Interview with Jamie Feild Baker, Chief Academic Officer at Pomfret School
Why is it important to talk about innovation and change at TABS this year?
The school landscape changes quickly with advances in technology, new research about how students learn, and an ever-changing outside world. Our presentation at TABS will cover some ways that change positively impacts student learning and school culture as well as the challenges that schools face trying to change. Leading change is difficult and scary, yet paramount to our schools’ continued success and sustainability as we strive to maintain relevance and excellence in preparing students for their next step beyond our schools.
Pomfret School for the last few year has been intentionally questioning all aspects of what we do and how we do it. Our goal is to provide the best teaching, learning, and boarding school experience that we can for our students. To do this, we have to become voracious adult learners. We also have to start at the end with a vision of the learning environment we are trying to create. The daily schedule is a great example of our thinking. We determined that to address student stress and health as well as to create an optimal environment conducive to deep, meaningful learning we needed to change how we used time.
We changed our academic schedule from seven 45-minute rotating blocks to six 80-minute blocks that meet every other day. The benefits of making this change are clear. Students now have more time to learn in classes that are more active and hands on. They have more processing time to internalize the learning in between classes. At night they are only preparing for three classes not six.
At the same time, we also made the move away from the AP curriculum. We’re choosing instead to highlight the knowledge and creativity of our faculty by creating conditions for them to create their own courses. After much research, we felt that the AP curriculum didn’t cultivate a great sense of inquiry in students who repeatedly complained about teachers not allowing questions because the class had to move on to cover all the material, and that coverage is not lasting learning. Research supports these conclusions and we feel good about the decision. Students can take APs exams but we are no longer constrainted by the prescribed curricula.
What role do you have in making these changes at Pomfret School?
The position I hold is the director of the Grauer Institute for Excellence and Innovation in Education. It is an endowed leadership position that was created when Pomfret adopted a new strategic plan in 2013. That plan was forward looking and intentionally focused on preparing students for their futures in college and in their lives. Our strategic plan is driving the thinking and work we are doing in reimagining learning and teaching. My position oversees all aspects of teaching and learning and we are focused on innovation that improves student outcomes.
The role is meant to be biased towards taking action, rather than just starting conversations. I brought the perspective of an outsider to Pomfret, having seen the journey of innovation from start to breakthrough at other institutions. Coming into this position, I was very familiar with the challenges change can bring, as well as the many benefits for students and teachers alike.
It’s important to be up-front that change is a difficult process. The process requires individuals to look inward and do radical questioning. It takes a while to come to an internalized commitment to the reality that the world is changed, and that the school must change with it.
We’re great schools full of great people, but we might be preparing students for an age gone by. As we look towards a different world that values different skills, mindsets, and learning dispositions, we have to be willing to be open to that change. Really, we have to be more than willing if we want to do our best by students. We must be determined to change in ways that better fulfill our missions.
What are some of the challenges you faced in making changes?
School culture is vested in having one right answer and disparaging as well as punishing failure. In reimagining and reorganizing our schools, there isn’t only one right answer. There are right questions that we need to be asking and we must be urgent about creating solutions. We have to be willing to recognize what is distinctly connected to and reflective of our school. If change is going to be successful, we have to move away from our fear of failure as use it as a very valuable part of learning.
The hard part for me in leading change is being in the middle of competing priorities and complications of our school environments. The board creates strategic priorities that they believe will result in improving the sustainability and relevance of the school. Traditionally teachers have enjoyed unbounded autonomy at our schools. The changes we are making are bound by our strategic priorities and mission fulfillment. Asking a whole school to align to strategic priorities and mission where that is a new idea creates a lot of friction that is challenging.
It’s very important to be able to look back and take stock of the change journey. A school
should celebrate progress because change is a difficult and challenging process. It’s even more challenging when change occurs while we’re still responsible for students' high-quality experience every day. At a boarding school it’s particularly hard because our schedules often don’t allow the time to take on large projects. We need to acknowledge that the whole school community is developing the skills and abilities to make these changes by dedicating real time and support.
Jamie Feild Baker, Chief Academic Officer and Director of the Grauer Institute
Jamie oversees all aspects teaching and learning at Pomfret School, in the classroom and beyond. Her charge as director of the Grauer Institute is to bring innovation and culture change to Pomfret in order to position the school as a recognized thought leader in teaching, learning, and innovative program design for independent boarding schools. Jamie reports directly to the head of school and works closely with all departments of the school to help them question their practices and mindsets. Jamie is a 1984 graduate of Georgetown University with degrees in economics and finance. Her career experience includes financial planning, investment banking and sales, and entrepreneurial ventures in hotel and real estate development. Before coming to Pomfret in 2014, Jamie served as the executive director of the Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence in Memphis. She has served many schools as a nationally recognized and sought-after expert in innovation and school transformation.