Interview with John Palfrey, Head of School, Phillips Academy (MA)

Interview with John Palfrey, Head of School, Phillips Academy (MA)

From The Yield, Winter 2013

After he gave a provocative and insightful keynote address at the SSATB Annual Meeting early this fall, The Yield sat down with John Palfrey to glean his perspectives as someone new to the independent school community.

As someone new to independent school community leadership, what were your expectations of your leadership/administrative team? Other heads? Industry associations? How have they delivered on your expectations? How can they help more?

I had incredibly high expectations. In a job as complex as being a head of one of our schools, it is clear that you can’t do it all yourself. The success of any adminis­tration rests almost entirely on the ability of the senior leadership team to work well together. I had extremely high standards for the team, both individually and collectively. The good news was an extraordinary team was already in place.

I came into this job having no experience in secondary schools. I had knowl­edge in a related field but nothing related specifically to school administration. I’ve been very fortunate that other heads, who are more experienced and willing to share experiences, jumped in to provide positive and constructive feedback for me. This has been crucial, and I’ve needed a lot of support in finding my way. My former college counselor at Exeter, who is now the school’s principal, Tom Hassan, has been a wonderful resource and mentor. Kendra Sterns O’Donnell, who had been the head of Exeter when I was there as a student, is someone else to whom I have turned as a guide. When I’m dealing with situations on cam­pus, I find myself asking, “What would Kendra do?” Many heads of schools have reached out, even people I hadn’t known prior to taking this position, and they have been incredibly generous with their time and advice.

NAIS’s Institute for New Heads was a welcome experience and opportunity to meet new heads at the beginning of their tenure. While the content taught and the connection to the deeply accomplished faculty have been invaluable to me in my new position, being able to leave the Institute with a network of people starting this experience at the same time, and knowing they are facing similar hurdles, has created a fraternal and collegial feeling among the attendees.

While competition is inherent in our industry, that feeling is dwarfed by the cooperation that goes on in the independent school sector. Schools, heads, faculty, and influential associ­ations like NAIS and SSATB, have created a sense of community that breeds relationship building and em­phasizes the need to bring value to each other and to our students.

As a new head, please tell us the educational and institutional challenges you faced on your first day.

Andover shares, with many other schools, hard questions regarding fi­nancial sustainability. I think as you consider the full tuition we charge, it’s a relatively small group of peo­ple who can afford $47,000 per year for high school. We are kidding ourselves if we think our business model is sustainable over the long term. It needs to be addressed swift­ly but with care. Any of our schools that don’t look hard at sustainability, whether they have a large endow­ment or no endowment, will face trouble down the road.

A long-term issue facing all of our schools is recruiting and retaining a diverse community of students, fac­ulty, and staff. I refer to diversity in the broadest sense – socioeconomic, geographic, cultural, religious, and so forth. As an institution, we cannot get to a place of diversity and stop; it is something we have to work at continually. Families, like my own, whose children have historically gone to boarding schools, are con­tinually attracted to our schools; yet we must actively court and recruit a diverse population to expand the experience for everyone, and to re­flect better the world our children will enter as adults. We grapple with this issue each day, and it’s clear to me that at Andover, and at other schools, there is work to be done.

Andover just embarked on a partner­ship with Khan Academy. What is your view of the future of education and how will these new elements be integrated into the classroom?

The tension between our 235-year history and how best to plan for the future has been a major challenge in thinking about introducing new ways of teaching, and we need to fig­ure out how to manage that tension – but not at the expense of our stu­dents’ experience today. One of the hallmarks of independent schools has been the great face-to-face re­lationships between faculty and students that have resulted in a very high-quality education. I don’t think integration of these new teaching media will change these relation­ships; they will continue to be the core of what we do. But I would love to find ways to improve what hap­pens in that face-to-face interaction, and to find ways to extend what we can do by virtue of new technology.

What’s so surprising and so helpful to see with our Khan Academy part­nership is not only what’s happening in terms of the expanded experience for our residential students, but also how it’s turned into incredible pro­fessional development for our faculty. Fundamentally, the kind of change our faculty and students can procure from the data offered by Khan Acad­emy will alter the classroom. The data can show what kinds of ques­tions work better than others, how students can have effective home­work, and more. This can change how we view the classroom and flip the classroom to engage our students better or to become more interac­tive. Ultimately, we will discover the most effective methods of learning for kids in a digital age. There are so many aspects of this project that will bear fruit, not just for kids that are currently enrolled at Andover, but for our future students as well.

How are you communicating about this program to the tuition-paying parent, who might question the change in teaching methodology?

We had parents’ weekend not too long ago, and we had hundreds of parents, who were already sold on the partnership. While there were plenty of questions to be answered, parents have been our advocates for the Khan Academy partnership with the Andover community. One thing we have done is focus on in­stitutional research, and we will publicly report on the results of the program, whether they are success­es or failures. We will be reporting consistently the results of the pro­gram, and more broadly, the effects of the partnership.

Your book, Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives, covers the first generation of digital natives, and explores how older generations view these digital natives as both extraordinarily sophisticated and strangely narrow. How have your views been justified, confirmed, or changed as you are now intimately involved in this generation’s education?

When the book was published, it was somewhat controversial. People didn’t perceive the difference be­tween those that were born digital, and those that were not. Now the book seems outdated, as the impor­tance of a digital life in the social and educational realms has grown over the last five or six years. I think some of the problems identified have continued to grow, specifical­ly the multitasking and distraction issues. Students spending time on Facebook or Twitter, when they should be studying is really no dif­ferent than the old days of doodling in notebooks. Only now, the doo­dling is done on a variety of devices. Given the vast nature of the inter­net, students have more opportunity for distraction, and this issue is sure to increase as devices continue to combine more tools and more apps are launched in the market.

Teaching students that our priva­cy continues to erode every year as the digital landscape develops is still extremely relevant. This will be most painful for students that live intimately online and have a fair amount of information online that they will want to scrub as adults; but like tattoos, these digital footprints will be hard to remove. Unfortu­nately, it’s very hard to teach this les­son other than in context. When it comes to digital literacy, we’ve found that the Andover seniors have such an incredible influence. Providing a forum for them to share their les­sons on privacy helps our younger students find their way around pri­vacy issues with a little less pain.


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