Good Morning Mr. Cooper: Q & A With Elisabeth Morrow's New Head of School

On November 17, 2011, The Board of Trustees appointed Aaron C. Cooper as Head of The Elisabeth Morrow School, replacing David M. Lowry, Ph.D., upon his retirement at the end of this academic year.  Mr. Cooper will become Elisabeth Morrow’s seventh Head of School.  A few days after his appointment, Mr. Cooper sat down with Jennifer Brown, a reporter and writer for CBS Radio News, to share his thoughts and views regarding his appointment, the School and its future. 

Jennifer Brown (JB):  When you first got the news that you were hired as the new Head of School, tell me what you were thinking?

Aaron Cooper (AC):  It is something that Kara and I had spoken about quite a bit, particularly since Dr. Lowry announced his retirement, and we knew that this was a possibility.  The announcement for me was somewhat surreal, as it happened after a Board meeting where I had given a big presentation.  After the meeting, I was asked to stay, and the Board Chair came in and offered me the position.  I was thrilled.  So, after being at this school now for nine years, knowing it really well, and having put a lot of thought into what can be the right next steps for the school, it is exciting for me to be the person who can help steer it in that direction.

JB:  Looking at your bio, I realize that you have done just about everything at this school:  you have coached, you have taught, you have helped these students find high schools. What made you seek this position?

AC:  I can trace my aspiration to be a head of school back to my first couple of years in teaching.  I loved being in the classroom. I took to it right away from the standpoint of being able to create, maintain and enhance – to put my mark on a culture of learning and respect.  After several years in the classroom, though, I started to feel the desire to have a similar effect on a larger scale.  To me, as a head of school, that is job-one; the person in this position drives, supports and formalizes a culture conducive to everyone's learning.

JB:  About your early years teaching, do you have any fond memories so far at Elisabeth Morrow?

AC:  I have been through much at this school, starting here when the school was just nursery through sixth grade, and then eventually adding seventh and eighth grades. One memory that stands out is the first boys’ basketball team that Gene Love and I coached.  You should have seen the look on the boys’ faces when we won our first game.  They were so excited and proud of their school.

The previous year, I got to know all of my players well, as I had them in my sixth grade Latin class.  So, personally, this win meant a great deal to me as well.  I was hired to help design the Middle School program where one facet was the creation of extracurricular programs, including sports.  It was a great deal of work.  We brought in advisors, we had committees working on it, we devised a philosophy for the sports program and then we got to watch that come to fruition.  The first win was a great moment, seeing the students jumping all around at center court in their green uniforms and it being here on campus.  It felt like the middle school of EMS had arrived.

JB:  What is it like having your children attend Elisabeth Morrow? What’s your perspective as a parent?

AC:  Julia is now in Kindergarten (she started in the three-year-old program) and Charlotte just started in the 3's program this year.  So this is the first year that both of our children have been old enough to be in the school.  I appreciate the fact that I get to work in the same place that my kids go to school.  When I drive to work, I get to drop them off, walk them down to their classrooms and say good-bye.  Then, at the end of most days, I am able to pick them up after school and take them home.  Before and after school, I get to hear what they are looking forward to or what they did that day.  You can't put a price on that; it is invaluable.

Julia started the year I was promoted to Assistant Head of School, and that was significant for me as I moved away from being a Middle School employee to being a whole-school administrator.  My initial task for this position was to become more familiar with elementary and early childhood education, as my background had been exclusively in middle school education.  The combination of learning the position through my contact with teachers and principals, along with my experience as a parent watching my daughters go through this program and the effects that it has had on my girls' learning has very quickly helped me understand our program at a much deeper level than I would have otherwise.  For instance, my daughter Julia has been here three years now, and to see her go from entering the school in the 3's program, having been just potty trained to being now, in Kindergarten, on the cusp of literacy – of reading and writing – has been wonderful.  I have enjoyed observing how all the different pieces of the program have worked together to help her get to this place.  She loves everything about language:  playing with words, telling and listening to stories, predicting their endings.  To see that come to life in my child has been fantastic for me as a father and an educator.

JB:  You have kids here, you've worn a great many hats here, and it is clear that you are familiar with the school.  What challenges do you see heading your way next year?

AC:  There are challenges and opportunities on a number of levels.  One of our biggest challenges, which is over-arching and connected to all others, is maintaining and enhancing the sense of community that we have, both internally (between the faculty members of the school) and externally (with our families).  We've seen a marked increase in the number of families where both parents are working full-time.  We are also seeing farther geographic distance from which our families are coming.  So it's important that this place feel like a home for students and parents.

JB:  There are some big projects in the works for Elisabeth Morrow, in terms of the campus master plan.  Tell me a little about that.

AC:  This segues perfectly from your last question, because the underlying motive behind this initiative is community. We’ve engaged an architectural firm to work with us to develop a campus master plan in conjunction with the Strategic Plan and to address our needs today as well as in the future.  One of our big challenges here on campus is geographical in nature.  The level of elevation within the campus separates us into lower and upper campuses and, to some degree, impacts the unity of our community and the feeling of being one school.

Also, with the advent of the Middle School, there is need for additional spaces.  For example, we do not have a regulation playing field where we could host interscholastic games on campus, nor do we have a large multi-functional space for the whole school to gather, meet and celebrate as a community. 

Our intent is to develop a specific plan to meet these needs and others while creating a common area which would unify the campus and benefit the entire school.  This design more accurately reflects our spirit and our mission.

JB:  So let’s turn toward the Strategic Plan. This is more about program?

AC:  It's a bit more all encompassing than that.  The Strategic Plan is the Board's blueprint for the future initiatives and direction of the School.  While it speaks toward programs both academic and non-academic, it also includes human resources, technology, enrollment, and communications – basically providing direction for the School as a whole.  It becomes the document that will steer our work as faculty and administrators.  Now, as Head of School Elect, I will play a more active role in helping to articulate the different goals that we believe will make us as strong as we can be.

JB:  Well, let's talk about technology a bit.  There is so much new technology, new media, social networking – it's changing the way schools are approaching education.  There's a lot of talk about "no textbooks." There is a lot of talk about going "paperless." Kids are learning much more electronically.  Where do you see current trends fitting into Elisabeth Morrow?

AC:  I have a lot of thoughts about technology in education.  In general, I see technology as a tool that is used to enhance learning and it can have a number of different facets.  Within our curriculum, I view us using technology to develop deeper, more significant connections between our students and what they are learning.  Two instances come to mind.  When a class is learning about other parts of our country or the world, it's easy to gather information and even talk to people who live in those places or are involved with those places.  Using technology to garner those global connections and awareness is something we want to develop further.

From a more practical angle, technology is a great organizer, in terms of information and applications.  One thing we are currently discussing is the use of a "device" to hold all your textbooks, hold all your notes and hold all your work that is accessible anytime via the "cloud."  Not only does that make the backpack lighter for the students, but this way of managing and referencing information is also more relevant to the world today and more relevant for the kids growing up in this world.

JB:  When I think about all this new technology, it takes training.  How do you see yourself as Head of School supporting your teachers in this regard?

AC:  This is actually something I have been working on closely as Assistant Head.  We've formally established a faculty evaluation system.  We call it Faculty Growth and Renewal, and concurrent to that I have been working with Sarah Rolle, our Director of Technology, to set up our expectations for faculty learning about technology.  It has evolved from a series of training sessions, and it's currently a more teacher-driven program.  Teachers target their own initiatives, and our technology team then assists them in the training they will need.  It has become much more individualized.  As Head of School, my expectation is that we all need to be learning technology – each person needs to take his or her next steps, and there are always next steps.  This way we can deliver the program in the most powerful and relevant way possible. 

JB:  Is there an example of technology use in the classroom that you think has been particularly successful?

AC:  I have two that come to mind.  One is in the second-grade study of culture.  They have actually made connections with other schools around the world and have been in regular contact with a school in Australia working on a joint project discussing the differences between Australian and American culture. Our students have even “Skyped” with the teachers there, despite the 14-hour time difference.  So there's technology being used as a collaborative tool, connecting our students with children literally on the other side of the globe.

The second example is the work we are doing in the Middle School with virtual worlds, online gaming and scripting.  It has been phenomenal.  It is not so much about the content, but rather more focused on the skills students will need today, in terms of creativity, collaboration, communication, forming of community and character.  All of those pieces integrate nicely within these types of games, and the students absolutely love them. So, there is a high level of engagement. The Elisabeth Morrow School is on the forefront of this initiative within independent schools.

JB:  So when you say “scripting,” do you mean games where you read along and make choices?

AC:  No, scripting is synonymous with programming. Students can use programming language within the game to affect how the game goes, such as building a certain structure, animating certain features, moving from one part of the virtual world to another, or inventing the landscape within the game.  Students do this within teams and try to solve the challenges that exist within the virtual world.

JB:  Something I read about every day in my job, as pertaining to schools, is bullying.  Basically, parents feel like bullying is all over the place, at school, in texts, on Facebook and that schools don't do enough.  The statistics for middle schools are alarming; that this starts at such a young age, affecting both boys and girls.  With your middle school background, what's your take on it?  What do you feel needs to
be done?

AC:  I think the most important thing for the school is to establish a safe environment.  I think this is something that we value and have always done quite well.  If you look at the 4 C's (cooperation, consideration, compassion and courtesy), we have made this integral within our community from the youngest levels.  We also offer programs such as Advisory and Responsive Classroom that help students connect with one another.  This, along with the knowledge and care our faculty has for each individual student, which goes beyond any other school with which I have been associated, are dramatic steps in offering our students a safe environment.

Beyond that, we know that there may be incidents of students being mean to each other, teasing and bullying.  What needs to be done (in fact, what we have already done) is draw a line in the sand and set a firm policy.  For instance, as part of our anti-harassment policy, we have an external component.  We know that bullying can and does take place beyond our walls, so we have decided to make individual responsibility and integrity our business. These incidents, which can occur online, outside our academic day or off campus, filter back into our larger community and can have a significant negative impact.  This weakens the community, so we need to be able to address this issue even outside the walls of our school. 

The other aspect is this: when an instance happens, the adults in the community must immediately address it.  As teachers or administrators, we must first find out what happened, and then we must determine the extent of it.  When we have this information, we then must communicate effectively with the students and their parents in order to educate and begin the healing process.  If it's bullying, genuine bullying, it’s a more serious issue – certainly nationwide it's an issue, and  New Jersey has passed new anti-bullying legislation.  Nevertheless, we have to able to separate when it's "kids being kids," or when it is actual bullying, with intent to hurt or harm repeatedly.  Of course, we have an obligation to teach our students how to manage their concerns within a community, but we have to be acutely aware when incidents become extremely hurtful or damaging.  This is our priority here, we must be consistent about gauging these situations, know where that line is and work together to make sure everyone's health, safety and growth are attended to.

JB:  Last question:  what do you want children to take away from their Elisabeth Morrow experience?

AC:  I would like them to take away two things.  I want them to have a sense of what their interests are, what their strengths are, what their budding passions are – a sense of how they learn and who they are as a person; so in essence, self-awareness.  I believe this is such an important element of their development, as they move from early childhood through early adolescence.  The other thing:  I want our students to have a joy of learning, loving to be challenged, loving to find out something new.  I want them to come away with a strong spirit of inquiry – searching out questions as well as answers – because having a passion for learning serves people very well in life and certainly within their academic careers.