In July, Patrick J. Phillips will become the 12th Head of School for Hawai‘i Preparatory Academy. Earlier this month, the board of trustees announced his selection after a national and international search. Philips will come to HPA from Golden Valley, MN, where he was most recently assistant head at Breck School, an independent day school for 1,100 students from preschool to grade 12. To get acquainted, we asked Phillips about growing up among educators, raising well-balanced children, and what drew him to Hawai‘i. Oh, and something about an adventure with a cliff and a horse?
You were raised by two teachers and became an educator yourself. What lessons did you take from your parents and school life?
Until the age of 10, I lived on an independent school campus, immersed in the rhythms of the academic year, surrounded by other faculty children. Education was a daily topic in our home. My whole world was filled with school events—soccer games and art shows, alumni gatherings and school plays. My life was closely aligned with the life of the school, and I loved every moment.
With so many educators around me, the first thing I discovered about the best teachers is that they never rest on their laurels. I saw teachers constantly striving to be better at their craft, to reach more of their students and to make the material more accessible for everyone. I watched my own mother teach a full day in the classroom before heading off for graduate classes each night, earning her master’s degree in gifted and talented education. The best teachers I ever had were also the ones who knew that their classrooms had to evolve—that modeling continuous improvement was the best way to ensure that their students developed a habit of lifelong learning.
In addition, the great teachers that I met established a personal connection with their students. They came to the sporting events and the plays at school, they went to the bar mitzvahs and the Eagle Scout ceremonies off campus, and they knew when a student had gotten a new puppy or welcomed a baby sister into their home. Time and time again I have seen students light up when their teacher knew enough to ask how their dance competition had gone, how their grandmother was recovering, or how their article was coming along for the school paper. These teachers understand that students learn best when they are emotionally invested in the classroom.
Did your ideas about teaching shift when you became a parent yourself?
My perspective expanded early on when it became apparent to me that every moment as a parent is a teaching opportunity. Walking with our children through the grocery store, we had lessons on the price of carrots and the waste of bottled water; going to a museum we discussed what constitutes “art” and who gets to decide; road trips led to conversations about geography through license plate games. I also realized how quickly our children internalized our interactions with other people. Even something as simple as respectfully making eye contact with waiters influenced the way that our children played with each other and with their friends. It took me back to Ted and Nancy Sizer’s well-known book, The Students Are Watching, and I realized that children are constantly absorbing lessons from the people around them. If we wanted to raise our children to demonstrate kindness, resilience, and integrity, then we had to be very intentional about what we said and how we behaved in our daily lives.
You have described yourself as “a hockey-playing, opera-going science teacher who loves to read.” How did that array of interests evolve in one person?
Growing up in schools, I saw some incredibly multi-dimensional people—the football coach who was also an award-winning poet, the school nurse who ran a non-profit in her free time, the maintenance man who was a successful artist. My own father was an outstanding teacher and coach who often acted and sang in the school musicals. I learned that you can embrace many disparate interests without letting go of who you are.
I started reading early on and still love to lose myself in a good book. Historical biographies, social psychology research, or just a great story—there is nothing more rewarding than spending an afternoon with a compelling book. As I grew older I discovered the joy of team sports, and hockey was the perfect one for me. I love the fluid motion, the quick changes from offense to defense, and the multiple options present in each moment.
As an adult beginning my career in education, I knew that I wanted to teach science because of my own experiences as a student and because science lends itself to hands-on learning, or “learning by doing.” Later, I stumbled upon opera when arranging community outreach for our school. While I enjoyed the performances and the storylines, I was most struck when our oldest children (ages 9 and 7 at the time) were able to eloquently argue over the relative merits of The Marriage of Figaro as compared to Turandot. By allowing myself to be open to a new interest, I had opened a door for my children to investigate as well.
Rather than discarding one interest to pursue another, I found that each of these activities layered upon the previous ones to create a new perspective for me. My early experiences in schools taught me that having many different passions allows us to be more complete, engaged human beings.
My early experiences in schools taught me that having many different passions allows us to be more complete, engaged human beings.”
Does that influence your thinking about education in general?
Absolutely. If we can nurture children who are equally interested in visiting an art gallery and attending an athletic event, then we have done our job. If these students also know the value of honesty, the importance of self-reflection, and the benefit of making the most of their education, then we have excelled.
Similarly, successful schools provide a balanced sense of community across all divisions, departments, and disciplines. When the kindergarten teachers are excited about the Upper School soccer team’s success and the Middle School science teacher helps run the Lower School organic garden, everyone wins—and the school is stronger because of it. The most effective schools are ones where students and faculty are encouraged to try new things and find success, where academics, athletics, and the arts are equally valued, and where a fostered sense of community pervades the day-to-day life of the school.
What have you enjoyed most about teaching and working in different countries?
Getting to immerse myself and my family in a new culture has been incredibly rewarding. I have learned about cultures different from my own and developed perspectives and had experiences that are broader and more informed than I ever could have hoped for. The world is filled with wonderful places to see, people to meet, and things to do. Being able to watch the sunrise on a beach in south Florida, stand in front of the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum in London, lead student trips through the mountains of North Carolina, and paint alongside students on a watercolor immersion trip to Venice has made my teaching career more varied and rewarding than I ever imagined would be possible.
Did you ever imagine you’d one day be leading a school in Hawai‘i?
I feel so fortunate to have found a school that is so aligned with my professional goals and priorities in such an amazing location. The fact that HPA talks about “honoring the traditions of Hawai’i” in the mission statement is important to me, because it makes it clear that the school understands and values its connection to the land, the landscape, and the culture.
When we arrived on campus, the first person we met was Auntie Jo at the front gate. After a few minutes with her, my entire family was grinning from ear to ear. She positively radiated warmth and welcome to each one of us. Moments later, I saw the day students turning up for classes as the boarding students made their way down the hill. I could see from the way people greeted each other that this is a true community—a place where people know and value each other, where the feeling of belonging is palpable. It seems as if my entire career has been building to this moment, and I am glad that we will soon be “coming home” to HPA.
How do you plan to get to know HPA, Waimea, and Hawai‘i Island?
One of the most important things for a new head of school to do is to begin establishing relationships within the community. That means talking with students to learn about their interests; visiting classrooms to see teaching and learning in action; meeting individually with faculty, staff, and parents; connecting with alumni and with people in the local community. Much of my first few months will be spent meeting HPA people, listening to their stories and perspectives, and absorbing the culture, history, and traditions of the school and of the island. There will also be time spent exploring the beauty of the island itself—taking my own family as well as students to Papakolea to see the green sand beach, hiking Mauna Loa, and exploring Waipi’o Valley, of course, but also discovering some of the more out-of-the way gems such as kayaking the Kohala Ditch. For instance, we’ve already fallen in love with the amazing smoothies at What’s Shakin’, made with fruit grown right there on the property. That’s pretty hard to beat!
Education is in a moment of profound discovery and change that has the potential to lead to an even more powerful experience for our students. I find that exciting, challenging, and incredibly energizing.”
You’ve talked about the need for schools to be forward-thinking. What are the pressing challenges you see ahead for HPA and for independent schools in general?
It’s true that good schools need to be forward-thinking and continue to evolve. As Will Rogers said, “Even if you are on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” Independent schools across the country are focusing on their vision for the future and ways to clearly communicate the direction in which they wish to move. Without a shared plan for growth, schools run the risk of treading water rather than getting better. For HPA specifically, there is an opportunity to have community clarity around sustainability and to identify ways to be known as the independent school leader in this category. The upcoming sustainability plan will be vital in this regard and will help coalesce several different perspectives into actionable steps to move forward.
In addition, great independent schools have to keep an eye on the evolution of teaching and learning. The recent developments in neuroscience and psychology have led to some amazing progress in the area of pedagogy and student empowerment. For example, the process of helping students understand themselves as learners and use that knowledge in approaching their studies has led to measurable gains in standardized test scores. When you consider the current work being done to rethink classroom practice, to reinvigorate professional development for faculty, and to reimagine the high school transcript, it becomes evident that education is in a moment of profound discovery and change that has the potential to lead to an even more powerful experience for our students. I find that exciting, challenging, and incredibly energizing.
Is it true you once fell off a cliff—while on a horse—and lived to tell the tale?
Yes, it’s true! During college, I was working as a wrangler leading horse packing trips in the Rocky Mountains when one group of riders became hopelessly lost. I led a small group on a rescue ride. As we got deeper into the forest it became clear that recent rain had washed out part of the trail and made for treacherous footing. My horse got spooked by a fallen tree and slipped on some pine needles, falling off the cliff backward into a rocky river bed—I can still recall the faces of the other riders as we disappeared from sight. Luckily both my horse and I were miraculously fine, and after he ran off downriver and I climbed back up the cliff—with a broken arm, no less—we made our way back to civilization and lived to tell the tale.
Patrick J. Phillips and his family will join the HPA ‘ohana in July 2019. We look forward to more conversations (and adventures!) in the months and years ahead.