Welcome (and for many of you, welcome back) to Phillips Academy. Over the summer, my family—Catherine, Jack, Emeline and I—have settled in at Phelps House. And, like many of you who are new, we are beginning to get our bearings here on campus and in downtown Andover.
I couldn’t be more excited about the start of the school year and all that lies ahead of us, together.
But first, I feel I owe you an explanation for why I’m here at Andover with all of you. This is the question I’ve been been asked most often, starting with the search committee a year ago, and continuing up to today, as I’ve walked around campus and had conversations with members of this community.
To me, this question—why am I here, at Andover?—seems unnecessary. The answer seems self-evident: what an amazing place to work, what an amazing group of colleagues, what an amazing opportunity to share a campus with some of the world’s most remarkable young people at a crucial stage in your development.
But that answer, having offered it many times now, sounds insufficient to some people: too glib, too offhand, not weighty enough. I tend to get follow-up questions: why would you give up a tenured professorship to become a head of school, even at this great institution? Among other things, these two jobs—a university professorship in law and the head of an independent school—are not, at first blush, all that similar to one another.
I’ve been thinking harder about my answer over the past 10 months. That short answer still resonates, to me anyway. But there’s more to it: it is true that I have left a job and a community I loved and where I could easily have spent my entire professional career in fulfilling ways.
The deeper answer “why” hinges on three things. First, and most important, the values of this institution. Second, the role of the Head of School here. And third, the commitment of this school to the application of its core values to the current day, to the task at hand, of educating the youth of this generation.
First, the values of the institution. Without a doubt, excellence in teaching and learning is a core part of the culture of this school. We are all here because of this shared commitment to excellence. But excellence in academics alone is plainly insufficient. From my perspective, Andover fundamentally has the right set of values, seared into the fabric of the institution from the very beginning. These values have persisted—and frankly, even gotten better, at least in the way that they are practiced—over 234 years. These values—by which I mean, in particular: Non Sibi, youth from every quarter and knowledge and goodness—are of personal importance to me.
Of these three, Non Sibi has the strongest hold on me. It turns out that I have carried Non Sibi with me more than any other aspect of my education. I have found myself, on most of the days of my working career, walking to work, thinking about Non Sibi. That may sound crazy or trite, but it happens to be true. These principles, and Non Sibi in particular, are central to the person I aspire to be. When I reflected on the possibility of having a job where I could walk to work—a very short walk, as it turns out, of about six minutes, if I take my time, from Phelps House to GW—to a job where I am called upon to make good on these very principles, the choice did not seem all that hard.
Second, the job and the role. I see the Head of School’s job as fundamentally a teacher’s job—the lead teacher of a prominent academic institution.
The job today is far different than when Eliphalet Pearson convened a school of 13 students in 1778. The job involves being the chief executive of a $100 million dollar-per-year non-profit institution known around the world. I am attracted to this administrative job—to lead a devoted, talented team of staff in the careful stewardship of this academy, to lead an enterprise that must stand the test of time. As Andover’s chief executive, I aspire to work with the Trustees and administration to ensure that this school is the best place to live, to work and to learn that we can make it.
While this job includes chief executive responsibilities, at its core, this is not a CEO’s job. It is a teacher’s job. I can think of no higher calling, right now, at this moment in history, than to be in the job of a teacher—whether or not a “lead” teacher—of an institution as extraordinary as this one and where we have the responsibility for 1,100 diverse, talented, highly promising students.
And what better place to focus on the present and the future of secondary education, than at Phillips Academy? This school is, and has been for a long time, at or near the absolute top of its profession, anywhere in the world. This is a school that has and will educate our young people—in their minds and their morals—as well, if not better, than any other comparable institution. That is an awesome fact.
Third, a commitment to continuous innovation. One thing I love already about Phillips Academy is how little complacency I’ve picked up on. I’ve heard no one say that we should merely accept that this place does an excellent job at educating kids, that our core principles are the right ones to guide our work, and we merely need to put one foot in front of the other from here on out. I’ve sensed quite the opposite. I’ve sensed a commitment to innovation—and a reexamination of principles and practices—that is electrifying.
The commitment of every member of this community to the education of the “whole child”—through what they learn in the dorms, through community service work, on the playing fields, in the music building and in every sort of classroom—always has set the PA experience apart, and will continue to do so in innovative and life-changing ways.
This school has not and will not rest on its laurels.
That’s why I’m here. I suspect that’s part of why you are here too. Let’s make it a great year together.
John Palfrey is the Head of School.