The afternoon before the first day of school, impersonating some Harry Potter-esque forlorn phantom, I drifted through the Upper School, no lessons to plan, no first day inspiration to consider, no summer reading assessment to finish. The classrooms into which I peeked were pristine, desks arranged in inviting circles, window panes sparkling. I felt a bit bereft.
I am not teaching this year, and already I was missing it, the way I imagine amputees miss a phantom limb. “Cheer up,” I told myself. “At least you won’t feel guilty about taking too long to correct papers.” True. And yet, a crucial component of my identity will be absent this year.
On the first day back for students, I stood at the main entrance of Laurel to offer hugs, high fives, and the occasional tissue to a mother, teary at her Kindergarten daughter’s willingness to dash away. I didn’t need to watch the clock to be sure I was not late for class.
Teaching and Leading
When I became the Headmistress of Laurel School, I moved from New York City to Shaker Heights, Ohio, exchanged being a college advisor and drama teacher for a new role, and welcomed, on the twelfth day of my headship, an unexpected late-life “bonus baby” who joined two much older sisters. During the search process, I had announced, “I am a teaching Head; I need to teach.” An instinct towards self-preservation? The arrogance of a neophyte? I do not know. I had worked for heads who taught, and if they did, I would, too.
As I stepped into a new role and place, the contours of my life felt unfamiliar. What a lucky declaration, then, my words turned out to be. That first year as Head, standing in my classroom and greeting a group of nervous ninth graders, I felt at ease. I knew little about how to be a Head, but I knew a lot about how to teach writing, how to get girls to think and question and identify figurative language, how to root for Athena and Penelope instead of “never learn from experience” Odysseus.
The rhythm of teaching grounded me. Having a class allowed me to quickly come to know fifteen girls as individuals, and they grew up knowing me — trusting me (most of them), and encouraging their friends to do the same. The first names I learned were the names of the girls I taught. They read and thought and laughed and learned with me like legions of girls — and a few years worth of boys — had done before. With their help, I learned how to navigate the school and its culture.
One gives up one’s social capital when one changes school. In my old school, I knew every Upper School girl by name; the girls knew and trusted me. As Headmistress, it was important to me that the faculty understand I was one of them. Nor did I want to forget what it felt like when mid-term comments were due before I felt I really knew my girls or the pressure to get through a stack of exams in order to return them before vacation. I wanted to remember the growth mindset required by both teachers and students as ninth grade unfolded.
The texts were, as it happened, largely familiar — a tour through Western Lit, a white male canon that frustrated me but many of which I had studied in ninth grade and taught, too, in different girls’ schools. Over the years, we switched it up, adding a unit on the Harlem Renaissance, teaching In the Time of the Butterflies, and a wonderful project called This I Believe.
When I traveled, a colleague covered for me; some years, I team taught with a newer member of the English department. I tried to behave well in department meetings, knowing that when I spoke, my words might land more forcefully than I intended because of my title.
In the classroom, year after year, girls seemed to forget that I was the Head of their school after the first day. I was just Ms. Klotz with her passion for Greek theater and her loathing for “like” and “you know.” They were unintimidated, smart and silly, chatty and introverted, excited by a challenge and exhausted by school — sometimes all at the same time.
Once I had a class, I continued to have one. No one questioned my decision at Laurel; it was just the way things worked, but as I began to mentor women who wanted to be Heads of School, I realized that choice was not as common as I had believed. Sometimes, a colleague would raise her eyebrows, exclaiming, “You still teach? How do you find the time to do that?” I used to feel slightly ashamed, as if a “real” head should not be distracted by time in the classroom. Now, I answer, “I’m the Head of School. I choose where to put my time.”
Telling My School’s Story
Even as I relish other challenges of school leadership — strategic thinking, fundraising, hiring, working with a board, balancing a budget, coping with demographics that go in the wrong direction — I have had the luxury, most years, of doing what I love most and that time in the classroom with the girls is a gift. Teaching helps me stay connected to the lifeblood of the school, helps me tell the story of the school as I fundraise and recruit and think with the Board about strategy.
Reclaiming the old fashioned title, Headmistress, I view myself as the lead teacher, akin to the feisty, formidable women who founded girls’ schools in the 19th century and deeply interested in pedagogy. I love those women whom I’ve come to know through their schools’ histories. I love their intrepid spirit of rebellion and the fact that the schools they started are relevant today. Each of those formidable women taught.
This year, my school is embarking on an ambitious capital campaign. Chief storyteller, I will need to be away from school too many days to be effective in the English classroom. Schools have their seasons, and it is better this year for me not to teach. But before long, the needed money raised, I hope I’ll be back in my classroom, thinking about what a privilege it is to be among 14-year-olds, to see their eyes light when they identify an epic simile, or see their spirits spark as they grow impassioned about literature or social justice or basketball.
Teaching reminds me why I chose a life in schools. The yearning to teach throbs in me. The day that Mary Oliver died, my ninth graders and were studying Langston Hughes. Snow flurried beyond the stained glass diamonds of our classroom windows. The girls chose their favorite lines of particular poems and read them aloud, one after the next. I sat quietly.
“Try it again,” I asked, “but slow down. Find as much expression in the words as you can.” And they did, giving voice to Hughes, whose words vibrated across the decades. They honored what it is to be a poet, to choose words and images and arrange them in ways that shape and change us. They honored all poets, transported well beyond their first year of high school to a universality and empathy that moved me and surprised them.
Together, we glimpsed a version of who each girl in the class might be, how she, herself, might someday use language. In that moment, with those girls, I knew I could never give up teaching for long.