In 1992, I was your typical Grade 4 boy — curious, a little awkward, and looking for my place in the world. School was the place where I could be with my friends, gain a little knowledge, and above all, have fun. School brought me joy, and that joy ran like a thread from the classroom to the forever-sacred playground where I scrapped my way through the kickball line, waiting my turn at-bat. Time didn’t make much sense to me then. Why did recess have to end? Who decided? I saw that my teacher had the power to start and stop time, and I couldn’t fathom why he didn’t make it work differently than it did. I will always remember his words, patient, yet stern: “One day when you run a school, Paris, you can make recess be as long as you want.”
It’s now 2019, and I am in my fifth year as Head of Lower School at Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart, an all-boys, K–8 school in New Jersey, and we have been having a lot of fun. From our K–4 morning runs and double recess periods (mornings and afternoons), to our yoga and mindfulness programs, crafting authentic, purposeful time and space for boys to move, connect, and play are pillars of our school community.
Measuring a Boy’s Success
When I first arrived at Princeton Academy in the summer of 2015, like any new student I was excited and a little bit anxious. Making the leap from a second grade lead teacher to a sitting member of the School Leadership Team, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had unintentionally skipped a career life-step. Leaning on my 11 years in the classroom, I knew that fostering and maintaining healthy, proactive relationships with my students and their families was the clearest pathway to early success. I quickly learned that my new school prioritized programming that matched elements of boyhood with strong academic opportunities and deep social-emotional awareness, pushing boys to be their very best selves in any space they entered.
During a recent conversation with a prospective family, a parent asked me, “How do you know if a boy is successful?” What a brilliant question! For me the answer is simple: I know it when I see a happy student. Our school community is a place where happiness permeates the buildings. Our learning spaces, hallways, playing fields, and common areas all radiate happiness. Happiness is core to our school’s being and can be seen in the joyful smile of a boy engaged in a project or heard in the laughter of two classmates enjoying each other’s company.
A happy child is one who enjoys learning, has a sense of curiosity, and has the bravery to take safe risks academically. In my school, this happy student is a boy who is a self-advocate and speaks up for others. As I have seen time and again, when a boy is truly happy, he will be comfortable and willing to stretch himself.
Fostering Happiness and Finding Belonging
One of the more unique moments of happiness leading to success at my school is achieved through our Grade 4 Project-Based Learning (PBL) Science experience, known as the “Boat Build.” Last year, 17 Grade 4 boys, under the steadfast guidance and support of their teachers, worked together to build a watercraft that could not only float, but actually sail. The project took the boys from October 2018 until June 2019 and their work was not without struggle or moments of trepidation.
At first, the boys did not fully understand the complexities of building a boat and as parts of the boat piled up, I could sense their doubts. To succeed in building a watercraft that was usable, the boys had to use their math and science knowledge along with critical thinking skills, heightened levels of responsibility, thoughtful listening, and increased collaboration. The boys’ academic abilities paired with their non-cognitive skills allowed them to experience the joys of sailing and relish the “process,” and not just “product.”
I believe that this group of young boys could accomplish feats like this in other environments, and also that the joy they experienced at school allowed them to stretch beyond what they thought they could do, leading them to triumph and providing them with a foundation for future challenges. As I continue to lead within independent schools, I hope to always hold tight to the inner boy in me, the boy from 1992 who was looking for fun while always being ready to learn. Welcoming that inner voice of youth and whimsy into my leadership and efforts I believe not only secures my place here, but opens the way for every boy who walks through our doors to have the same opportunity for belonging.