Tom Woelper, Founding Head of School
New England Innovation Academy
Tom has had a distinguished 31-year career in independent education, most recently serving as the Head of School of Far Hills Country Day School in Far Hills, New Jersey. Prior to his tenure at Far Hills, Tom served as the Assistant Head of School and Dean of Academic Life and taught history during his 14 years at The Hotchkiss School. Tom began his career in independent school education as a teaching intern at Groton School and then as a history teacher and Class Dean at The Taft School. Following a sabbatical year from Taft, Tom served as the Head of the Ake Panya International School in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He also has served on the Board of Trustees of the New Jersey Association of Independent Schools, where he co-chaired the Accreditation Committee.
Daniel: Unless this is your first show listening. If that's the case welcome, we were so excited that you're here listening to The Better Leaders, Better Schools Podcast. If you've listened to just the handful of shows I ask all my guests the same two questions at the end. What would you put on a school marquee around the world if you could do so for a day, and how would you build your dream school? Today is an interesting conversation because my guest, Tom Woelper is living out building his dream school. We're going to start our conversation there right off the bat in the beginning, how's he approaching being a founding head of school and doing some really interesting stuff for his community, with a focus on human centered design. Hey, it's Daniel, and welcome to The Better Leaders, Better Schools Podcast, a show for Ruckus Makers, those out of the box leaders making change happen in education. We'll be right back with the main content of this show, right after a short message from our show sponsors. Develop your structures, systems, supports, and culture for excellent teaching and learning in every classroom for every student. As part of leading learning a brand new certificate of school management and leadership course from Harvard. Leading learning launches on July 21st and runs until August 18th, apply by July 9th and enroll by July 15th at betterleadersbetterschools.com/Harvard. That's betterleadersbetterschools.com/Harvard.
Daniel: Are you automatically tracking online student participation data during COVID? Innovative school leaders across the country have started tracking online student participation using TeachFX because it's one of the most powerful ways to improve student outcomes during COVID, especially for English learners and students of color. Learn more about TeachFX and get a special offer at teachfx.com/BLBS. That's teachfx.com/BLBS. All students have an opportunity to succeed with Organized Binder, who equips educators with a resource to provide stable and consistent learning. Whether that's in a distance, hybrid, or traditional educational setting. Learn email@example.com. Ruckus Maker today, I am joined by Tom Woelper, who is the New England Innovation Academy's founding head of school. Tom has spent more than 30 years in independent education. Most recently as the head of school at far Hills country day school in New Jersey. Prior to that, Tom had roles at the Groten school, the Taft School, Ake Panya International School in Chiang Mai, Thailand.Tom lives in Massachusetts with his wife and two sons. Welcome to the show today.
Tom: Thank you, Danny. I'm thrilled to be here.
Daniel: Usually I end the show with you're building a school from the ground up. You're not limited by any resources. Your only limitations your imagination. Honestly, you're basically living out that thought experiment right now. I'm sure there's constraints of resources so your answer will be a little bit different. Since you are founding, um, this school and starting it from the ground up, just tell us about the approach. I know the Ruckus Maker would be very interested to hear that.
Tom: Talk about a dream come true to be a founding head of school. Looking at my background, I laugh because in some ways I'm the least likely candidate having gone to a high school that was founded in 1810 and worked at boarding schools founded in 1890s and the head of a school found in the 1920s. All along, I felt that as wonderful as those institutions were, they were so bound by the cultural inertia of being around for so long. That as much as they wanted to innovate and change, the central paradigm, didn't allow them to go too far. They could only innovate around the edges. I always felt there was an opportunity to do something more. This opportunity kind of fell into my lap and I was so inspired by the founders of the school who fundamentally believed that our educational system writ large was not preparing students well enough for the future.
Tom: A lot of us have talked about our future characterized by disruptive technologies. Anything that can be done by artificial intelligence or a computer in a world that is increasingly characterized by globalization and tribalism, but also a place where we're preparing students for jobs that don't exist yet. The end of careers, as we know them, changing careers multiple times over the course of one's life span. The old paradigm of education perceives to be fed on that kind of factory model, where students move from cellblock classroom to cellblock classroom. There's a teacher in front who is instructing where students kind of master kind of content in order to move on to a workplace where they have a job when they graduate. And they can continue to do that until they're 65 and get a gold watch.
: That model is not preparing students for a changing world. I get to be a Ruckus Maker. I'm part of a school that really wants to be a model for what education can and should be. It's really centered on innovation on the human centered design process, which is all about providing students with a process to innovate as well as an ethos, to be an innovator. The process has some distinctive steps. Human centered design is also called design thinking by others, but steps to explore and express and create and test and implement, not in a linear fashion. It's a bit messy at times, but built into that is the need to understand others needs with empathy. They in need to iterate and fail fast and fail forward. They need to deal with ambiguity, the need to work together with others on a team. This is so much the needed skill set and mindset that our students need to be prepared for changing world. To find a school that is organized around those principles, organized around helping students find their passion to help them translate their ideas to have impact on what comes next. Has really been a dream come true.
Daniel: Thanks Tom. The world economic forum just revised the top 10 skills for 2025. At the top of the list is analytical thinking and innovation, which is about problem solving. The active learning and learning strategies is number two, which is about self-management, I'm sure the disruption education went through,at the hands of the pandemic influenced this a lot because people had to be agile. They had to pivot they had to adapt at self-management because you didn't have people checking in on you that you're at the right place at the right time, turned it in, whatever you needed to turn in, et cetera. A lot of complexity there. You mentioned preparing kids for the future in the critique of school is the factory model, and it's not preparing for jobs that don't exist yet. I get that as an idea, but what does that actually like practically look like in school in terms of prepping them for that future?
Tom: I think a lot of schools have often talked about some of the key elements here. Schools talk about student agency. Schools have talked about having a design thinking process or a maker-space. Schools have talked about helping students find their passion. Again, that often happens on the edges or after the bell rings, as opposed to really being organized around that concept. We're really focused on having real-world application for what our students do. I'll give you an example. Our campus is continuous to conservation land that has the (inaudible) pond on it. We've learned through our conversations with the town that the pond is hyper salinated. It's not too far away from 495 or 290. In the winter they've got to salt those roads a lot. Salt is washed off and the pond is now hyper salinated that pond fed into the backup reservoir for the town of Marlboro.
Tom: Now that's foul. We have a real world problem. I think this is where you begin is looking at a real-world problem. We're going to have an opportunity to study this pond, to work with the town, to recommend things that we can do to improve the ecosystem of that pond. We have an opportunity to working with the town. There's a Triborough Trail System that wraps around that has not been built through that pond area. We can build a bog bridge, do something that is environmentally friendly, and we'll be able to see if we can get the beavers to come back to the pond they left years ago. I think one thing is to find real-world problems and to look to partner with civic groups or corporations or service groups, and to build a program, a curriculum for the students that are developing the analytical skills that they need, but doing something where they can really have an impact. And that's where I think the learning is going to be deeper. It's going to be meaningful and it's going to last a lot longer than if it was in that old factory system model.
Daniel: There's a difference from reading a case study or something in a textbook that describes an environmental challenge like you're talking about. Actually being the student that goes to the pond and figures out how to make it a place that beavers want to come back to. I think you said they left years ago, it's too salty. They don't like it, but if they could see the fruit of that work or that the reservoir now becomes functional again, I'm sure that that's going to be worn as a badge of honor. It's going to solidify that learning, they'll think about that for decades versus what they forget about in the textbook. That's what I'm hearing.
Tom: What's also exciting that I often think that different government agencies and civic groups listen to student voices almost better than other adult voices. I think that there's maybe some real power and impact as our students look at a problem or a challenge like that. I think they're going to be pleasantly surprised at how their voice and their message is going to be picked up and kind of heard and that's exciting too. It's also back to the point often when you study environmental issues, it's the next chapter in the textbook. We very much are using our campus, looking at our own campus ecosystem, food, energy, water, but calluses and opportunities and kind of Marlboro that's our textbook. We aren't going to be telling our students what they're going to be learning necessarily. We're going to be partnering with them to identify the problems or opportunities that exist and using that as our teacher.
Daniel: Yeah, that's interesting. The point with the outside groups listening to student voices, is that something that your gut is telling you, or do you have experience with that or a story there?
Tom: It's been more through experience and based on the response that we've gotten from the local officials in Marlborough. I think that there's often a lot of need for help and whether you're going in to help a local civic group rebuild their website, it could be as simple as that or help them with the mailing or volunteer your time and effort for a particular event. They often invite in those, those student voices. They also tend to be very receptive to the work that students do. Probably a bit more good feeling then and accumulated experience, but all the feedback, every step along the way just shows how powerful that voice can be.
Daniel: I liked that point. That's why I had to ask. Thanks for sharing. I want to talk about human centered design which I think is founded on empathy. You told me a great story about empathy that helped me see what it is and what it is not, and it had to do with police. Can you share that with the Ruckus Maker?
Tom: The first step in the human centered design process is to understand the needs of others with empathy. Empathy is one of those words, I feel like along with grit and resilience or a growth mindset has been so overused as almost become bankrupt. People just kind of throw the term at different things. I think the word empathy has often been confused with compassion or kindness or not really understanding how to develop empathy in our students. My first training I did and understanding what design thinking was a person told this great story that really made it clear to me. This story went like this. There was this police officer who while on his beat, got to know this homeless man. Over time I got to know this person and the calendar was slipping into the winter months was getting cold.
Tom: The cop thought that he would go out and buy this man, a pair of boots. You notice that he didn't have any shoes. When I bought the homeless man, a pair of boots, the story kind of hit the local news media. Few days later, a reporter tracked down the homeless man and saw that he was sitting on the street without any shoes. He didn't have the boots. The reporter said, "I heard that this cop bought you a pair of boots. Why aren't you wearing those boots?" The homeless man said, "Well, if I wore those boots, I was gonna get robbed. It's far better for me to sell the boots and have the money to buy socks. It was because of what I really needed are socks to keep my feet warm in the winter." I went on to explain that the police officer with kindness in his heart wants to help this man, but never asked what the homeless man actually needed and that's what empathy is all about. It's deeply understanding the needs of others. It begins with things as simple as asking them questions and that's a step that gets left out. Often in all that we do, we jump straight to the expert. We think we know what others need and want without actually asking them. One of the most powerful ways to develop empathy is to ask questions and then importantly, over time, express it back to them to make sure that you understand.
Daniel: Reflecting back to check in, make sure you're getting it right. Your perspective and worldview still isn't influencing what you think they need or that better or something like that. I'd love to hear what does that look like? Designing a school from the ground up and keeping founding families and their students perspectives in mind. How are you incorporating and exercising your empathy muscle that way?
Tom: This has been so exciting, but it's also led to some of the ambiguity that I've talked about a bit earlier. We very intentionally don't want to over-design many aspects of our school. We've just finished hiring our founding faculty until we have the students in front of us. We have a vision and a framework, but until we deeply understand their needs and can partner with them, then we shouldn't get too far ahead of ourselves. Otherwise we aren't going to be a school that's practicing human centered design and all that we do. There are some things this first class of students from helping us establish what our honor code might look like. They're going to help us. In fact, one of the jobs we're going to have for our ninth graders is going to be to design what the dress attire should be for the school, and then to operate a school store in order to understand from other students what they want to wear.
Tom: We'll have some certain guidelines they'll have to operate under. Then they're going to partner with our business office to do the purchasing. They're going to run the school store. They're going to have to manage the inventory. They'll have to, at the end, if there's left over product, what they're going to do with it. If they aren't a profit, but can have a conversation, either it can go into a student activities fund or they can give it away to a local group. This is the way we're thinking about the entire experience of our students. How they're going to acquire what they were running a school store, understanding the accounting and the rest of it to be part of the education and places where we're gonna lean into all over the experience of the students.
Daniel: I had a big smile thinking about experiences, running schools, stores with former students. My mind also jumped to all the Better Leaders, Better Schools, probably by the time this actually this, this show launches we'll have a web store. I've been neglecting the Ruckus Maker audience in some respects because I've never had swag for them. Probably because I'm creative, but I honestly, I had no interest in having t-shirts or trying to sell t-shirts or whatever. That was very focused on me, which was a problem because I see that educators and school leaders, they love that stuff. If they get value from this podcast, then that have a sticker, I had a shirt that didn't say Better Leaders, Better Schools. It's not about me or the podcast, but it says Ruckus Maker it's about them. I think that's going to be quite fun. I was just thinking I need to hire your students because I don't know what I'm doing.
Tom: I've got a great school you can partner with on that, Danny. Even kind of beyond that, and again, we do like swag because it makes you feel part of a team, part of a tribe. There's something really powerful about that. Even beyond that there is going to be the opportunities to market to look at an in person store versus an online store to understand accounting. All those other pieces is what some of the additional value added is. I can promise you for some students that might be one of the most enduring learnings that they take from being at our school is operating that kind of school store and finding the swag that sold the most in a given year and assessing that.
Daniel: Exactly well, Tom, I'm really enjoying our conversation. We're going to pause here. Just feels right to get a quick message in from our sponsors when we return. I want to hear more about, um, the ideas work, which has to do with diversity equity and all that. Personally, as a leader how you manage the stress of founding a school with the opportunity. I think that'd be a really valuable way to end the conversation for the Ruckus Maker listening.
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Daniel: We're back with Tom Woelper, the founding head of school at New England Innovation Academy. I'm really enjoying this conversation, uh, mostly because Tom's a really inspiring leader, but he's doing what I ask all my guests, building his dream school. As a leader, how are you managing the stress of launching a new school also with the operators?
Tom: It's been challenging. It's been, uh, full of curve balls, pivoting. I don't think I've ever used the word pivot so much in my life as I have in the last year. It's so exhilarating and exciting to have this north star guiding vision where we really want to build a school that can be a model for what school can and should be. The piece that gets me out of bed every morning, excited to get started as outstanding colleagues, continue to kind of network to meet people like you and kind of your listeners by extension. Certainly keeps me going and with us and this might sound a bit trite. You also have to take care of yourself. Actually starting with the pandemic a year ago, started doing a online yoga class with my wife and I gotta say that's been transformative in terms of taking care of myself.
Tom: In fact, I did a class at 7:00 AM, this morning from the breathing, the focusing on the present moment to getting out and walking more. If anything, by doing so much work from, even as we've been founding, this school is making sure that I carve out time to take care of myself, to take care of my family, even as with the heavy lift and all the work there's a lot to do, but it's such an inspiring work. I also laugh and feel like I'm more ADHD. In my old age, I could go to a conversation about the building and furniture to looking at a partnership for our language program, to recruiting a faculty member, to going all over the place and all the different aspects of what a school is about that I've got to kind of code switch every 30 minutes to focus on and have a different type of a conversation. It can be exhausting, but it's also so exhilarating and exciting about this work and also keeps it fresh.
Daniel: Follow up question. These always pop up, but you talked about being a model for other schools. What school could be. As you're building this, what does that look like in the future then? If other schools want to learn human centered design in terms of school, or just replicating what you all are doing?
Tom: Plan on designing or on human centered design on the curriculum that we plan on sharing out and making available. What's great about being in the education space is the willingness of educators to share with each other. Certainly we'll invite people to come see our campus and what we are doing. If anything, I worry sometimes about the danger of a regression to the mean. As we bring on more families and we bring on more faculty members, they're going to have their previous experiences of school that parents experienced when they were a child. They're going to say they want this and then they're going to worry that we're not offering AP courses, or they're going to worry about what's happening at the school down the road. I think staying true to our mission, bringing in like-minded educators is going to be such a key for us to continue to be the exemplar that I think that we can become. We'll welcome everyone to come check us out, and we'll be sharing out the work that we are doing.
Daniel: Let me ask you now about the IDEAS Work, included in diversity, equity, inclusion as cornerstones of your vision. I might've missed something there, but let's end with this one.
Tom: I've been struck by a lot in your podcast. You've talked with guests about how systemic racism has presented a challenge. Certainly we can look at this last year, uh, to see how it's going to play out across the country. Most recently on January 6th. It seems to me that many schools, as they've tried to take this on, and I started our conversation, having worked previously as some really old schools that were not founded with diversity and inclusion as their founding mission, they were founded to get white boys into Harvard and into Yale. Even having evolved over time to do impressive work in this area, it's always been around the kind of periphery. It's never really been central to their mission. For us as an innovation academy, it's really central to what we're all about.
Tom: To develop an innovator, you need to have a group of people who have diverse backgrounds, experience, and thinking, and by extension, you're looking at diversity in all of its forms. It's visible and it's invisible forms because we know that diverse groups, outperform homogenous groups all the time. For us to be successful in our mission and our educational mission, we have to be a diverse school, both in terms of the students and the faculty essential to what we're all about, but that's not that you can't stop there. Even in our acronym, inclusion, diversity, equity, action is the AE and social justice. I think that many schools or institutions stop short of the action, you have to actively dismantle the existing racism. You have to actively examine your own bias. You have to actively think about how you develop a community of diverse learners, having diverse people together doesn't make for a sense of belonging.
Tom: It doesn't make for a sense of a school that's really activated by DEI. That's going to be so central to us beginning with our educational mission, and then having to carry through with our actions down to, we're not going to have a discipline system as much as we are going to look at a restorative justice program. In terms of how we go about addressing the issues that will inevitably come up in a school and a very different approach that really comes back to kind of DEI and a sense of belonging at its core.
Daniel: I really appreciate that answer and unpacking what the A stands for. We read in the Mastermind, the leadership community, I facilitate, Measure, What Matters, which has to do with the objectives and key results. The authors, John Doerr. I have this quote memorized because it really resonates with my soul. Ideas are easy, execution is everything. When it comes to DEI work, lwe're gonna put on our vision and the website. We love everybody, and honor diverse perspectives, blah, blah, blah, but then you have to do it. By including that action, that activation. That's what's going to set your school apart from so many others. Thanks again for sharing. When it comes to a school marquee. Let's say you can put a message on every school marquee around the whole world for one single day. What are you going to put on the marquee?
Tom: I would put disruptive times call for disruptive action and a colon. I would quote, Gandhi and say," Be the change you wish to see in the world."
Daniel: Thank you so much for being a part of the better leaders, better schools, podcasts of all the things we talked about today, what's the one thing you want to Ruckus Maker to remember?
Tom: I want them to remember and I'll pick up my last statement from Gandhi, that they can be the change they want to see in the world, and they should continue to be a Ruckus Maker to make better schools.
Daniel: Thanks for listening to the better leaders, better schools podcast for Ruckus Maker. If you have a question or would like to connect my email, Daniel@betterleadersbetterschools.com or hit me up on Twitter @alienearbud. If the Better Leaders Better Schools Podcast is helping you grow as a school leader, then please help us serve more Ruckus Makers like you. You can subscribe, leave an honest rating and review or share on social media with your biggest takeaway from the episode, extra credit for tagging me on Twitter @alienearbud and using the #BLBS level up your leadership at better leaders, better schools.com and talk to you next time until then class.
- Our future is characterized by disruptive technologies
- Break the Cellblock Gold Watch model in education to prepare students for the changing world
- Human-Centered Design school, iterate, fail fast, and fail forward
- Empathy is knowing that socks are more valuable than boots
- Putting into practice diversity, equity, and inclusion as cornerstones of your vision
- IDEAS will create action and connection
- Manage both the stress and the opportunity
- Position every member of the school as an educator
- Use your campus as a textbook
“To develop an innovator, you need to have a group of people who have diverse backgrounds, experience, and thinking, and by extension, you’re looking at diversity in all of its forms. It’s visible and it’s invisible forms. We know that diverse groups outperform homogenous groups all the time. For us to be successful in our mission and our educational mission, we have to be a diverse school, both in terms of the students and the faculty. Essential to what we’re all about, but you can’t stop there. Even in our acronym, Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Action. Action is the A in social justice. Many schools or institutions stop short of the action, you have to actively dismantle the existing racism. You have to actively examine your own bias. You have to actively think about how you develop a community of diverse learners.”
– Tom Woelper
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