Remarks by Dr. Chris Winters, September PA Meeting

Remarks by Dr. Chris Winters, GCDS Head of Upper School, Grades 9-12
Parents Association Meeting
Tuesday, September 18
Lightly edited for length and clarity.

It’s lovely to be here in this beautiful space of light on a rainy day. I have had such a welcoming embrace from all of you.

A lot of people have asked me why you are taking this new job. I don't really see it that way. I had a job that was deeply engaging to me—one that I loved very much—and I believed in the mission. When Adam spoke to me about coming here to the GCDS high school, I really saw this as a mission. This is an opportunity to create a school that I believe will be transformational, that is going to be built on a very strong foundation of values, and that is going to prepare our students for this rapidly changing world that we are living in.

I'll start with a little about me, not because I think you should know about me, but because the lessons that I've learned throughout life are going to be infused into what we're thinking about for the high school. As Adam said, I grew up here in Greenwich. I went to Greenwich High School. I remember distinctly my first couple of years at high school when I was a very dutiful, dedicated learner. I did everything teachers asked me to do. Then I had this one teacher in American History who absolutely engaged me in a way that I started to see learning differently—and that carried with me throughout. I was an athlete and was always on teams. I was in leadership positions. I learned about the joys and the sorrows of sports. I can distinctly remember those few coaches who had such a powerful impact on me as a person. As for the arts, I was not smart enough when I was young to really dive into it, but I got a little taste of it senior year and thought this is something I wish I had built into my program and that had been part of me. After high school, I went on to Middlebury to continue those pursuits. I also was deeply involved in service. I went to the Peace Corps and served in Mali, West Africa, where I met my wife. I left West Africa and worked in the South Bronx for about eight years; that's where I started my teaching before coming to Greenwich. For the last nine years, I have been Head of Greenwich High School.

One thing about Greenwich High School that I think is really important and that I hope to carry forward is the notion that the small things you do can make a big impact. We would say it over and over again. The little things you do can have a big impact. That, to me, is what advancing this high school is going to be about. It's about getting those teachers who know the micro-behaviors of teaching, who can look at the little things they do to make a difference for a child—helping students unlock the little ways they are learning to become more engaged and teaching them those character skills that we know will make it a better place.

Let's start with one of those concepts. Let's start with the strong foundational values that we want to bring to the high school. When I ask people about Greenwich Country Day School, they all say the same three things:

  • This is school where students learn deeply and there is a joy for learning,
  • that students are known and valued,
  • and that they have a strong moral compass that guides them in this world.

And I can't think of three better values to take to our new high school:

  • deep and joyful learning
  • known and valued; known and needed
  • and a strong moral compass

So how are we going to get there? What kind of program are we going to develop that will get us there?

I'll start with the joyful learning. A good friend of mine who is an educational consultant, Allison Zmuda, wrote what I consider a pivotal piece in my thinking. She talked about the difference between the compliant learner and the engaged learner. The compliant learner is the student who does everything you ask them to do. They study for their tests. They learn all of the information. They take their notes, and they try to make them neat and clean. They do their homework, and they comply with everything that's asked of them. The engaged learner does all of those things, too, but they do it because they develop that deep passion for learning. They've seen that there is actually a joy in discovering things in the educational process. They are not trying to do it just for the grade or just to please the teacher, but because they have found that value.

We know that a school that has deep and joyful learning has to have caring adults that nurture that. We are going hire the best teachers who are going to help students develop their finest selves, as we say at Greenwich Country Day. Those are probably the most important decisions we will be making—who we actually have in front of and with students. And we are going to be very thoughtful in that.

We know that we want to have a broad range of experiences—in the arts and athletics and business classes—things that students need in a high school; but we want to do it in a way that integrates them rather than isolates them.

You are all very knowledgeable about the world that we live in right now, and I don't need to explain how quickly things change. When I encounter people who are heads of organizations or are in positions where they are hiring, I often ask, “What do you look for when you hire people? You're in finance; do you look for the economics major? the math major?" They say, "Sometimes, but what we really look for is people who know how to communicate very effectively, who can collaborate with others to deepen their understanding, who can take a large body of information and synthesize it down to understandable parts, and has the perseverance and resilience when they're faced with a complex problem that doesn't get solved right away to keep pushing through." This is what they are looking for. This is who they're hiring. So why don't we have schools that are educating for those skills? You have to be well versed in your content area, no doubt about it. You have to know that core body of knowledge, and you have to be a deep thinker of things. But you have to have those other skills—communicative and synthesizing skills, resilience, and ability to work collaboratively with others—to be successful in this world.

So what is our high school going to look like that is going to support that?

First of all, we are not going to teach subjects in isolation. Lots of schools do that, and lots of schools wish they didn't do that. But they are stuck, because that's the model of education built back when the world was a different world. We are going to teach subjects in a connected fashion. You'll still have an English class, and you'll have a Social Studies class—but you'll also have a humanities approach to learning. You'll have math classes and science classes—but you'll be in a STEM environment. This is very important, and it's something that we can do because we are building this from the start. We want to value individual subjects, but we want to find the connections among and between them.

We built a schedule that allows for this kind of flexibility. So, for example, if there is a student who wants to take two world languages, we can accommodate that. A student who is super advanced in math, we can accommodate that. Obviously, there are choices that have to be made, but we can build a program for each individual child. And I think that's what you want.

There is a design in our program called Intersession that I'm absolutely fascinated about. At the end of the first semester, there are three weeks when students do deep-dive projects into areas that they are really passionate about. Some of these might be culminating-type experiences from what they've been learning about in the first semester, but a lot of it is going deeper into the areas where they are excited. That's what makes engaged learners. When you give students an opportunity to have more voice and choice in what they are studying and how they are studying it and you provide them with the supports and the resources, they're going to go deep.

We have a Seminar class built in. In ninth and tenth grade, Seminar is an opportunity to engage in leadership development and to work on those communicative, synthesizing skills that I talked about. As they transition into eleventh and twelfth grades, it will be a time when we'll really go deep into the college process with them. We have an amazing college guidance person, Andy Ramirez. You will all get to know him. He is going to do good things there.

In their junior year, they will complete a major thesis. This is probably going to be the biggest project that they will work on. It won't start just in junior year. We'll start developing those skills in ninth and tenth grades. And hopefully they'll be able to dig into the projects that will become part of their story going into college.

Lastly, a lot of the learning is going to be project-based—meaning that we’ll ask students to take an important body of knowledge and work with it, shape it, and create the kind of learning that they think is important. Then we’ll ask them to demonstrate it to us—not as a test that they take and forget three weeks later, but as something that they genuinely have to get up in front of an audience of experts and explain and justify.

So all of that is how we are going to develop a deep and joyful sense of learning.

Other values: the students are known and needed. Every student will have an advisor, and we will have a strong college guidance process.

A finely-tuned moral compass—and that's when I go back to "the little things you do can make a big difference." We're going to teach them how to respect our dress code. Not because the adults say that's what you have to do. But because we have a rationale for why the dress code matters. Same thing with electronics. We have to help them navigate that world of electronics. We'll have policies that will make sure they are walking around with their heads up, not bumping into each other as they text.

We want them to engage in service, and we want them to do so because it's joyful and meaningful to them and not because they get points on a scorecard. Those are things that we'll emphasize that I think independent schools like Country Day do so well.

I know that we are going to have learners who are going to engage in deep and joyful learning. I know that they're going to be extremely well-known and valued, so that they come out of this process knowing their strengths and weakness and that there are people in this world who are championing them. And that they are going to have a strong moral compass that I am certain that will guide them throughout life. At Greenwich High School, I have seen the kids coming from Greenwich Country Day, and they have those values and they do stand out because of them and they're wonderful to work with.

I thank you all for welcoming me.