New Head of School, Walter Landberg, in Conversation with Elementary School Director, Dr. Jacqueline Olivier
WALTER: One of the things I have most enjoyed during these first months at New Roads is spending time in the midst of the lively energy of New Roads Elementary School. I began my career as an elementary school teacher so spending time at the Elementary School feels a bit like returning to my roots. What drew you to elementary school education?
JACQUELINE: I realized early in my career that elementary education presents a unique and somewhat daunting challenge: to grab children’s natural exuberance and curiosity and mold these traits into the still-joyful discipline and habits of lifelong learning. As a classroom teacher, I cherished the “light bulb” moments when my students first loved a good book, or solved a new problem, or made a discovery on their own. Elementary teachers and administrators have a huge task – to meet the intellectual and social-emotional needs of diverse groups of children, to introduce them to their first experience of “formal” learning, and to create a community and a curriculum that foster growth, a healthy sense of self, and the drive to keep learning. Our incredible faculty at New Roads Elementary is more than suited to the challenge and it is a pleasure to return to our collaborative efforts each fall.
WALTER: I am still learning about New Roads, but already I sense a different approach to teaching and learning. Where do you think our difference lies?
JACQUELINE: I think what is most unique about our approach at the Elementary School is the care we take in personalizing each child’s school experience. We draw from different, proven programs and technologies to develop reading and math skills, but very often we see that what works for one student does not work for another, and our teachers are able immediately to adjust and find other pathways. We want the students to know that they have a voice in how and what they learn, so we provide opportunities for them to pursue their individual passions and interests. Because of our small size overall and our small class sizes in particular, our teachers – and actually our whole team – truly know each student and are in constant conversation with one another, sharing perspectives on the kids.
WALTER: We know that parents have choices when it comes to elementary schools and that they – rightfully – are looking for value when they choose an independent school like New Roads. I often hear the word “excellence” mentioned but I don’t often hear it defined. What does “excellence” at New Roads Elementary School look like?
JACQUELINE: Excellence at the Elementary School begins with the teachers, who model it for students every day. For us, excellence is not defined simply by a grade or a test score or a first-place ribbon – our definition of an excellent student includes things like persistence, giving your best effort to each class and learning opportunity, taking creative and intellectual risks, being compassionate, being inquisitive and being respectful of fellow classmates. This definition of excellence sets a much higher bar for our students than merely asking them to perform at a certain level on tests or homework.
WALTER: One of the things that first attracted me to New Roads was the mission statement; the school’s emphasis on teaching responsibility with respect to real problems in the real world at the same time we are teaching “studentship” and scholarship. How is the mission implemented day to day?
JACQUELINE: In so many ways! The most structured manifestation of the mission comes in the form of our SWAT (Students with Awesome Traits) initiatives; students cannot work fast enough to bring attention to, and fundraise for, causes like childhood hunger, global literacy, environmental awareness, animal rights, disaster relief – you name it. On a more “micro” level, our teachers work diligently and patiently with students every day on empathy, understanding, and productive conflict resolution; and this shines through in our wonderfully kind and safe school community. Our ‘buddy’ program brings out the best in 4th and 5th graders, who begin to see themselves as role models, transmitting the culture of the school to the up-and-comers.
WALTER: We have the good fortune of being a K-12 school enabling us to observe and influence a wide arc of student learning and development. How does what you do at the Elementary School reflect mindfulness about “the long game” and set kids up for success in Secondary School and as lifelong learners?
JACQUELINE: We are, as you say, very mindful of our responsibility in the Elementary School to set the trajectory for our students’ success throughout their years at New Roads and for the many learning-filled years beyond. In addition to providing them with a solid foundation of traditional academic skills, we teach kids how to be active participants in their own education, to monitor their own progress, to self-reflect and to seek support when they need it. We encourage them to take risks in their learning and to persist in solving problems even if that means taking the winding road to the endpoint rather than the straight dash. In our world, where technology is both ubiquitous and ever-evolving, we teach students to be critical consumers of media and discerning online researchers; we encourage use of technology where it adds value to engagement, exploration or information acquisition but not as a substitute for hands-on learning. We also work hard on effective communication and collaboration, skills that may have taken on new manifestations, but that have lost none of their punch or pertinence in the 21st century.