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Perspective
Henry Heil

One of the greatest benefits we offer our faculty at ESD are regular opportunities to improve.

Early in my teaching career, very few members of the independent school community participated in consistent professional development (PD). An occasional local conference or an expert brought in by a parent to speak on a specific topic were the extent of our continuing education. However, fifteen to twenty years ago, independent schools around the nation began to make a concerted effort to provide their employees with more robust funding to further their subject knowledge or expose them to new pedagogies. School leaders wagered that a community of teachers would significantly benefit from, and be inspired by, learning. They were right.

During the recruiting and hiring process, one of the most frequent questions candidates ask is: what kind of funding does the school provide for PD? Without going into great detail, our package is very attractive. Since I have arrived at ESD, Upper School Faculty have:

And much, much more! In every case, our teachers made connections, learned, and returned to Dallas with a renewed vigor for their craft. PD is an investment with huge returns.

One of the primary functions of ESD's accrediting organization, The Independent Schools Association of the Southwest (ISAS), is assembling teams to visit member schools, evaluate whether they are in compliance with standards, and make recommendations for their improvement. This accreditation process occurs every ten years for member schools and begins with a thorough self-study culminating in the visit of an accreditation team over an eighteen-month period. ESD's next self-study will take place in the fall of 2020 and an ISAS accreditation team will be on campus in January 2022. This year, Head of School Dave Baad, Education Technology Director Mary Hansell, and Student Council advisor and World Language department member Marcela Garcini were all chosen to participate on visiting teams.

I, too, was selected to serve on an accreditation team and wanted to share a little about the experience, what I learned, and how those lessons inform our work here on Merrell Road. I am omitting the name of the school so that I am able to speak a little more freely about the experience.

Sixteen of us gathered in a hotel conference room on a Sunday afternoon. The group consisted of two heads of school, three division heads, a CFO, an Advancement Director, an Athletic Director, a Director of College Guidance, an IT Director, a Fine Arts Director, an Academic Dean, and Science, Math, English, and World Language teacher. Each person was assigned one or more areas of the school to study and gather information about in order to offer commendations and recommendations in a final report. My areas of responsibility included the Upper Division and the History Department across both the Middle and Upper Schools.

I spent all day Monday and Tuesday sitting in on every history teacher's class to observe them in action. Additionally, I met with Upper School administrators, a group of Upper School students, and the entire Upper School faculty. I started each conversation with the same question: "How can I help you?" The advantage of having outsiders dive deeply into the operations and culture of a school is that a fresh perspective can shed new light on issues or help uncover innovative solutions to old problems. Conversely, a thorough evaluation also confirms what a school is doing well. 

What I observed was a great institution, older and more financially robust than ESD, with signature programs and passionate students. However, I also saw a school that could not get out of its own way. The faculty were unhappy about some recent changes, they misused their impressive spaces, the daily schedule was overly complicated, and the student classroom experience was antiquated. I realized that even schools with strong reputations are facing challenging issues.

ESD is not perfect. No school is. But, it is unequivocal that we are thoughtful and deliberate in the work we do. Primarily, we are truly a student-centered school. Every program and structure was created for students with their best interests in mind. Our students are getting, what we believe, is the best experience a school can offer. From our schedule to our graduation requirements to our teaching pedagogy, ESD students are at the center. And, they should be. 

Schools with a student-centered approach, like ESD, are, in my opinion, markedly better equipped to serve their charges in all aspects of their education. When our kids feel agency in their education, have ample opportunities to reflect on their work and are in constant communication with their teachers, we know the results are better. 

I reiterate that, at ESD, we offer our students trust implicitly. We are committed to meeting them where they are, optimally challenging them, and helping them become the best they can be. And, we care deeply for them. I learned more on the accreditation visit than I could have at any professional conference. It was affirming to spend significant time at another school and have a clear window through which to view our own program. There is no doubt ESD is preparing its students well for their future. Nothing else could inspire me more.