On Balance: Parenting and Education

A Welcoming Voice: Introducing Noah Reinhardt, Incoming Head of School

February 26, 2021 Blue School / Noah Reinhardt Season 2 Episode 9
On Balance: Parenting and Education
A Welcoming Voice: Introducing Noah Reinhardt, Incoming Head of School
Show Notes Transcript

In our Season Two Finale, Noah’s sincerity, thoughtfulness and honesty provide a glimpse into the grounding leader he will be. Prioritizing connection, joy and a sense of belonging in this transition, Noah offers a sense of hope and relief for Blue School’s future during and beyond COVID times. Noah’s commitment to social justice and equity work focuses on creating spaces for learning and growth inside and out of the classroom, building a full community approach to this important work. Join us in welcoming Noah Reinhardt as Blue School’s next Head of School. This is only the beginning.

DAWN: Noah, I want to start with the warmest welcome ever. I couldn’t be more excited than to be having this first conversation with you. 

NOAH: Thank you, Dawn. It’s really nice to be here in the space with you as well. I really appreciate the opportunity. 

DAWN: So there are so many practical, concrete, sort of what-next-ish questions that I will refrain from asking in this half hour. What I do hope we can dig into is about transitioning, entering the community during this intense time, and what has brought you here, and what is energizing you in the work of Blue School, and the work in school. So I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between changes and transitions, and the fact that changes are changes, like there’s something and then there’s something new. But how we move and plan and build within this transition time is so full of opportunity and possibility. And so here we are, you’ve been named the head of school, but as is typical in independent schools there’s this gap time until you’re really here. I wonder if you could share how you’re thinking about this time, what your hopes for this time are as you set yourself up for next year with us. 

NOAH: So this is exactly the right question. Right as I’m thinking about beginning officially at Blue School on July first, so much of my head space right now is consumed with what can and should I do now in order to set myself up and the school up for a successful transition come July. And of course all of this is under the umbrella that I have a full time job, which is already stretching me quite thin, and we’re in a particular moment in time where things are strained. And so some of my thinking about this is also being — trying to be realistic and protective both of myself and of Blue School in terms of not overextending and not overpromising, right? Because the last thing that I would want to do is set something up where I am trying to tackle too much before I even begin, and so therefore I am either over stepping bounds or on to Rebecca’s toes in a way that’s not wanted or not needed, or am putting myself in a position where I can’t deliver on the promise of transition even before I begin.

So that’s sort of the — that’s a little bit of my background. But I am thinking a lot about what steps I can take, and what the best way is to use these months before I actually begin. And right now where I’ve begun, Dawn, is just about taking some small steps in to getting to know and to understand the community. Most of my conversations have been with Rebecca and with Renee as I get sort of the big picture, overview template of where the school is and where the school is going. And so some of the big questions that I need to be cognizant of as we’re stepping into these next weeks and months ahead. And really beginning last week, more and more I’m hoping to have opportunities similar to the ones that have begun, which are sort of small moments to connect with members of the community so that I have a better sense of what’s going on in people’s heads, and people are beginning to get a little bit of sense of who I am. 

As the weeks go by, I will start a more formal entry process, where I will make sure to set up times, whether individually or in small focus groups, to meet with as many members of the community, as many different constituencies as possible so that I really, by the time things begin in July, feel like I understand and know the community in the best possible way that I can through a process of good questions hopefully, and active listening. And that’s the plan. 

And so more and more I hope to be able to get to know and understand different people who make up Blue School community, and have people have an opportunity to get to know me and the way that I think, and the way that I ask questions, and that — in the way that I listen about the truths that are coming up about the school.

DAWN: Thank you so much for that. I wonder if there are other ways that community members, and by that I mean like our whole community, faculty, staff, parents, students, can best set ourselves up or partner with you during this time. I heard you say answering your questions, being in conversation, sort of bringing some of our thinking into those rooms that you’re setting up. But I wonder if there’s anything else that you’re thinking for us?

NOAH: Yeah, I mean for me that is the most important piece, right? To join me in the conversations and to engage with me in the questions about who the school is in, where the school is going. Because I’ll be trying to listen as carefully as possible for individual truths, and the truths that sort of exist underneath the things that people are talking to me about. The other side of it is what doesn’t have to do with me at all. So in these weeks and months ahead, one way to partner with me is just to really be involved and invested and engaged in the goings on of the school. We are more than halfway through this school year but have a lot of time left to go. And so the extent to which people can really participate — this is a really hard year, and it’s a really hard year to be one’s best self and most engaged and present self. 

But to the extent possible, if people can actively participate in the life of the school, and engage with one another in some of these questions about where we’re going, and have faith and promise and patience as this transition is setting up to take place, to me that feels like a really good investment of time. I think often in transition people sort of can pause, right? I’m just going to — we’re just going to wait out this year, this year is this year and we’re going to wait this out, and then invest all of the energy and time and commitment in things as soon as the change arrives. And I understand that, and I appreciate that, and I know we’re going to be best set up as a community if we can continue to engage even as we’re moving through the end of this year. 

DAWN: Oh, I love that. I feel like so much feels like transition these days. Like so much feels in between, both as somebody who works in a school and as a human. I feel like we’re in between a lot, and that feels grounding, that you still participate in the now feels really grounding. So I’ve been thinking about this in between that we’re starting — so many of us are starting to be vaccinated, and to dream into a time when we can be back at school full time without — I mean, I’m knocking wood as I’m saying this, but without the surprise quarantines that have been part of this year. How are you thinking about this COVID in between time? And I guess I’m wondering about that as a school leader or just as a person. 

NOAH: And to me they’re very connected because these are — it’s very hard to disentangle my professional and my personal life and thinking in many ways. I think the quick answer to the question is I think I’m thinking probably just like everybody else, which is half of me is thinking, how do we just get through this moment, and be in a different period of time, right? And the wishing and the dreaming and the hoping that this period of time is over. Because that is the natural that’s where I feel like we all come from. 

How do we just get through this, and be at a different place at some point in the future. And then the other half of me, and that is really grounded more in my professional practice but that I hope can move more into the personal side as well, is how can we even in the midst of everything which is happening, and all of the hard pieces, how can we make sure that we are not losing this time with our families, with our professional communities, and how can we learn and grow and maybe even find moments of joy and inspiration and learning in it. And that is — that’s the harder half, because it is much easier to sort of just call this period of time a wash. 

But I’ve seen so much learning going on, and so many ways in which people have grown and shifted and changed over this period of time, and how we as institutions and communities have also grown. And I want to make sure that we don’t forget that piece of it, and that we create moments of pause and reflection so that we can learn from it. So I’m trying. I wish I could say I was — I was perfect at it, I’m not, but I’m trying wherever I can to create those moments of pause where I can reflect and I can create spaces for other people to reflect on some of the learning that has come out of this year, and really just to appreciate some of the pieces of what has been a very, very difficult period of time. 

DAWN: Yeah, I hear you. I’m wondering if we can even dig into that a little bit more. I hear you say that there’s still reflecting to do. For sure we’re still in the thick of it. But are there things that you’ve learned about leading a school or about the work of school during this year that you’re already thinking, oh this is something I’m going to carry forward with me in my future work at schools?

NOAH: Yeah, and I mean I hope some of it I don’t need to carry through. 

DAWN: Sure. 

NOAH: — because some of the learning that we’ve done and some of the specifics of the learning I hope never to use again fully. But there are some big buckets of I think understanding and appreciation that will — that have changed me, and I think helped me see school leadership in a deeper and more powerful way. You know, the first piece of it is about just managing and leading through sustained crisis, which is not what we — how we typically approach the leadership of schools. We typically approach it leading through some sense of stability and then managing acute crises when they happen. Not if they happen, when they happen, right? Schools are about crises, hopefully mini-crises, but crises that need to get addressed, but hopefully dealt with and moved on. 

And this year has very much been about being on high alert for a long, long time, which is exhausting, and can be debilitating, and can be fracturing, and can be discouraging and depressing in so many different ways. Because we’re not equipped for that as people so well, right? To just continue to get up every day and continue to manage the same crisis that existed the day before knowing that it’s not going to get better. But we get better at it, and I think some of the learning pieces for me are about caring for people and sustaining teams of people to solve problems, because this isn’t something like — that you can just sort of push through and move on, or this isn’t something that you can delegate and assign. 

But it is really about having everybody who is responsible for managing work being able to function and being able to feel taken care of, and seen, and understood, and connected. So so much I think of what I’ve been thinking about is about building and sustaining leadership teams that can function and thrive during long term difficult things. And that’s not really a particularly beautiful way of saying it, but I’ve seen — you know, like I’ve both practiced and experienced and been parts of lots of things that haven’t worked so well, and then when things are different or when I’ve been able to do some things differently, have been trying to take note of what conditions I put in place, what ways of being have been successful, and I hope there’s real learning there. 

Because I think even as we move out of this sort of acute sustained crisis, we can do better in the ways in which we take care of people, and the ways in which we can activate everybody’s involvement on a day to day basis. So that’s a big thing for me. And in terms of like other thoughts about sort of managing or learning in this moment, is sort of developing strategies and structures for communication and for being that don’t exhaust and deplete the people that you’re trying to take care of. And that one is really — I think in some ways it feels — it might feel less challenging, but I think it’s actually more challenging than the first piece that I spoke about, because in the interest of problem solving, and in the interest of attending to all of the things that need to be attended, we keep working and working and working, and leaning more and more and more on the same groups of people, or the same sort of -- the same structures. 

And I think what this has — this year has helped me to understand in a different kind of way is that some of the ways that we have gone about making decisions and about marshaling resources are tremendously inefficient, right? They feel good and they look good in some ways, but they exhaust the very people that you’re trying to take the best care of, because — because of the way in which they’re structured. And so I hope this will give me a little bit more courage to upend maybe some ways of being, and some structures that we might have relied on before so that we are — that we’re working through difficulty in a way that is cognizant of both the strengths of individuals and the power of a group, but also cognizant of the limitations of resources that we need to be attentive to. 

DAWN: That’s so, so interesting. So many things came up there, and I’m excited about continuing to pursue some of those questions. But I’m going to sort of pivot a little bit and ask about Blue School. So during the admissions process, so many families are asking me that why Blue School question. And I would love to know what your approach to your sort of why Blue School story is right now. What drew you here, what’s exciting you about being our head of school?

NOAH: Thanks, and I’ll try if possible to connect it back a little bit to the last question, because I think they’re related to each other in this moment, because right now what I think is most missing for most people is connection and joy and a sense of belonging. Because in this sustained crisis, like it’s very, very hard to hold on to those three things, which are very connected to one another. And when I went through the process of interviewing at Blue School, there was a particular moment when I was speaking with members of the search committee, which included board members and families and members of the leadership team. 

I asked that question a little bit to members of the search committee, which is essentially, what was it about Blue School that drew you in, and what keeps you there, and why I think particularly to the members of the search committee, why are you invested in this process in the way that you are. And I don’t know, Dawn, if you remember that, but I asked the search committee about like why they were doing what they were doing, spending all of these hours and intentional moments trying to find the next head of school. And what people said was really amazing, and for me shifted from a place of, oh I’m interested in this school and understanding more and learning more about this school, to I really want to be a part of this community. 

Because what people said was about this indelible, powerful impact that being a part of Blue School has had on their children, their families, and themselves as adults and professionals. And in a way that I hadn’t really ever heard before fully from another school. Just in thinking about that what it means to be part of this community, and this community of learners, and this community that is growing in the way that it is. And I was sold. Because in this year, like where are our moments of connection, where are our moments of joy, and where is our full sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves? It’s fractured. And to be able to be a part of a school that is in some ways still finding itself, but in other ways has very much always known itself and can create those moments and those spaces for people who are connected to it, that to me was — that was it. 

DAWN: So I’m thinking about the children, because in the end it’s all about the children. It’s about the students. And I’d love to hear a little bit about your journey working with students, and the way that you are thinking about the way that children experience Blue School. 

NOAH: Sure. And I’ll put this within the context, Dawn, of having worked with kids and with children for a very, very long time. You know, as a young person I was at — I babysat a lot, I worked as a camp counselor, I worked as a swim teacher, as an undergraduate in college, I taught in a middle school program year round both after school and then through the summers. And so all of my not just adult life, but almost all of my life and memory has been in working with kids in different ways. 

So the journey. Because I see things in some ways so differently than I did when I started working with children, and in some ways the pieces are the same. What I think is most important for me — I guess what I’ll say is there are three things that feel most important for me in terms of my work with kids. The first is about creating memories. Because the day to day stuff often disappears over time, and thinking back about one’s own school experience and thinking about like — like some of the — just the day to day stuff, like we lose it in memory. But there are some things which we just never lose, which is really about these spectacular moments, right? Where things are different than we’ve seen before. 

And the moments that give us strong feelings about who we are as learners, who we are as beings, and these moments of joy and connection and explosive sort of learning. And so as a teacher and as an educator and a school leader, so much of what I want to create for students are those memories that will stick with kids forever so that as they move on into high school, and as they move on in to college and into adult life, they think back about what happened inside of the classroom and at school when they were young. So that’s one piece. 

The second piece is about — and it’s related a little bit, but is about the traditions and the routines that make up any school, and make up any classroom. Because they are so grounding. And while I know that they sometimes might get — they become sort of part of the background in some way, it is that — it is the framework by which kids sort of understand their role at school, and their role as learners. And so really thinking deeply about what it is that we put in place for kids so that they know what they’re supposed to do, and how things work, and what’s supposed to happen inside of the classroom each and every day, and what their jobs are, and — these are the things that really help students understand what they need to do and where they’re going with everything. 

And the final piece for me about working with children is that sense of connection. As a kid growing up, I never — that’s the piece that I never quite got, and as a learner I often did a lot of important and meaningful learning, but it happened very much on my own. And what I’ve always tried to do in working with kids, is to find ways to connect with them, and give them a sense of being known and understood and cared for and supported by the adults around them. Because there is amazing learning that can happen in isolation and in a vacuum, but it is not as powerful in any way as the learning that happens that’s guided and supported and constructed by adults who really care and understand — really care for kids and understand kids, and also care for and understand the work that they’re doing.

And so how do we create those opportunities for kids to really be known and understood, and to know that they are cared for as they’re developing their own voice. So those are the three things that I think a lot about as an educator, and that I bring with me as I approach leadership at Blue School. 

DAWN: It’s so interesting, I’m hearing and thinking about the sort of intention around ritual, and building these experiences in the classroom, and sort of in the culture. And realizing that there’s such an opportunity in sort of moving on from this year, or this COVID time, where rituals have really had to take different shapes, and classroom supports have sort of looked different. I think that everything has looked different. And so next year won’t be just returning to what we’ve always done, like there gets to be a moment of thinking about those rituals, which is sort of an exciting moment when I hear you talk about the importance of that for you. So I would — it sounds like you’ve been working with children forever, and I wonder what brought you to spend your life working in school. Like did that always feel inevitable? Was that always part of the work you were doing with children? What brought you to this?

NOAH: I think a combination of happenstance and good fortune, and then pushing through some expectations that maybe were different than I had imagined. As much as I had always worked with kids, I had never thought that I would be a teacher, and I never thought that I would work in schools. I’m not sure exactly why I never thought that, because I was always doing it, and because it was obviously something that I had a connection to. But it just wasn’t in my head. And in fact, I have early memories of — I have an older brother and a younger sister, and working with my younger sister when she was a kid, and the one clear thing I remember was that she said to me that she’s not sure what I should do when I grow up, but that I should never be a teacher because I was terrible at it, and I was somewhere between either impatient or arrogant, or something in the way I wasn’t able ever to help her support her in the way that she felt like she needed help or support. And so the one thing that was very clear is that that was not the career path for me, and I remember that distinctly.

And I also remember some of my early work with kids feeling like I could be effective, but not always getting the joy from it that I was hoping for. And that -- and so I think — so for me that idea of being in the classroom or being a teacher, it just wasn’t where my head was. and that went even all the way through college, as like the most meaningful thing that I did was working in this program that I — the teaching program that I was a part of as an undergraduate. It was absolutely, 100% the most important thing that I was involved with in college both from a learning perspective, from a connection with the other teachers in the program, from supporting the kids. But it still didn’t click and connect for me that it was both a calling and would become my future. 

And I think it didn’t really happen until I moved to New York, and started teaching in schools. And that was also almost by accident in the sense that — I had moved to New York City originally to cook in a kitchen because I had been cooking up in Boston at a restaurant and one of the chefs that I was working with was moving down to New York to start a restaurant, and he asked me to come down as his number two person and to help him launch this new restaurant. And I was very excited to do that. I had wanted to move to New York, I thought this was a great opportunity, I really liked working with him, I love cooking. And so I moved to New York and started working in this restaurant, which was clear within one or two days to me that it was not going to work.

There was not — there was not a clear understanding between the chef and the owner of the restaurant about which direction this restaurant was going in, and within a week or two it had collapsed and I was on my own in the city, and I was able to get a job as an assistant to the math department at the Hewitt School because I knew the librarian there and she said they had an opening and I could apply for it, and I had done a lot of teaching before and I was able to get the job. And I got the job, and I started, and I was working with middle school kids and some high school kids. And I fell in love. It was — I was like, this is the best thing I’ve ever done. Like I felt like my work had just different purpose and meaning that I had ever fully understood, like I could see the impact that I was having on kids. 

I could like feel what that meant to me to be able to successfully support and engage kids in learning in a real sustained way. And I never looked back. And so I mean that brought me to it, and then I just kept going. And kept sort of finding other ways to help me feel connected and part of schools. And part of that was about working with students, because to me being in the classroom with kids is about the most joyful thing that one can do. And part of it is about working with the adults who are committed to that work in the same kind of way. Because one builds a sense of camaraderie and purpose and connection with the adults as well. And so that -- the two pieces together have sort of kept me in schools now 25 years. 

DAWN: So I’ve also heard you talk about the importance of the work of justice in schools. I know that’s really important to you, and that you’ve worked to build anti-racist spaces and supported conversations across difference as well as work in affinity spaces. Can you share some of your experiences with this work, or learnings from this work?

NOAH: Yeah, and thank you, Dawn, for the question. For me, similar to my work in the classroom, and my work in school leadership, the work that I’ve done in social justice and equity work has been as much about learning for me as it has been helping and creating spaces for learning for other people. And certainly as I began teaching and working in New York City independent schools, I can say this not with tremendous pride, but with honesty, that when I started working in New York City schools, I really had no idea what was meant by — sort of the language we used at the time was like diversity work. I didn’t understand what it meant really. I didn’t understand what it meant to me. 

I didn’t understand what role I could play in it, and I — at some basic level I didn’t also understand how it impacted me. Because when I was approaching this work at the beginning, I always thought it was about other people, because in the way that I saw myself I saw myself as sort of representing a majority or an established group of people as a white person, as a man, as a person of socioeconomic means, as a person with the education that I had. I couldn’t quite understand the connection between diversity work and me. 

And that took like a lot of learning over a long time, to shift my focus in — and begin to appreciate — not even just begin to appreciate, but begin to appreciate and then to play a more and more active role in doing the necessary work. And some of my shift in perspective came from work that I did in school, I’ve been part of so many different professional developments and workshops and trainings and conversations. And some of it had to do with my own personal journey of the people I felt most connected to in the world who pushed me and helped me to see things through a different perspective. So — and that took time. 

And I’m like so grateful for being in a different place now than I was then, and somewhat — I don’t know whether embarrassed about where I was 25 years ago, or just — or I guess in some ways equally both embarrassed about where I was 25 years ago, and also empathetic with that version of myself, if that’s possible to show one’s — I don’t know whether it’s possible to show one’s self — one’s past self both empathy and scorn at the same time, but — 

DAWN: I think it is, yes. 

NOAH: But like I can be like, how could I not understand and not know, and then in the same sense, well of course I didn’t because it was never a conversation that I was a part of, and it was — like it just — it wasn’t my world. So over these past number of years, as I’ve done more and more of the work, like personally and professionally I just have had such a clearer sense of the importance of it, not just for others, but for all of us including myself. Like what does it mean to be part of a community? What does it mean to own and understand one’s identity and how that impacts and shapes and affects the way in which one engages in the community, and the way in which the community engages with one’s self. 

So I think in terms of — your question was about like some of the more important experiences, or some of the more important work that I’ve done or led over these past number of years. And for me, where I feel like I’ve been able to have the most impact, and feel like I’ve made the most difference, is like — I’ll say two things. One is in work with kids. And one is in work with adults. And there’s some similarities, enough that I think the parallels are clear. But I have felt like my most important work with kids has come from sometimes in affinity spaces with them, and sometimes other spaces that we’ve created that have crossed identity or crossed affinity, but have over time allowed kids to grapple with real questions about how they see the world in a way that might be different from the person sitting next to them. 

And holding the space, and holding up — I would say like a critical lens for kids to really be able to think about who they are, how they see the world, and how they are seen by the world around them. And then to question, and to look at that with a real critical eye. And so — because it’s the only thing that I think has helped kids like change, which is to — is to be able to honest about where they are, and to, in a loving way, have — get honest feedback about the ways in which they see things, and which have so much truth to them and power to them, and also sometimes need investigating and interrogation. 

And so even beyond the — sort of the basic trainings or developing a vocabulary, or understanding history, the ways in which it felt most powerful with kids have really been creating the spaces where kids can be themselves, and can engage with each other across difference — with the support of an adult. And for adults, it’s not entirely dissimilar. But I think as adults we have so much history and so many narratives that shape the way that we see the world, that it’s not so easy to get underneath them. And what does it mean to really — to go into a conversation where you feel from the beginning somewhat defensive and somewhat entitled and somewhat suspect and somewhat anxious. And then come out the other side feeling like you are both understood and understand someone else. 

When I think about this work with adults, I wish it were easier and I wish it were quicker, because in some of the ways that we can make real forward strides with children in a way that gets us to where we want to get in a period of time, I just — in my experience, the work with adults is more difficult, often more painful, and almost always much more slow. And that doesn’t even mean we’re doing it the wrong way, and in fact I would argue that it might mean that we are doing it the right way. 

Because adults don’t change very quickly, and I think for all of us, and each of us, and I’ll say this for — in my own speaking just about myself, like where I have had the moments of greatest learning and sort of self-understanding that have allowed me to get to a place that I didn’t think I could or would get to, that moment has happened over time. And it might be — there might be moments of epiphany, right? Where I’m like, oh I just literally learned something in this moment. But more typically it happens when I have the opportunity to have sustained time with other people that allows me to learn and grow from the shared connection and trust that gets developed with people. 

So when I think about leading and doing justice work with adults, I think about creating these sustained moments where adults can see and know and understand one another over time. And feel like their voice and perspective matters, even when it is -- and maybe especially when it is different from the person sitting next to them. Because that's how we grow, and that’s when I’ve seen people, again myself included, be able to make shifts that they not only didn’t think that they could make, but they didn’t think they needed to or wanted to make in the first place. So that’s my — that’s where I’m coming from.

DAWN: Ugh, I am so excited to walk into this work with you next year. This has been just such a pleasure. Thank you so much for your time and for starting this conversation with us. There’ll be so many more. 

NOAH: Thank you, Dawn. And I really appreciate your time as well, this has been really fun.