We’re excited to launch Season Two of On Balance with guest Rebecca Skinner, Blue School’s Interim Head of School. Rebecca shares her favorite back to school memories, her first impressions of Blue School, and hopes for our community during this transition period. Rebecca was the Founding Head of the International School of Brooklyn and was most recently a member of the team that launched The Dwight School in Dubai.
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DAWN WILLIAMS: Welcome to On Balance, a podcast for parents created by Blue School educators. We know that even in ideal circumstances, finding balance can be a challenge. And now, so many of us are finding that our work, home, school and parenting lives are more tangled than ever. We see you and we’re here to partner with you.
Blue School is an independent school in New York City that has successfully pioneered a balanced educational experience, empowering children to be creative, analytical, joyful, and compassionate. I am Dawn Williams, Blue School’s Director of Enrollment, and proud parent of a Blue School graduate. Every week I will be talking to an educator, a Blue School advisory board member, or a special guest about today’s ever changing landscape and how we can help each other find our footing. Whether you’re the parent of a toddler or a teenager or anything in between, we’re glad to be on this journey with you. Together we will find our way.
Today I am so happy to be speaking with Rebecca Skinner, Blue School’s Interim Head of School. Rebecca was the founding head of the International School of Brooklyn and was most recently a member of the team that launched The Dwight School in Dubai.
Rebecca, I am so excited to have this time to talk to you today.
REBECCA SKINNER: Thanks.
DAWN: So here we are, right at the beginning of the school year, and I’m wondering if you could share with us what the first day, what the beginning of a school year means to you.
REBECCA: Sure, I’d love to do that. I think the beginning of the school year is such an exciting time. You know, when you work in education you really are on this cycle where there is this very clear beginning and end of the year. And I just love that beginning time, because as a moment to come back into community, reconnect with friends, embark on a new learning journey. It’s just so full of excitement and wonder and curiosity. I also have to say that — I was always an August birthday, and so was very eager to get back to school, and see my friends, and have a little late birthday celebration with them.
DAWN: That’s so sweet. I am wondering if you had a favorite first day of school. Whether that favorite first day of school was when you were a child, or as a parent, or as a school leader.
REBECCA: Sure. I might share a couple of those stories.
DAWN: Great, awesome.
REBECCA: Yeah, so as a kid I think one of the things that I always remember was being very excited about what I was going to wear to school on the first day. And, you know, it was maybe an opportunity to get a new shirt, or new pair of jeans, or to wear my hair in a special way. And it was just a lot of fun to be able to think about that, and to be able to go and share that with my friends. And I think that as I became a parent, my perspective completely shifted.
And I have a very strong memory when one of my children started school at the age of two, and he was going to ride a school bus to school, and he was only two years old. And this was very scary for me and my husband. So the first day of school, we put him on the bus, and then we got into our car, and we followed the bus to school, and we watched him get off. And only then did we go home and feel comfortable that we knew he was safe, and that he had made it to school. And there was absolutely no need to do that, because they took wonderful care of him, but we were very anxious and excited for him, so —
And I think then as a school leader, you know, I’m really fortunate to be able to have this perspective of the first day of school also. And I’ve been so lucky to be able to be part of starting two different schools, one in Brooklyn and one in Dubai. And so being able to see all the families come, and the students come, and the teachers come on the first day of school, and to see all of that hard work, and all those ideas, and the countless hours we spent on every — everything, really coming to fruition in this moment of everyone coming and the doors being opened. That’s just such a powerful experience, and I feel so fortunate to have done that in that way twice now.
DAWN: That’s so powerful. It makes me think about this school year and how different our first day of school was together this year. Listening to your story about your two year old being on the school bus, I think about so many parents who are having their two year olds just have a meeting on Zoom with their teachers this year, and that marked the first day of school. I wonder if there were any moments of this year’s first day of school that have stood out for you.
REBECCA: Well, I think that is probably one of the most unique first days of schools and first years —
REBECCA: You know, for — for everyone really. So I mean, I think right off the bat the fact that around the world we are all going back to school in such unusual ways this year is really powerful. It’s that sense of commonality we have to colleagues and to families and communities around the world. And I think for myself as a leader, and in being part of Blue School, it’s really about just thinking about that calm and steady approach. Taking it one day at a time. You know, being excited about what’s coming. And also being open and flexible to the fact that there may be changes along the course of the year. I think that that’s a lot of what is framing my thoughts as we’ve entered into this year at Blue School.
DAWN: I’m always interested in why people choose to do the things in their life that they choose to do with their life. And it feels like so many people who choose to spend their life in school have big memories of school. I wonder if you had a favorite subject when you were in school, or a teacher, or a class that you think about?
REBECCA: Yeah, definitely. I was very much impacted by my experiences as a student. And I had the real fortune to attend progressive schools from the time I was in preschool, so two years old, all the way up through the end of primary. And I grew up in Dallas, Texas. And at that time, there was a Montessori public school that was just opening. It was kind of experimental. And so my parents enrolled all of us, all four of us, into that school. My mom had been a Montessori teacher herself, and so it was the model that she really believed in and wanted for us as well.
And so, you know, some of the things I remember most from that time, the connection that you have with your teacher. So in a Montessori model, you are usually connected to one teacher for three years, and you loop with that teacher. You have students from three grades in your classroom. So I had the same teacher for first, second, and third grade. And then fourth, fifth, and sixth grade I had another teacher. So that’s already unusual, to be able to develop that sort of long term relationship with your teacher.
And then by coincidence, both of my primary school teachers were male teachers, which is also very unusual. And they were incredibly nurturing, incredibly connected to this way of working with students. And I just remember that every day I could go into school, and I could think about what I wanted to study that day. I had the ability to pace myself, to dig deeper into the topics that were really exciting to me. And just a sense of ownership of my own learning, and being in the space and the classroom. And those memories have stayed with me forever. And I think they really influence the way I like to do my work in general, the way I like to collaborate with people. And I think having had that experience myself, I’ve always wanted that for my own children, and to be able to give that to other children as well.
DAWN: So I’d love to talk to you a little bit about your first impressions of Blue School. I know you’ve gotten to know the school almost entirely virtually, with very little sort of on-site experiences. But I wonder if you could share some of your first impressions of being part of this community.
REBECCA: Sure. It has been a very unusual beginning to — to a job. Particularly one where you think of people in spaces together, working with children, right? So not only did I start in the summer, when there are no children in the school, but I also didn’t even start in the school building. And until about, oh I guess a week and a half ago I had never even been to visit the school. So it was a different way of getting to know the community, and of getting to know people. I think I have really become attune to aspects of who people are that maybe I wouldn’t have noticed if we were all together first. So that’s been a very fascinating process.
And I found an incredible team of dedicated and talented faculty and staff members. And I think one of the elements that has really stood out to me is how many of my teammates have been working with Blue School for many, many years. And to me that’s one of those things that’s very indicative about the culture or the climate and the environment. When people stay and look to grow within an institution, it really says something about how they feel about their work. That they feel they can have an impact, that they feel valued in their work, that they feel there are ways they can continue to grow. And to me those are incredible elements for success in — in any organization, and certainly in a school.
So I’ve been really excited to see that that’s already part of the culture at Blue School. It’s certainly something that I have tried to foster in other schools that I’ve worked in. And I just love also that it means there’s this historical knowledge in the school. So as someone who is coming in brand new to the school, I know that there are many, many people I can reach out to and say, “Hey, you know, I came across this in a document. Can you tell me, what’s the history of this idea, you know? How has it evolved over time?” And that is really incredible, and I feel so fortunate to have walked — have been able to walk into a community that has this strong foundation.
DAWN: Speaking of walking into the community, I wonder if you can talk about the experience you had of walking through the building. So again, the children weren’t there.
DAWN: But I wonder if there are things in the building that jumped out at you, or that made the things that people say about Blue School feel real in a different way.
REBECCA: Yeah, definitely. So first I have to thank you for giving me tours of the school.
DAWN: That’s my favorite thing to do.
REBECCA: I’d say when we walked through 241 Water Street, I was really taken by the light in the classrooms. And the day I came, it wasn’t particularly sunny. You know, it was kind of cloudy and gray. But you just walk into the classrooms, and you just feel all of this light. And I can see how it just lends itself to the students exploring the classroom and having different nooks and crannies that they go into. And just having plenty of space for them to — to do their work, and to really dig in, and do their explorations.
So I spent a lot of time as we were walking around the building just imagining what those spaces will look like when they are full of work. You know, I’ve always said that while it can be strange to walk into a school building where there isn’t much up on the walls, I actually really love seeing that at the beginning of the year, because that tells me that what will go up on the walls is the important work and the voice of the students. The walls are not going to be crowded out by posters and random—things that are maybe pretty to look at but don’t necessarily tell the story of the learning that’s happening in the school. So I love walking in and seeing those bare walls, and then imagining how they are going to grow and change over the course of the year, and really tell the story of what’s happening in an individual classroom.
So that was exciting to me. And then I think when we got over to 156 William Street, I really loved — there is a very cozy vibe. You know, definitely speaks to the older child. A space where they have independence, they — they know their way around. I can just imagine groups of students gathering in the library, finding a nook where they want to read, or hanging out in the commons and talking about — about their lives, about what’s been happening at school. And I think probably the other thought I had after my tours was that I really cannot wait to see the glow room in action. I’ve heard so much about it, I’ve seen photos. And I’m just really excited for that.
DAWN: It’s adorable. I’d love to hear a little bit about how you’re thinking about your role as head at Blue School. How do you see these first months?
REBECCA: Sure. I think the first months, coming in as a leader, are really important. It’s important for the community, it’s important for me. I really see this as a time to learn. Learn about the community. You know, what is already happening, what’s important in the community, what are the thoughts and the ideas that people have about how they want to see the school grow. Getting to know people. And finding out why they’re passionate about being part of Blue School.
I say that because I can have lots of ideas about what I think Blue School should do or — or what I’ve done in the past. And I find that when I come in with this more collaborative approach, and create the opportunity for people to share with me what is important to them, I feel like I can be more effective as a leader and be faster in that process, because I’m already holding space for what is there, and for giving the agency and the voice that I want to have exist within the school. And so that’s — it’s a very special time of just getting to know everyone. And really building community. You know, building relationships with people.
DAWN: I’ve heard you talk about change, and about transitions, and the difference between change and transition. Can you share some of your thinking about transitions and how you’re holding that during these uncertain days?
REBECCA: Sure. I love talking about organizations. So you — you’ve hit on one that I can talk about for hours. So a few years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in the Klingenstein Fellowship Program up at Teachers College for heads of schools. And I was doing this at a time when I was the head of school at International School in Brooklyn. And I knew that I was going to be transitioning out, and moving to Dubai in the near future.
So when you join that program, you have to think of a research topic. And I was really fascinated by thinking about what happens when organizations change leadership. Particularly when you have a change from a founding head of school to the next head of school. And so I thought I would focus — focus my research on that. And one of the things that I learned that has just stayed with me since then is this idea that there is really a difference between change and transition. Before I did the research, I’m pretty sure I just used the words interchangeably.
But what I learned was that change is really just the operation, the logistics. You know, I have this set of furniture, I’m changing it for that set of furniture. I have these people working in my organization, and now there’s someone else working there. The transition though is the emotional journey, and the process that a community goes through when change occurs. And particularly when change in leadership occurs, or if there’s change in the way the organization is structured. Anytime that sort of — those big changes. And so through that research, you know, I learned about ways that you can hold space for that transition. And how to engage your community in that transition process.
And I found that to be just really fascinating. Because it said to me that you can really be thoughtful and intentional in the way that an organization experiences change. So I’ve tried to keep that with me. And I try to think about it when I’m looking at big changes and small changes, in my personal life, in my work life. And I’ve found that just even having that framework, even if I’m not applying the specific process that I read about, it really does help. It really, I think, allows that change to happen in a way that is healthy and helps the community feel good. When sometimes people — some people want change, and some people don’t want change, you know? And that’s normal, and that’s always going to be the case. And when you give that space for that process, I think you allow everyone to sort of move forward at their own pace. And you just set yourself up for greater success.
DAWN: I heard you earlier say that you see yourself in these first months being in a learning mode, and a listening mode. And I know you’ve set up times already to get to know families and teachers and classrooms, especially while we’re online these — for this first few weeks of school. Are there other ways that you are thinking about deepening your relationship with families and teachers in classrooms?
REBECCA: Definitely. And I really wish there were more hours in the day.
DAWN: I know.
REBECCA: Because I always have way too many ideas and not enough time to do them all. So some ways that I’ve really enjoyed connecting with community members previously, been through having coffee mornings with parents, just time again for us to get to know each other, to connect as parents, to connect as people who are passionate about education. And just to, you know, build that relationship. I know that Blue School has a history of holding round tables around educational topics, and I was excited to hear that because I’ve done that previously, and I’ve also found that that’s a great way to get to know people better. I think — I’ve even found that sometimes you discover that people within your community have amazing interests and knowledge in certain topics that you would have had no idea otherwise.
So for me those also are just as much about me gaining community and a sense of connection, as it is about me sharing or about other leaders in our school sharing our own knowledge and expertise. So I’m looking forward to those. I’m working on setting aside some time so that I can do some dropping into Zoom classes. And sort of seeing everyone in action. And I know that the Blue School has a long tradition of holding community meetings as well. And this is an idea that I’ve always thought about in my last schools, and haven’t had a chance to do. So I’m really excited that this is part of the ethos and the way of working at Blue School. And I’m looking forward to working with the leadership team to think about how that can exist in this space that we have this year in the way that we’re working this year.
So that’s one — one that will be new for me, but I’m excited as a way to connect more deeply with the community. And then I guess another way is through working around our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. And looking at how do we grow as an anti-racist community. These are topics that are very important to me, that I’ve done a lot of work around in my prior schools. And I’m really excited that it’s something that Blue School is equally committed to. So right now with the leadership team, we’re really looking at what have we done in the past, what ideas or goals do we have for this year, and then how does that really come together from a holistic perspective so that we can see all the different ways that we’ll be having these conversations over the course of the year.
DAWN: So it seems that there are already things — ways built for you to get to know parents, and of course you’re getting to know teachers and administrators deeply. Are there ways that you want children and students to be in touch with you?
REBECCA: Yeah, I love getting to know the students, and getting to hear what’s on their mind, what they’re working on. You know, and of course it’ll look a little bit different this year, at least in these first — first few weeks. And — and then that will evolve as the year goes by. But I really hope that students will reach out to me. Our older students of course have their own email addresses through school, and I love getting emails directly from students. Sometimes they’re very hilarious. You know, in that they are just so serious about the questions that they share. And I love that sincerity, I love that students have that sense of agency of reaching out to the head of school, and I take every email that they send me with such importance and care. And you know, I look forward to engaging with them on those conversations.
And for our younger students, I hope that they will connect with me. Maybe they’ll send me a drawing that I can put up in my office. Or maybe through their parents, they’ll reach out to me and share some thoughts with me. You know, I love hearing what’s — what’s going on for kids in the classroom. What are they excited about? What special moments have they had? And so I — yeah, I hope that the students will really reach out to me, and I know that I will be connecting with them as well.
DAWN: So Rebecca, I’ve so enjoyed this time talking. I wonder if there are any words that you want to leave for our community as they begin this year.
REBECCA: Sure. You know, I — I just have so much optimism about the year ahead. I know it’s one that’s a year full of uncertainties in many ways in our lives. But for me, that doesn’t negate the sense of wonder and excitement that I always feel at the beginning of the year. You know, that students are about to embark on a year long journey of curiosity, of growing, of just exploration. And I think that that is a very powerful image for all of us to hold — hold in our hearts, and to hold space for. Particularly in those moments where the current world feels maybe uncertain or overwhelming, or anxiety producing.
And I just look forward to finding all the new ways that we’re going to work together, and the way that students are going to learn this year. I mean, already I think all of us who have been in education since the pandemic began, we can all point to ways that we are working now, and ways that we see children are learning now that we didn’t really know or — or could be that successful before. And while we all yearn to be back in the classroom full time, it’s been exciting to see where we’ve grown, and how we’ve found new opportunities in these unique times. And so I think that’s just — that’s what I like people to be keeping in their head. You know, what are the opportunities, where will they grow this year.
And I think just also that sense that we’re really all in this together. This is something that as a whole world we’re facing. And I hope that our community will continue to see me as someone who is there to help, and to support in any way that I can. Because I know for me, I see the community as a place where I will get to learn and grow over the course of this year. And that’s just really exciting for me.
DAWN: Thank you so much, Rebecca.
REBECCA: Thank you.
DAWN: If you share Blue School’s vision of a balanced approach to learning and living, so that children can be courageous and innovative thinkers, please take a moment to subscribe and listen in on our weekly discussions. You can also follow us on Instagram and Facebook @BlueSchoolNYC, or visit BlueSchool.org for more in depth content. We’re sending support and strength to you and your loved ones as you endeavor to create balance.