Getting to know Ron and Debbie (again)

After working together for a combined 30 years at Moses Brown, Debbie Phipps, Associate Head of School for Academics, and Ron Dalgliesh, Interim Head of School, will partner in new ways to lead the school community this year. They took a moment to reflect on everything from goals for the school year ahead to their summer reading lists.

 

What will feel different to our community about this year? What will feel the same?

Debbie: In some ways, this year feels (and yes, I’m keeping my fingers crossed as I write this) a return to usual: care for community, learning and growing together, and best of all, greeting students this fall without their smiles covered by masks. However, if we consider a return to the usual without also thinking about all we’ve learned in these last pandemic years, we’d be doing students a disservice. Knowing more about their mental health, recent research about working memory, considering the ways in which students have grown up in a different world means that we need to continue to challenge students while always assessing what is working best. It’s exciting AND a little daunting, but all the best aspects of education are both.

Ron: For the past few years all of us have spent so much time worrying about, and responding and reacting to, conditions that were largely out of our control. I hope this year can feel different in the ways we make a shared commitment to re-engage in more personal forms of relationship and community building. It is so important for each of us to feel known and to know each other. It’s the foundation for everything else that follows in an educational community. My hope is we can take back control and get back to the familiar, comforting, feeling of being a strong and connected MB community.

 

What are your main goals for the year? 

Debbie: First and foremost, I hope we rebuild and recognize the joy and opportunity of being part of an educational community. It’s those hallway and lunch table conversations that have been less frequent but so important, or the chance to collaborate and learn across divisions, and with and from students – especially, lower school students entering one single building! I also plan to focus on defining the responsibilities of being a teacher at Moses Brown, considering all the aspects of that work, ensuring that teachers can be successful without burning out. All of this is connected to a shared goal of defining what an MB education is: how do we describe the singular, amazing, and inspiring education that MB offers? (Sure, they’re lofty – but isn’t it great to be thinking about more than lunch locations and traffic patterns?)

Ron: As usual, Debbie’s thoughts are so resonant with me. My goals this year are fundamentally about getting us back to basics. Every day and in every way, I want to focus on our students and our faculty and on the deeply personal and essential relationships they forge in the classroom. I also look forward to reaffirming our partnership and connections with our families, and the work we do together to nurture and care for their children. Finally, and especially after the stress of the past few years, a growing intentionality in caring for our people – our students, faculty, and staff – is essential. I am particularly focused on new strategies to support the mental health of our students, and to provide additional education and resources to our families.

 

“Every day and in every way, I want to focus on our students and our faculty and on the deeply personal and essential relationships they forge in the classroom.”

– Ron Dalgliesh, Interim Head of School

 

What excites you about your new roles? What scares you? 

Debbie: I’m excited by having a role that’s more clearly defined – to work with division heads and teachers on teaching and learning – and the opportunity to build on our academic program. I’m preparing for a need for great flexibility as we continue to assess where students are as they start the 22-23 school year. Remaining responsive to the students in front of us while also committing to skill development and challenge feels like a lot – and also exciting. I’m also really excited by the synergy of connecting Luke’s, Jen’s, and Beth’s work, both geographically (in a shared office) and philosophically in recognizing the interconnectedness of DEI, Friends Ed, and health/wellness as integral to education.

My worries always center on two things; remembering names, and the anxiety of lunch on the first day of school. I have a recurring nightmare, each year, of a student who doesn’t eat lunch because they can’t find a place to sit. I always breathe easier when we reach 1:00 on the first day.

Ron: After nearly 30 years in education, half of which have been at Moses Brown, I’m most excited by the opportunities for learning and growth in my new role. As educators, the worst thing we do is become complacent. By embracing new challenges and opportunities, we remain connected to our students, and the mix of excitement and nervous energy that comes from being pushed out of your comfort zone to learn something new. After many years in my roles as Director of Development and Assistant Head of School for Community Engagement which required me to spend significant time away from campus (or hidden away in my office), I am thrilled to focus my work on the daily educational and community experiences of students, families, teachers, and staff. What a joyful opportunity! Any concerns I have come from the enormous sense of responsibility I feel for the care, belonging, and growth of each and every person in this community. It’s daunting to be responsible for the ongoing stewardship of a 238-year-old school, but I know I’m not alone and I won’t be afraid to ask for help!

 

What are two specific moments from your tenure that, in your mind, typify MB?

Debbie: I have the privilege of being on stage for Commencement each year, and some favorite annual moments are those few seconds that each senior waits before climbing the steps to cross the stage. It’s a chance to look at each one and realize that they’re ready for what comes next – and in some cases, to think about what a long journey that’s been. Those visions and the messages at Baccalaureate never fail to inspire.

I also well remember, after starting at Moses Brown, the first time I referred to the school as “we” rather than “you” – recognizing I’d found a place, a sentiment echoed recently by a lower schooler who explained to a friend that Debbie has been here FOREVER.  (There may have been an eye roll…)

Ron: During the first full year of “COVID school” (2020-21), there were a few occasions when I really needed a lift and I went down to the nursery classroom to read to the students. The energy, innocence, joy, and curiosity of those three- and four-year olds provided the ultimate reminder of why working in a school is such a gift, pandemic or not! And, being around Andy and Rebecca, for just a few minutes, was a reminder of the talent, care, dedication, and PATIENCE, of our teachers – at every level of the school.

My next most meaningful moment will happen in June, when in my new role I will hand every member of the Class of 2023 their diploma. Now in my 15th year at MB, I will have known some of those soon to be graduates since they were three-years old in our nursery classroom, for the entirety of their educational experience. That moment will be very memorable and meaningful for me.

 

“It’s exciting AND a little daunting, but all the best aspects of education are both.”

– Debbie Phipps, Associate Head of School for Academics

 

No narrative, just bullet points, name four tiny/specific things you love about MB? 

Debbie:

– I’m a morning person, so walking from my car into school is time to transition; Tony McClellan taught me by example to look at the sky each morning as I walk in.

– I love when an advisee shares a success – and almost equally, when they come by to talk about a problem, and proceed to arrive at a solution on their own; I just ask questions and nod.

– My office window overlooks the area between Friends Hall and the main building, so I can look out and watch the intersections of students from all divisions. I try not to eavesdrop, but I do hear some gems if the windows are open.

– Walking into the Meeting House.

Ron:

– I’m not a morning person like Debbie, but I still love seeing the students arriving each morning from all different directions of the campus…that buzz of a new day about to begin.

– Silence (I know, I can be pretty loud, but I really do value the silence!)

– The constant questions and queries…in classrooms, in faculty and staff meetings, in parent meetings, at alumni events – and the commitment to curiosity and desire to strive for more.

– The extraordinary talent of our teachers. The ways they develop deeply authentic and trusting relationships with students. The ways they challenge each of them intellectually and personally, nurturing (and sometimes pushing) young people down a path of self-discovery, independence, integrity, self-confidence, and care for those around them.

 

What are you reading now? 

Debbie: I read primarily contemporary fiction in the summer. Jennifer Egan’s “The Candy House” has taken up lots of real estate in my brain this summer, and keeps me thinking about consciousness, technology, and human authenticity.  And though I taught “To the Lighthouse” for a number of years, hearing it quoted in my niece’s wedding vows means I started rereading it; there are sentences in it so perfect that it makes me feel like an imposter putting words together. Reading in the summer, without watching a clock and ideally under an umbrella by some salt water, is about as good as it gets for me.

Ron: I love history, so my reading list usually lends toward historical fiction and non-fiction. My two favorites this summer have been, “The Moth and The Mountain” by Ed Caesar, and “The Diamond Eye” by Kate Quinn. Caesar’s book is a fascinating true story of Maurice Wilson’s quixotic journey, flying solo from England to the Himalayas in the 1930’s in an ill-fated attempt to make a solo climb of Mt. Everest. Its pages are filled with lessons of the geopolitics of the time and all that can be accomplished with imagination, determination, and belief.

Quinn’s fictional account of the real-life Russian female sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko (sorry, not a very Quakerly topic) offers a window into Pavlichenko’s incredible personal story and her unique role in building US support for opening a second front in WWII. It also sheds light on the unlikely relationship of two women – Pavlichenko and Eleanor Roosevelt – who remained friends for decades.