Canadian statesman and author John Buchan penned the only quote displayed on my office wall: “The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive but attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope.” My love affair with both fishing and education started with and continues to be driven by this idea. Every new cast I make holds the hope of a great fish; every new class I teach holds the hope of continued growth for each child; every new year I lead holds the hope of something new and exciting in the life of my school.

Educator from the Start

I was raised by two career public school educators. Much as I imagine a fish cannot remember a time without water, I cannot remember a time without school. In my small North Carolina town, I was known as “Coach Willard’s son” or “Ma Willard’s kid.” Both of my parents were beloved teachers at our one and only county high school. 

My life in education began by listening to discussions of school politics at the dinner table, helping my football coach dad put stickers on football helmets, and running up and down the long halls of Scotland High School. I could never get away from connections to my parents or to school life. My pediatrician knew my dad, who taught and coached his two boys. When I totaled my dad’s car, the policeman chuckled a bit because, as a former student of my dad’s, he anticipated the reaction my dad would have once he knew I was not hurt. 

For a time, I escaped my small town for college and military service and broke free from the lure of academic life. But just when I thought I was headed for something other than education as a career after my first year of teaching, the former Dean of Students at Davidson College invited me to his house, cooked me a meal, and explained why I should stick with it. And I did. 

Learning to Read the River

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I took up fly fishing at the same time I started teaching high school. I instantly took to fly fishing because it requires following an intricate set of problem-solving steps including selecting the right fly for the moment, reading the ever-changing river current, and delivering a precise cast to present the fly to the fish without spooking the fish. Fly fishing is also the one thing I can do and lose all track of time. If you are familiar with the concept of flow, then it is on a river that I am in that zone. 

Not unlike fly fishing, working with others to solve complex problems has always fascinated and satisfied me. I have been fortunate to have had wonderful mentors in the education field who helped me to read the river — selecting the right fly, making the next cast in my career. Over the last 25 years, each of these sponsors and mentors has helped shape my leadership style.

In every phase of my life, a teacher or mentor recognized my potential and encouraged me to pursue the next step even when I did not see the opportunity in front of me. Not long after I started teaching in a private school, the Head of School asked me to be the Honor Council Chair. A few years later, that same leader encouraged me to earn a Master Degree in Educational Leadership at nearby Winthrop University. Another Head of School sponsored and mentored me on my most recent journey to become a Head of School myself.

Casting for Promise, Catching Hope

While all my mentors imparted sound advice on leadership, I do not recall any of them saying, “Make sure you have a hobby.” But it is great advice, and I give it to anyone I mentor: Find an activity you can lose yourself in periodically. The work in schools can be emotionally draining, and the ability to lose myself in another activity has strengthened my own well-being. 

I am often struck by the insights that come after being lost in my hobby. On a recent fishing trip, I reflected on spending 22 years at the same school and anticipating my first headship this year. My fishing buddies and I had chosen to float a stretch of known water in the morning — water we had fished many times over the years. The fishing was fabulous. 

In the afternoon, we decided to push into new water — water we had not rowed and fished before. Within the first half mile we came upon a gorgeous waterfall we had never seen (see photo above)! We landed a few big fish and were soaking up the scenery.

As the afternoon heat set in, however, we caught fewer and fewer fish. Soon we realized the lower end of our journey was through a lake that dropped 30 feet due to a leak in the dam, and the shores were littered with weeds and decaying docks. Worse, we had a really tough hour and a half rowing out to the boat ramp in 90-degree heat. Regardless of the hardships of the afternoon, though, we happily pulled the boat on the trailer and drove back to the cabin for a relaxing night on the back porch, grilling steaks and telling stories.

After the trip, it occurred to me that, although I like the comfort of known water, I am excited by the unknown of new water. Unknown water may bring harsh trials and hard work, but it also brings hope. What could be more invigorating as a new Head of School than embracing daily all these “occasions for hope”? I am so thankful that my hobby and profession satisfy a passion to pursue what is “elusive but attainable” both in a stream and in a school.