Gratitude is woven into the fabric of The New Century School, a daily observance. On Thanksgiving Eve, Ann Marie Simonetti, TNCS’s Director of Admissions and Marketing and Montessori Programming Advisor, was inspired to share her deeper thoughts on gratitude and how it connects so beautifully with the Montessori ethos.
In addition to Admissions and Marketing, “Montessori Programming” has been added to my purview this year. This is a natural addition aligned with my Montessori teacher and administrator certifications.
As we approach the season of Thanksgiving, the Montessori lessons of Grace and Courtesy often come to my mind. One element that speaks to my heart is that of gratitude, and not just in the “thank you” we say throughout the day. We show gratitude when we give and receive a compliment and in the way we actively listen to one another. One benefit of the broad “Montessori-inspired” scope of curriculum here at TNCS is the way we draw awareness and foster appreciation for all that has come before us, and all that is to come. Revisiting these concepts as part of our spiral curriculum—revisiting topics/content previously experienced and building on prior knowledge to deepen/broaden understanding—helps children place themselves in context of time and cultivate a sense of belonging.
Part of awareness comes from mindfulness, which is holistically ingrained in our social emotional curriculum. There is an art to being present in the moment; and it is truly moments— not days or weeks—that make up our lives. In order for us to appreciate each moment, we must truly experience it. Being fully present is one of the unique qualities of children. They innately appreciate the joy of each moment and savor the most minute details.
If you’ve ever taken a walk with a young child, you know that a short distance can take a long time as they stop to notice every little thing along the path. Stopping every few steps to examine and exclaim their excitement over something you may not have even noticed. This savoring and sharing is intrinsically linked to the curious nature of children.
I’m reminded of a quote describing gratitude as bestowing reverence…
Allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life in the world.Sarah Ban Breathnach
This is just one of the countless examples of the knowledge children innately possess and opportunities to learn from them, if we are willing. Dr. Maria Montessori offered this advice: “In order to become great, the grownup must become humble and learn from the child.”
Seeing each experience as an opportunity fosters reflection in the same way gratitude does. Even when things don’t go the way we wanted, or the way we had planned:
During staff week, I talked about how giving ourselves grace during these times, and modeling it for children, demonstrates the value of failing forward. I shared one of my favorite anecdotes from my residential Montessori training, It is in this way that we model for children the full range of human imperfection and the assurance that they too will be greatly, if imperfectly, loved.
These types of authentic experiences not only serve as models for children, but also meet our needs, as adults, for love and acceptance. Much like the tiny leaf we walk right past, that enthralls the young child, these moments help us to slow down, be fully in the moment, and to acknowledge and appreciate. Ram Dass tells us that we are all just walking each other home. But when we are gifted the opportunity to walk hand-in-hand with a child, each step becomes more meaningful, purposeful, and joyful….and for that we must be grateful.
Dr. Montessori eloquently shared, “We shall walk together on this path called life. For all things are part of this universe and are connected with each other to form one whole unity.”
Immersed and the TNCS Community are grateful to you, Ms. Simonetti, for sharing these truly beautiful thoughts at this very special time of year. Your inspiration is inspiring!
At The New Century School, STEM subjects are extremely important. Rob Brosius, who we all know as “Mr. B,” handles three of the four subjects that make up that acronym–science, engineering, and technology. In Mr. B’s first year at TNCS, he taught English Language Arts (ELA) and Global Studies to 3rd- and 4th-graders and Science to 3rd- through 8th-graders. He also had a homeroom. Since then, he has specialized and is now TNCS’s “Science Guy”! (Sorry, Bill Nuy.)
So let’s see what Mr B has been up to in his third year at TNCS!
TNCS Science Program Developments
Right off the bat, Mr. B points out that science is a hands-on subject. “Last year was nice because we had drifted away from the virtual model, and it allowed us to get back into the kind of hands-on centric nature of this program,” he explains. “Over this past year, I helped to amend some of the science curriculum to make sure that anything that I tried to add over the past 2 years was present in our curriculum.”
One big adjustment was to rework the Science Fair.
We’re now calling it the STEM Expo, which Jennifer Lawner helped a lot with—she has provided a great framework for us. This year, we hope that we can continue the trajectory that we started last year, where we encourage students to compete at the regional level at the Morgan State University STEM Fair through their Center for Excellence in Science and Math Education (CEMSE) that happens each March. We’re calling it a STEM Expo because we are trying to negate the competitive nature of it. If students have an interest or a specific desire to do a project that is a little more complicated, we want to make sure that they have the resources and the mentorship that they need to get to that level. Because the Science Fair has been done at school, it has focused my mind in terms of how to rework the other parts of the curriculum as well. Essentially, the first two quarters of the year are supposed to inspire students and build enthusiasm for the STEM Expo. Last year, we had engineering at the beginning of the year, and I encouraged students toward robotics types of projects that required wires, magnets, and an electricity source. This year, we have microbiology and physics, so I’m going to nudge students in those general directions. This way, they have the knowledge base to actually do the research and get the results they want.
Given the microbiology theme, expect some projects inspired by virology and immunology projects! In fact, microbiology projects have happened in the prior year as well, due to the overwhelming nature of the pandemic (see Science Fair 2021 and photos below). “This year, my goal is to make sure that students get a full understanding that there is a larger network outside of themselves. That’s why we really want students to explore the topics they want to know more about. I’ve found before with the Science Fair that students get into a project, and there’s not enough time to complete their project and get to the next level. So this time we want to start early and make sure they are successful,” he said.
As part of helping students understand the larger science community out there and that science really impacts all areas of life, Mr. B and students have been taking field trips to see it all in action. These include walking field trips around the neighborhoods near TNCS as well as bigger ones. Earlier this school year, 4th- and 5th-graders hopped on the water taxi and headed to the Under Armour headquarters. Tipped off by a TNCS parent who works there, Mr. B thought students would enjoy seeing the beehives there and their community garden. “With microbiology being so pervasive, it’s easy to connect this topic to things in nature even though the organisms are microscopic. So I wanted to take students somewhere that is an institution that is a huge part of Baltimore City. It’s not just a building, not just a company but part of the community.”
Middle schoolers also got their science-themed field trip late in October, taking a tour of several microbiology labs at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. At the Molecular Biology lab, University of Maryland students and postdoctoral fellows showed TNCS students the equipment and explained its use in Western Blots, DNA gels, polymerase chain reaction (PCR), and so on. At the BSL2 Virus lab, they learned about equipment for working with biosafety level 2 viruses, such as tissue culture hoods, incubators, plaque assays, and microscopes. At the BSL3 Virus lab, looking through a hallway window for safety, students learned about working in the BSL3 lab with SARS-CoV2 and related viruses. Middle Schoolers also visited the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The whole idea is: hey kids, careers in science are not only possible, they’re exciting, engaging, and everywhere!
Mr. B has other plans in the works as well. In keeping with quarter 2’s physics unit, he wants to take students to see physics in action also. He’s considering both the Maryland Science Center and the Baltimore Museum of Industry. (Where do we sign up as chaperones?).
Third quarter is the STEM Expo, and geology will be the last quarter’s topic. Geology definitely invites being outdoors, so Mr. B is thinking about taking students to local parks in North East Baltimore to look at geological records, for example. “Baltimore has a very interesting geological history,” he said. “The soil is inundated with minerals.”
Another rationale behind expanding Science Fair to become the STEM Expo this school year is to allow students to pursue math-related projects, should they choose. Such projects present their own kinds of challenges, like not being as hands-on as more science-y projects would be and requiring no fun materials to work with—just good old pencil and paper. “But I’m trying to provide as many options as possible so students can do what they really want to do,” he said. “We want to both increase their science literacy and to keep their level of confidence high.”
What methodology students adopt to execute their projects will depend on what kind of topic they choose to explore: traditional experiments call for the scientific method, whereas other projects might need an engineering design process approach.
“The science curriculum is very well developed. Since I’ve been at TNCS, I’ve been able to tweak it so that it really works for us,” he said. “I have the ability to adapt the program as I need to meet the students where they are within the parameters we’ve established.”
“When you really start to get into science, you realize, a lot of the things you’re taught are from the past. When you’re learning science, you want to understand what discoveries allowed us to arrive at what is currently cutting edge. You can’t jump into quantum mechanics without first learning basic physics. You can’t understand the true nature of an atom and probability fields without first seeing the simple orbital models. You don’t get the full picture because your mind isn’t ready for it. Cycling back to topics, you can really see what kids gravitated toward and help them really dig into that as well as see what was successful during the 3-year cycle we use at TNCS.”
The 3-year cycle, by the way, goes like this: 1st year: Q1, (macro)biology and genetics; Q2, engineering; Q3, STEM Expo; Q4, astronomy. Year 2 is where we are now, with microbiology, physics, STEM Expo, and geology. Year 3 is, electricity and magnetism, chemistry, STEM Expo, and oceanography. And there’s always room to add additional topics, he explained, as students show interest.
Thank you for helping our students understand that science reaches every corner of our lives, Mr. B!
Since its inception 10 years ago, The New Century School has certainly grown into more than a preschool, having expanded to comprise both Lower and Upper School divisions. But in many ways, TNCS’s youngest students are still at its heart, and the lower school requires specialized guidance.
Meet Stephen Billhardt!
That’s why Stephen Billhardt has become TNCS’s new Interim Director of Preschool. He came to TNCS in sort of a roundabout fashion . . . but you’ll soon see how clear the path actually was! He and his wife were living and working outside of Boston when, in early 2021, she took a job with Baltimore City public schools. They did what Mr. Billhardt calls a “commuter marriage” for a year while he stayed in Massachusetts temporarily to complete his commitment working at an integrated preschool and kindergarten (and, over the summer, help his elderly father recover from a recent health incident). With both their son and daughter in their respective colleges, and the now 28-year married couple missing each other, he says it was the right move to also relocate to Baltimore. He joined his wife in mid-September and remembered TNCS from previous visits to Baltimore on walkabouts with his wife through Fell’s Point. “Any small school is of interest to me, so I had researched it to find out more about it. After 2 weeks of settling in, I reached out.” After speaking with both Co-Founder/Co-Executive Director Roberta Faux and Head of School Erika Johnson, he was hooked. Part of the appeal, he says, was the Montessori primary program, which he was familiar with because his own children went to Montessori school through 3rd and 4th grades.
Although—spoiler alert—Mr. Billhardt has been in education for more than 30 years, that’s not how his professional life began. “I didn’t know I was going to be an educator,” he recounts, “I thought I was going into business. My dad was in business, my brother was in business, so I just thought that’s what I would do. I actually sold car phones, fax machines, and antitheft devices for a summer.”
Originally from southern Connecticut, he attended Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA, earning an undergraduate degree in Economics and Political Science. “My first experience working with children was as a Big Brother in college. I had the same little brother for 3 years, and that got me interested in early childhood education.” He then ended up in Boston, where a couple of his friends were living who thought he’d make a great teacher and suggested he give it a try. While student teaching, he got a Master’s in Education, then a second Master’s in Educational Leadership from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It was there that he met his wife, joking that that was the “best part of the program.”
After Boston, he moved to Vermont for his first full-time teaching job. “I just love Vermont. I taught at a small elementary school called Moretown Elementary—it’s just a great little school, and it’s right on the river.” What drew him to early childhood education? “It’s a great age. Early childhood is a wonderful learning opportunity for the children, for the teachers, for the parents. (As parents, we’re all still learning.) The developmental stage is so great—I appreciate all the smiles and the ready-to-learn attitudes,” he said.
And that sealed the deal! Since then, he has always worked in elementary school or preschool divisions. Next, he and his wife relocated to Michigan. She taught in Detroit public schools, and he went to Grosse Pointe to lead a grade 1 through 5 lower school. After a couple of years in Michigan, they relocated to Cambridge, MA, across the river from Boston. For the next 14 years, he assumed the principalship of schools in the Southborough and Watertown Public Schools.
“I’ve had the opportunity to be in independent and public schools for 33 or 34 years, 27 of those in educational leadership, and I like having that experience.” His most recent independent school experience was as Lower School Head at a pre-K through 4th-grade all-boy’s school called The Fessenden School in Newton, MA. “Once every 10 days he gathered all the students together and marveled at the range of learners and the developmental span. “Although that was challenging, it allowed me to really develop my skill set to engage children. They need some sort of activity; they’re attention spans are only so long, so you have to have little snippets of things and visuals. I would always have music at these assemblies.” Like TNCS, Fessenden “wears a lot of hats” being both a pre-K through grade 4 school but also having an upper school for 5th- through 9th-graders with a boarding option for domestic and international students. Mr. Billhardt was there from 2012 through 2020.
“Finally, over the last 2 years, I had a wonderful experience at the Willett Early Childhood Center, a public integrated preschool for children with and without disabilities. From age 3 there, students have the opportunity to get an individual education plan (IEP), and the public school is required to support them with the hope that they would learn strategies to overcome some of the disabilities or help support them with their disability. We had about 75 children on IEPs with another group of typically developing children as peer role models. All public schools have that opportunity, but I find it very effective. That was one building. Then there was also a stand-alone kindergarten building with 275 kindergarteners.”
Stephen Billhardt at TNCS!
His initial impressions of TNCS will surprise no one. “It’s a very nice community,” he said. “And there’s a lot going—a lot of exciting things. For me, it’s fun learning about such a language-rich immersion experience with the children. I’ve had Spanish in my schools in the past, but nothing to the level of what you see in the classrooms here.” He’s also excited to be back in the Montessori atmosphere. “Montessori is the greatest approach education has to offer for that age group.” He appreciates the multiage component of Montessori and the work ethic it inspires. “I love the open-ended work, the communication, and the collaboration,” he said. “I appreciate the methodical approach to the materials: how they’re laid out, how children access them, when they access them, and how long they access them. So, walking into classrooms and seeing that really gels with me.”
After this long in education, Mr. Billhardt says, he wants to be at a school that excites him. He also wants his role to work for everyone involved. “Let’s see if what I bring works for everybody and for the institution first,” he said of his new position.
With 33 years in the public and private sectors, Mr. Billhardt is excited to help contribute to TNCS. “I’ve had a unique opportunity to see and work with children and families in those sectors. I think all schools offer different opportunities for educators and school leaders to learn. Independent school leaders have a lot to learn from public school leaders and vice versa. I think finding what works best for children, how we communicate with families, how we support and develop educators—each school does it differently. But there are some very good practices out there, and being able to pick the best from the different schools I’ve been at and the experiences that I’ve had, I hope to bring those to this school.”
As for how he’s settling into his new city, he picked the perfect fall to do it, as he greatly enjoys being outside. With these warmer-than-normal fall temperatures, he’s getting plenty of opportunities to walk around and get to know Baltimore: “I like the water; I walk along the harbor in the morning and watch the sunrise, or I take the water taxi. I’ve climbed the Washington monument, but I haven’t yet made it to the art museums.” He particularly wants to get to the American Visionary Art Museum, and we all know what a treat he’s in for. He’s also excited to start sampling some of Charm City’s food. Then there’s the Enoch Pratt Free Library—he has been to four branches so far. Reading and listening to audio books are a favorite pastime. “I like spending time on my own to recharge,” he said. “I love being around people, but at the end of the day I like to get some alone time to rejuvenate.”
When he’s not in Baltimore, he likes road biking and boogie boarding. With our nation’s capital so close by, he and his wife are also looking forward to visits there. They also travel to their daughter’s music performances; she plays the upright bass. “I love spending time with my kids who are 21 and 20. I love seeing how they’ve developed as students and now young people/young adults. As parents, even if you’re an educator, you look back and at some point, you have to say, ‘I did a pretty good job’. I think it’s important as parents and guardians to celebrate our children’s successes and be there to support and nurture them as they grow up. They still need us. That’s our role; our role doesn’t go away.”
Sierra McNeill came to The New Century School fresh from Charlotte, NC to take over the 6th- through 8th-grade homeroom and instruct TNCS students in grades 4–8 in English Language Arts (ELA). She is originally from Fort Bragg, NC, near Fayetteville, and, until now, had lived in North Carolina all her life. Why Baltimore? Ms. McNeill said she was really just looking for “a change of scenery.” Fayetteville had the small-town feel, and Charlotte was an up and coming small city. Baltimore was a good next step up because she wanted to get a little farther north (bit not too far north with colder weather) and because her best friend has lived here for the past 7 years. When Ms McNeill would visit over the years, she developed a fondness for good old Charm City and moved here April 1, 2022! She also appreciates the proximity to Washington, D.C., but feels it’s a little too fast-paced for her.
Even though Baltimore feels “just right,” moving here has still required some adjustments. One of the biggest has been not being as close to her family (see photos), who she is extremely close to. “It was definitely a transition,” she said. “I’m coming from southern roots, and we are all about hospitality—everyone is your neighbor—and it’s not really like that here.” Well, maybe not in Baltimore at large, but TNCS has been a saving grace. “TNCS has been great. I was nervous about coming into this environment as a new teacher, but everyone was very receptive, including the students,” she explained.
Let’s find out more!
Ms. McNeill graduated from Fayetteville State University (FSU) in with a bachelors of arts in English language and literature. She was also a cheerleader there all 4 years—Go Broncos! She had planned to use her degree as a stepping stone: “Teaching wasn’t my first go-to plan. I just knew l going to be a lawyer or a celebrity stylist (I love fashion).
But the way life works is never how you imagine it. So I moved to Charlotte after being administrative assistant in a health care office, and my friends encouraged me to consider teaching there.”
She initially rejected the idea due in part to the enormous responsibility involved in educating children. Quickly realizing that having that very understanding is exactly what we need in teachers, she went for it. “I interviewed and jumped in mid year in a 3rd-grade classroom after their teacher left.” She didn’t feel grade 3 was quite right for her and sought a classroom with older children. She accepted a position as 5th-grade teacher at another school, where she taught for 2 years. And then it happened: she began teaching ELA and reading to 6th-graders, “and the rest is history,” as she puts it. Middle school is her jam! In fact, she taught 7th- and 8th-grade briefly at a Baltimore public school when she first arrived here. “It didn’t quite feel like home,” she explains, “coming from the school in Charlotte, which was very close knit, very family oriented. This school didn’t give me that community aspect. So I started looking again and came across TNCS. I spoke with Ms. Johnson and the previous interim head of school, and I felt really good from the jump.”
Sierra McNeil at TNCS
At Orientation Day for the 2022–2023 school year in late August, it was clear that Ms. McNeill was excited for what was coming. Her enthusiasm for teaching–and teaching ELA—is obvious.
I feel like every teacher has their unique ‘teacher swag’ in the way they approach things. I’m very calm spirited, although I am also energetic and bubbly. Being a younger teacher, I try to be ‘chill’ so I can connect with the kids in what’s happening in their society and their day-to-day. I’m a music and sports person, so I can connect with them on that level, too.
“I try to make everything relatable and to emphasize that real-life perspective in all subjects but especially in what we’re reading,” explained Ms. McNeill. “I try to make sure they can find things they enjoy reading. So, I take what is necessary for them to learn in the curriculum and somehow tie it into reality so it’s full circle to make it really click for them.”
In Quarter 1, grades 4–6 read Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson, and 7th- and 8th-graders read Lois Lowry’s The Giver. Age-appropriate themes galore in those two novels!
Next up is an 8th-grade “novel study” focusing on Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer and breaking out into small-group discussions about this gem of a book. Also, new this school year, in 8th-grade seminar, 8th-graders will be reading William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and discussing that must-read with Head of School Erika Johnson in depth. This seminar, by the way, will also include high-school prep, what’s expected of them as leaders of the school, and other topics specific to this age group. “It’s nice that they get their own personal time, despite the class being mixed ages, to really hone in on what they need to accomplish before the end of the school year.” said Ms. McNeill. “I think it’s very cool that Ms. Johnson recognized this need and made it happen. I think it’s going to be beneficial this year and hopefully for years to come.”
Her fondness for teaching reading notwithstanding, Ms. McNeill’s true passion is teaching writing. “I like seeing kids gain confidence once they figure out the formula—how writing is just taking your thoughts and laying them out.” Her students actually just started this writing unit this week, and Ms. McNeill has done all she could to get them excited for it. She is a sworn journal-er, sometimes writing from a script—the goals for the day and which of those were achieved—sometimes just cataloguing her day. “I try to instill that in the students, too. We do ‘Daily Writes,” where I give them a prompt. But I other than asking that they write in complete sentences, we keep it informal.” She explains that these exercises help get her students into the habit of writing paragraphs, so that when it comes time to write actual essays, they are prepared. She also strives to engage them by giving these prompts as hooks that will reel them in, which is great practice for getting them to think through their topics and how they will write about them.
“It’s Very Different—A Good Different!”
Now that Ms McNeill has been at TNCS for a couple of months, she is finding her groove. Mixed-age classrooms are both new and not so new to her. Although she had never taught in one until now, she did attend Montessori school (Cumberland Road Elementary) for a couple of her elementary years. “Although it’s different, it’s a good different,” she said. “It exposes ids to different different aspects, different maturity levels. It has been challenging, but once I sat with Ms. Johnson and talked about expectations, it kind of just started to flow. I had already taught with differentiation—teaching different ways to different learning styles and diversifying lessons for different learning abilities. So I was able to tie my experience in here at TNCS.”
Despite two huge life changes, relocating to a new city plus accepting a position new to her in many ways, Ms. McNeill is certainly finding her way. She is a vegetarian and a foodie and appreciates the many restaurant options Baltimore offers. She enjoys strolling around downtown, the Inner Harbor, Fell’s Point, and along Howard Row‘s Black-owned businesses in particular. She likes reading and going to the movies. What she would really enjoy, though, is getting to know the TNCS community better. “I’m very family-oriented,” she said emphatically, “if there’s any family-inspired event going on, invite me. I’m looking for different things to engage in in the community, so if your kids play sports outside of school, I’ll show up and support!” She is also very excited for upcoming school events like Hispanic Heritage Nights and the Winter Concert—she can’t wait to join the festivities and immerse herself in and be welcomed by the TNCS community!
As The New Century School enters its second decade, the TNCS Community has welcomed some wonderful human beings to join it. Alexis Boyd, Directer of Student Support, is one of them. The first thing you’ll notice about Ms. Boyd is her smile—she’s almost always smiling! Director of Student Support is a somewhat new role at TNCS, combining elements of the Deanship and Counselor, but as we’ll see, Ms. Boyd wears both hats perfectly.
Meet Alexis Boyd
Ms. Boyd is originally from Pittsburgh, PA and moved to Maryland at the age of 8. Since then, she has lived all over the state, from Montgomery County to Ann Arundel County to the Eastern Shore. Currently, she lives in Howard County with her 10-year-old son, Levi.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in Social Work and Sociology from Salisbury University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore; a Master’s degree in Counseling from Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA; and an Educational Leadership degree from Loyola University. If you’re thinking that Ms. Boyd knew from early on where her career path would take her, you’d be correct: “I enjoy working with students, and my pull has always been the educational system,” she said. “I always wanted to do my part. I think I have a unique way of getting to know people and creating safe spaces, and I want for people to be able to say, ‘I left feeling better than how I came in’ after spending time with me.”
Before joining TNCS, Ms. Boyd was working with 6th- through 12th-graders at The SEED School of Maryland, a college preparatory boarding school here in Baltimore City. It’s the only school of its kind in Maryland and draws students from all over the state. Ms. Boyd even lived in adult housing on campus for a 6-month stint while working there from 2011 through 2022 (with a 2-year hiatus working in an outpatient mental health services agency). It was her second job out of college, and she started there as a counselor, working her way up to senior counselor. When she returned to The SEED School after her time at the mental health agency, she took a more academic position as a dean and worked up to senior dean, where she was able to really dig into some of the things she loves, like creating engaging programming. She hopes to resume some of those aspects of her role at TNCS, perhaps in the spring. She also became familiar with Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) standards (SEED is a charter school).
She says that working with older students was both very different from what she does at TNCS as well as similar in some ways. Kids of all ages need lots of support, after all.
Alexis Boyd at TNCS
When Ms. Boyd came to TNCS, she knew she was entering a school in the midst of some important transitions and maybe even transformations under the leadership of Erika Johnson. She saw that as an opportunity:
I’m really big on culture and climate—bringing the community together as a whole and having a good time out doing it. If I can sprinkle a little bit of sunshine here and there, that’s what I plan to do. I’m trying to keep that consistent positive energy in the air.
She even has an action plan to get everyone’s day started off with positivity. Each morning, she’s the first one at the gate so that her smiling face is the one of the first they see, accompanied by a cheery “buenos días” and “let’s have a marvelous day!” Toddlers who clung to their parents and cried on coming to school now run straight to her and grab her hand. Older students who are “too cool” for such demonstrative affection get fist bumps with any manner of follow-up gestures that create connection and maybe even elicit a smile. Ms. Boyd says she finds unique ways to connect with TNCS students, as many as she can. Some like to “connect smiles”; others need a quick wiggle dance before entering the school building and some need that recognition of an individual characteristic, such as Mr. Cheerio who comes to school every day munching on a bag of Cheerios.
“I’m trying to be creative and welcoming students to school. That’s a joy. I do try to insert a positive vibe into everything I’m doing. We’re always going to try to have a good time, in addition to making sure that students feel safe, loved, and supported and that mentally they are solid,” she explained.
Director of Student Support Role: The “Check-In Queen”
Ms. Boyd is nothing if not enthusiastic about her position at TNCS that combines the behavioral aspect a dean monitors for and the mental health aspect a counselor monitors. If that sounds like a double helping of responsibility, never fear, Alexis Boyd is here:
I think being a counselor and being a Dean go hand in hand. Even when I’m disciplining children for negative behaviors, I’m still nurturing them. If you do it right, it all goes together.
I’m big on emphasizing choice: I want students to know that they will always have a choice but must be accountable for whatever the reaction is from that choice. I want to give kids the autonomy to make good decisions, because when they get out of school that’s honestly what life is all about: you make decisions all the time. So it’s teaching them to get in the habit of making good decisions and having self-agency. Every action you choose has a reaction, but you don’t get to choose that reaction.
And, when it comes to consequences, I want even those to be a conversation with the student. What works for one child may not work for another child, and learning the difference and learning how each student thrives is going to be the most important part of my job. I’m helping them move toward the TNCS way while still keeping their individuality and their true selves.
Ms. Boyd has created a daily routine that helps her attain the objectives of each part of her role, while still being flexible enough to allow her to adapt to the needs of the moment. After her morning sunshine sprinkle, she does what she calls “check-ins” of each and every teacher—the culture and climate emphasis isn’t limited to TNCS students but extends to everyone in the community. Teachers and staff might need a cup of coffee or for Ms. Boyd to watch their class for a few minutes. She makes sure they feel supported.
Ms.Boyd then takes care of her administrative tasks, like paperwork, preparing for sessions with students, convening with Ms. Johnson, and so on. Afternoons are spent with individual students who may need the counseling side of Director of Student Support. She has created a lovely welcoming space for them to come unload, talk, play, fidget, or just admire the twinkling lights she has hung. “Whenever a student wants to talk to me or needs that one-on-one, they really gravitate here.” You can see why.
The space is warm with plenty of sensory calming items. In addition what is pictured, she plays soothing sounds like birds chirping or ocean waves and plans to bring in some gentler lighting as well. Her sessions with students employ mindfulness techniques and deep breathing exercises . . . and a lot of good old talking about how they feel. The walls feature prompts to help students find the words to express their feelings.
And then there’s the Feelings Pillow! Ms. Boyd describes her approach this way: “The word ‘therapy’ scares kids off with negative connotations. I prefer ‘play counseling.”
Even students who don’t have a specially scheduled session come to this room and get a little more centered to be able to go about the rest of their day. As Ms. Boyd is going about her day, she makes sure students know she is watching out for them and has created a system of communication that lets her know if students are struggling in the moment without disrupting class: a thumbs up means all is okay, a thumb parallel to the ground means let’s check in later, and a thumbs down means they’re going to her safe space now for even just a couple of minutes.
She also had TNCS students make journals in which to set both short- and long-term academic and other goals for the day, the semester, etc.. They also have accountability buddies that help them stay on track.
Progress so Far
With all that Ms. Boyd has already accomplished, it may be easy to overlook that she is still acclimating to her new role, her new school, her new students. Fortunately, she says, the TNCS Community has been very welcoming. “Learning all the things that I need to learn in a school that is not as MSDE heavy as my previous school was has been a journey so far, but the community is very open to me and all of my kooky ideas. I am very eager to play a good role here, and the staff has really allowed me to feel comfortable. I can go to anyone and ask questions,” she said.
She is already making her mark, too, having the opportunity to do some curriculum writing for a more structured advisory committee. But what she’s really known for? Recess parties! She’ll take the school’s sound system to the playground and dance with the preprimary and primary TNCS students to their hearts’ content. Their current favorites are “Happy,” by Pharell Williams, and “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” by Justin Timberlake. Videos, please! She also holds “lunch bunches” of four or five students at a time, during which they all eat lunch together in her office, then play checkers or Twister, or just talk. (She takes full advantage of these “fun” opportunities to also work in some TNCS Core Value discussions and some social-emotional learning!)
Where she gets all the energy from is a mystery, but we’re sure glad she brought it to TNCS! So how does Alexis Boyd decompress? In her off hours, she does daily self-care, which might take the form of a few minutes meditating by herself, just sitting in silence in her “own little corner.” In addition, she’s a sports mom and adores it. “You will always find a fold-out chair in my trunk, and there’s always an extra pair of tennis shoes and a bag of ‘just-in-case’ clothes in the back seat,” she said. Levi attends private school in Howard County and plays basketball and football, so Ms. Boyd is at practice or games several times a week.
On Sundays, though, she’s probably out to brunch with the gals. Egg-cellent idea, Ms. Boyd!