Photo: Justin Papp / Hearst Connecticut Media
New Canaan Country School Head of School Robert Macrae.
New Canaan Country School Head of School Robert Macrae.
Photo: Justin Papp / Hearst Connecticut Media
NEW CANAAN — There is a palpable feeling of excitement that reaches every corner of the New Canaan Country School’s idyllic 75-acre campus.
Robert Macrae, who took over as the most recent head of school in July 2015, attributes that to the school’s unique approach to teaching, employing constructivist and experiential methods to foster curiosity in the students, whose ages range from 3 to 15.
Macrae met with the New Canaan News recently in his office to talk about his teaching philosophy and the singular education offered at the Country School and to reflect on nearly a year in his new role.
Q: How did you come to be head of school in New Canaan?
A: My path here has been a little serendipitous. My first two years out of college I worked at an investment bank in New York City and loved it and thought for sure that that was where I was going to go.
But instead of going to business school or staying on at the investment bank, a couple people from my alma mater I was very close with — the Pingry School in New Jersey — asked if I would come teach math and computer science and coach soccer, hockey and lacrosse there. Almost on a lark I went there and told them that I’d give them two good years teaching and coaching. Toward the end of the second year I decided it was my calling and that what I was put on this Earth to do is be with children and to improve their lives and help them understand themselves and hopefully transform their lives.
That’s relevant because schools like New Canaan Country School are filled with teachers whose calling it is to be with children and serve children and affect children’s lives. So to have made that discovery early in my career was just wonderful and I feel blessed to be doing something that brings me so much satisfaction. So I ended up being at Pingry for 17 years after promising to be there for two. And then went out to Cincinnati Country Day School and was there for 11 years. It’s not just a vocation, it’s a passion. We love what we do.
Q: What is the educational philosophy here at New Canaan Country School?
A: It’s a very aspirational mission statement about balancing a very thorough and thought-out academic program that celebrates and preserves childhood and makes sure that children grow up at the right rate. Here in Fairfield County, things are very quick paced and we want to make sure children are able to celebrate childhood and enjoy that, while being academically prepared. There are other aspects of the mission about serving a greater purpose and making sure we’re developing moral and ethical citizens. It’s important at the Country School that we’re a private school with a public purpose. Service to others and connecting with others are a big part of who we are.
Q: In what ways in particular do you ensure that children are enjoying learning?
A: It’s the way we look at education, it’s more constructivist, more experiential. At one time it was almost controversial that we were teaching for understanding instead of rote. And now that the world’s changed so much the notion of teaching for understanding, instead of rote, seems so logical. We have children collaborating on projects or problem-based discovery and inquiry rather than being told what the answers are. The constructivist movement is constructing the knowledge and building the scaffolding to understand things and to work through things. It’s everything from collaboration to having debates and being very active in the learning and understanding that learning is very emotional. We develop a classroom that is emotionally stimulating and emotionally safe as well.
Q: How do you manage such a broad age-range in the student body? How do you build a community in which the 15-year-olds can coexist with 3-year-olds?
A: It’s quite a journey developmentally from what a 3-year-old needs and a 15-year-old needs. I love having such a range of ages, it provides a different cadence. Like if I’m having a bad day I can just walk over to the Thatcher Building and all is well with the 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds. They’re singing and it’s just this happy, happy place. The school and academics change and grow as the child changes and grows.
We have a buddies program where the oldest children go down and interact with the youngest children and they have a ball. My daughter this year is in ninth grade and whenever they have their buddy days that’s the first thing she tells me when she gets home. We also gather as a community a couple times a year and talk about what’s important to us and what we celebrate. There’s a sense of everybody coming together to further our mission. What we’re here for is to serve the children and create a really great learning environment for them and a safe place to grow up. And there’s an ethos and thread and culture in the school that pervades the different rhythms of the different grades and stays constant through the time together.
Q: How do you operate without letter grades?
A: We try to really teach the children to be intrinsically motivated. We want them to love learning. So we don’t give grades until the middle of seventh grade. We want them to be at school to love to learn, not to be extrinsically motivated just to achieve grades.
We give a very strong narrative and thorough description of how well the child is learning the information. It actually puts much more onus on us in terms of communication about how the child is doing. What does a single letter grade mean in terms of that? So we meet with the parents a couple times a year and we give very thorough narratives. But we just don’t like to reduce it down to a singular grade.
Q: What does the school’s emphasis on diversity bring to the education of the students?
A: We work very hard to attract diverse families and to have a diverse faculty and staff. It more resembles the world that the children are preparing to live in. And we are so much more effective when we have a diversity of thought and different ways of looking at things and different opinions. That fits into the ethos that we’re not here just to hear right answers, we’re here to hear people’s perspectives and points of views. It’s not just racial diversity. It’s ethnic diversity. It’s diversity of thought. It’s socioeconomic diversity. It’s important to us to celebrate diversity and to really be active and lead in issues of diversity. And I think our children are very comfortable talking about issues of diversity. I feel we’re in a really good place with that, but we’ll continue to work on it.
Q: How does the school engage with the town? With Fairfield County?
A: We love being in New Canaan. We really want to be active citizens in town and we want to serve the town. For example, we encourage people to walk their dogs here as long as they’re cleaning up after themselves. I also made it a point to go introduce myself to the first selectman, the chief of police, the school superintendent. With the nervousness of school safety I’ve worked closely with the New Canaan police making sure that they feel welcome and comfortable on our campus. The school started downtown, so we’ve been members of the community for 100 years. Being good citizens and serving the community is exciting.
The town and the school community have been very welcoming to me and my family. We love living in New Canaan ourselves.
We founded the Horizons program here 52 years ago and it’s a program that serves economically disadvantaged children. We have about 400 children on campus every summer for six weeks. And then we provide them tutoring and stay in touch with them during the rest of the year. Fifty other schools have now followed this model and are having Horizons across the country. And so it serves about 4,000 to 5,000 children every summer.
Q: What has your experience been at the school as you approach the one-year mark? And what did it mean to you to come on at such a historically significant time for the school?
A: First of all I think what has been most striking is how welcoming people have been — both the Country School people and the residents of New Canaan just have been so wonderful to me and my family and that’s been terrific.
In terms of what it means to come in in the centennial year, it’s been a really great time to look at our 100-year history and see the building blocks of who we are. While the exact language of the mission has been tweaked a little bit and made a little crisper, our mission has stayed the same through the years.
Q: How will you continue to be innovative in regard to education in the future?
A: What we need to do is look back and see who we are and how we did things, but then see how the world is changing. With a changing world we need to evaluate what tools are available to teach children differently than before. And when I say tools I mean technology, either iPhones or tablets and laptops and ability to access information immediately. But then also educational research and the amount of research that’s been done on what triggers learning and how the brain works. I’m fascinated by neuroplasticity of the brain and how the brain can rewire itself.
And so we evaluate what tools we have and then we evaluate the world in which children are going to live. I use as an example rote education. How valuable is rote education now in terms of memorizing dates and things like that when I can ask Siri and I can access that information immediately?
Of course there’s some level of information that you need as building blocks to ask the right questions, to lead the right discussion. But it’s changing dramatically and so we need to contemplate what skills our children need 15 years from now in a changing world. I think the centennial is a wonderful moment to look back, be in the present, celebrate the moment and then to know that we need to be prepared for the future.