Thoughts on the First Half of the Year from TNCS Head of School Shara Khon Duncan

Although it may be hard to believe, the first half of the 2018–2019 school year at The New Century School has just drawn to a close. Boy, did the last 3+ months fly by!

However, when we look back at everything that TNCS students have done since August 27th, the real surprise becomes, wow—how’d they squeeze so much active learning into such a short time span?! So, Immersed sat down with TNCS Head of School Shara Khon Duncan to get her perspective on how the school year is progressing so far as well as how she is settling in to her role.

The Skinny from Señora Duncan

SONY DSCIt’s clear right off the bat that Señora Duncan has embraced her position as TNCS Head of School. But that doesn’t mean it’s all smooth sailing all the time. “It seems like just when I feel like I’m starting to cruise a little bit, a new event pops up, or something new is about to happen, or I have to prepare for something coming up down the road. But that’s expected; it’s the first year,” she said smiling. So many things are happening, many simultaneously, that she’s pretty much on her toes all the time—“good thing I danced as a kid,” she joked. She ticks off a partial list of some of the events she either kept track of or oversaw in the preceding weeks, both during and outside of the school day, and each with its own particular set of needs: Observation Week and the Fall Festival for the Primary program, whole-school Book Character Dress-Up Day, Elementary and Middle School Information Night and Open Houses for prospective families, Winter Concerts . . . and the list goes on. “They come so fast, yet they seemed so far off back in June. Now June seems far away, and here we are in December,” she said. “So sometimes it feels like I’m just about to take a breath, but we have to keep moving to get ready for the next thing. It’s great because I either learn something new about the school, or I get to meet some more people, which is even better.” Speaking of new people, she recalls the Maryland Secretary of State’s visit, saying, “Important visitors to our campus brings even another level and layer of excitement and preparation, which makes it all so interesting.”

She means it when she says that she finds all the hubbub exciting:

I’m loving it. I’m really loving it. My friends and family ask, ‘how do you like it?’I tell them, ‘Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some challenges. It’s not like it’s all sunshine and roses, but it’s so exhilarating to have a new challenge in my life at this stage of my career.’ To be able to do this is wonderful. All of these things that have been in me that I’ve been gathering in my career backpack for education over the last 25 years, I get to pull them out and really use them. It’s all coming to bear. At the same time, I’m still learning, which is just wonderful. I have not taught all of the subjects we teach here, so learning about those I was previously unfamiliar with and listening to our teachers and to our parents about how we can make them better really helps. It gives me an idea of where we need to go.

A Day in the Life

When asked for a description of a typical day as TNCS Head of School, Sra. Duncan laughed. “See, that’s another thing I like about education, there are no typical days!” She explains that some days she visits classrooms to keep track of what’s going on in those environments, whereas other days might find her confined to her office, conducting meetings, handling all of her communication, and the myriad other tasks her position demands of her. “I don’t like those days as much,” she admits. “Not that what goes on in there isn’t important, it is, but I’d rather see what’s going on in the classrooms. There are so many wonderful things going on during the day—I love to sit and listen and watch. I find it utterly amazing.”

Being a linguiphile (she grew up in a household where her mother encouraged all forms of language exposure), she finds Pei Ge‘s (“Ge Laoshi’s”) classroom particularly difficult to tear herself away from and is starting to pick up some Mandarin with Wei Li’s (“Li Laoshi’s”) help.

I want to sit there and be with the kids and go right along with them as they go through the daily routine in Mandarin or talk about fruits in Mandarin. It’s amazing to me that even students who just joined the program this year can become so proficient so fast. It’s magical to see live what happens with the students and their brains. You can talk about studies, you can see them online, you can read all the papers—but when you actually see children speaking the language and then turn around and start speaking English to me or speaking Spanish to Sra. Sanzana . . . it’s just amazing how their brains switch effortlessly to the very next thing.

Another interesting aspect of her role is that not only did she assume it this year, but it is itself new, or maybe refurbished, this year. The school administration expanded to include a Head of School as well as a Head of Lower School/Dean of Students, which position Alicia Danyali took over. Both roles are well defined and eliminate the guesswork that can plague an organization when chain of command is unclear. When asked how this new division of roles has worked out so far, Sra. Duncan wasted no breath: “I don’t know what I would have done without her, and I don’t know how she did it all these years by herself. I mean this is a big job, a really big job!” She also appreciates how well they work together, not just alongside each other: “We’re very like-minded in our philosophies about school, which is ideal. It’s great to be with her,” said Sra. Duncan. And, their strong suits complement each other:

Ms. Danyali has done wonders with handling preschool, which admittedly is not my bailiwick, so having her really cover that has been so wonderful. And having her experience and institutional knowledge has been invaluable. If I have a question about a situation, she can tell me how it was handled last year, 3 years ago, and so on. I feel so lucky to have that. How many people get to work with their predecessor? It should almost be required because it’s so helpful.

Work–Life Balance

Apart from enjoying a new position and being able to handle it, any big career change also has to fit into an individual’s broader life. Fortunately, that, too, is working well for Sra. Duncan. With her two daughters away at college, the daily demands of raising children have largely evaporated, leaving more time, space, energy, and nurturing that Sra. Duncan can direct elsewhere. Also, her husband has been very supportive. Even when she needs to stay late, such as for a school potluck, he will sometimes join her or make sure she has what she needs to get through a long day (“He packs fruit for me everyday”). “But, even though this job does fit into my life pretty well at this stage, I have learned long ago that I have to make a separation between home and work. So, I really try to make sure that I leave TNCS at TNCS, and, when I get home, I’m at home. That’s something I’ve really worked hard to do,” she said.

Her ability to achieve this work–life balance serves her well, but it also serves TNCS and the TNCS community of students, teachers, staff, and families. Sra. Duncan has already earned our love and respect for her unflagging composure, ready smiles, and judicious leadership. We can’t wait to see what the second half of the school year brings!

 

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