Interview with John Botti, Head of School at Browning School in NYC
How has the transition into your first Headship gone?
It sounds like famous last words, but the transition has been really smooth. There are challenges to be sure, but many people worked very hard to make sure that I could come in and learn on a reasonable schedule. The previous Head of School left things in wonderful condition. The fact that I haven’t needed to worry about fiscal solvency, our physical plant, or our incredible faculty and staff, has made things immeasurably easier. Our active transition committee gave me the freedom to pace my meetings with the staff, and meet the students in a more authentic way.
I have received and continued to receive fantastic mentoring from Landon, Browning, and an informal network of NYC Heads who have been so generous with their time and concern. From the moment the job was made public I have received no fewer than a dozen calls or emails from heads that I’ve never met.
My transition has also been aided by the fact that I'm a father at this school. It’s allowed me to experience the school in an entirely different way. I was cautioned against enrolling my sons in the school where I work, but it’s been wonderful and challenging. Being able to see their joy and the adults they encounter through their eyes helps me feel at home and understand the school in a deeper way.
How have you been prioritizing initiatives?
The fundamental difference between my last role as Associate Head and this role as Head of School, is that I’m no longer responsible for the hands-on execution of problem solving. As Associate Head, it was as if I was playing first chair violin. As Head of School, I’m responsible for the whole symphony. I’m spending time attempting to empower the right people to try their own best approach. It’s an exciting opportunity to nurture the culture of a whole school.
Much of the advice I received suggested that I take the first year to listen and learn. I’ve been trying to honor that by being present, getting to know the faculty, and learning about their sense of priorities. One thing I did this summer was sit down with every member of the faculty and ask them to tell me the story of Browning. I wanted to know their hopes, fears, and concerns. From that I was able to see certain themes emerge which helped me think about next steps and who should be involved.
Rather than saying that I will fix the problems and providing a checklist of next steps, I want to start a conversation and gather help from those who are closest to the issue. Staying in conversation with the folks who make the school work every day has been vital to my first few months. If we’re given some time to think and gather data there might be another way of addressing problems.
You appointed the first Director of Diversity in the Browning’s history. Why was this one of your first initiatives?
I entered into a school that was having a burgeoning conversation about equity and inclusion. There was a lot of enthusiasm for it and hope behind it, but I felt there needed to be more direction. We weren’t lacking for allies in the community, but we needed more coordination of our efforts. Within the Browning community there are a number of de facto Directors of Diversity, but in order to get some clarity we needed a dedicated role. Families needed someone to go to with questions. Someone needed to give form to this energetic conversation we were all having. Since appointing our Director, we’ve had more clarity around our goals. Diversity has become something we say without thinking or pondering it. None of us expect to ever be done with this work, but we’re excited to be making progress.
What’s the biggest difference between schools in NYC and DC?
My experience in DC was a suburban, so the lens that I see the culture switch is through that. I’ve found that the DC culture is much more of a campus culture. Schools demand and compete on offering campus-centered activities. They use athletic competitions, artistic performance, civic events, and academic gatherings to create community. A lot of status and identity is given schools that host those sorts of events.
I’m still learning the NY culture, but in a city where there are few campuses, I can’t help but think that it shapes the way in which culture works. Schools here are more apt to engage with the city itself. There seems to be more flexibility in exercising institutional identity here, because schools are in and of the city. There is more access to a wider array of activities.
What advice would you give to administrators going through transitions?
What I’m trying to do is strike a balance between humility and trusting that I have been chosen for a reason. I acknowledge there are things I don’t know. I am first and foremost a learner. That said, I wasn’t selected for this role so that I could emulate someone else's style. In transition, it’s important to trust yourself not to change. Be open while having a sense of your values and the importance of those values.
I’m happy that I’m trying this. I’m deeply grateful that I got to be part of the community I was in before. I felt supported there, and believed in the work we were doing. Now that I’ve taken this step, I’m so happy to be able to make it with help of colleagues - past and present - and my family.