; our kitchen is our Lower School campus and our chefs are our Lower School teachers. We believe that learning can and does happen everywhere on campus: certainly in the classroom but also off campus, on the playground, on the stage, in the art room, and on the playing fields. We offer a rigorous curriculum but believe that community service, the arts and athletics are equally important in educating young men and women of character.
This philosophy of early engagement is lived out daily in our Lower School. Every student recites our Lower School Honor Code every morning. Every student in every grade performs in a student play every year. Every student participates in multiple community service projects every year. Almost every student in our third and fourth grade classes sings in our Lower School Chorus.
I am convinced that these early enrichment opportunities, experienced in a loving environment, profoundly impact the growth and development of our youngest students. When they transition to our Middle and Upper School campus, they are empowered learners and we continue to fan the flames of engagement. By the time they complete their K-12 experience and receive their diploma we have fulfilled our mission by sending forth leaders committed to honor, scholarship, service and the pursuit of excellence.
on Friday December 6, 2013
Teachers are not brain surgeons but, according to author and child psychologist Dr. JoAnn Deak, they are brain sculptors. I attended an independent school conference in Atlanta last month where Dr. Deak presented the latest research on brain development and the important role teachers play as neurosculptors.
Deak explained how important the first two decades of life are for brain development. Every child is born with approximately 100 billion neurons and, over time, the neurons form over 100 trillion connections. During this massive growth period, there are certain times or “windows” where the brain is extremely plastic and malleable. Deak believes that the more a child’s brain is stretched and shaped during these windows, the more brain capacity grows and meaningful learning occurs. Put another way, while the brain is an organ, it acts more like a muscle—the more you use it, the stronger it grows.
Sleep is the most important factor for healthy brain development during these decades. Most of the natural growth occurs during sleep and is enhanced by nutrition and plenty of water and exercise. Deak’s advice to parents is straightforward but hard to implement given our busy schedules: if you want smarter kids, make them sleep more than eight hours every night, eat a balanced diet and exercise daily.
Formal learning in a school environment is also critical to brain growth and this is where the teacher’s role as neurosculptor comes into play. According to Deak, “The relationships that teachers have with their students and the experiences they provide for them directly shape the neural circuitry of the next generation.” The two critical words in this statement are relationships and experiences. Great independent schools employ passionate teachers who invest in relationships and offer a smorgasbord of experiences in academics, the arts, and athletics.
When you think of teachers as brain sculptors, you appreciate how important the art of teaching is in the science of brain development.
on Monday November 4, 2013
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