Headmaster Q&A: Discussing the Present State of Education

The new headmasters of two of our most prestigious schools face off in a revealing sit-down interview. PLUS: We break down the latest numbers on area high schools.

TABLE TALK: Locke and Nagl have it out ... nicely. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)
Click here to download MLT’s 2013 public and private high schools chart.

T.J. Locke takes over at Episcopal Academy after spending the past six years directing the Isidore Newman School in New Orleans. Prior to that, he was head of curriculum for Cherry Hill, N.J.’s 19 schools. Locke has undergrad and graduate degrees from Rutgers University, and a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania.

A specialist in counterinsurgency, Haverford’s John Nagl is a retired lieutenant colonel who was deployed in Iraq and served as a military assistant to two deputy secretaries of defense. He retired from the Army in 2008 and became head of the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C. A West Point alum, he also holds graduate and doctorate degrees from Oxford University.

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On a steamy July morning, Michael Bradley met with the new headmasters at Rosemont College’s Gertrude Kistler Memorial Library, where the two opened up on a variety of topics with refreshing candor. They even managed to agree on a few things—though Bradley wisely avoided any predictions on the outcome of this year’s EA/Haverford Day.

The Haverford School and Episcopal Academy have competed against each other on fields and in classrooms for more than 100 years, but 2013 brings the schools together in a unique way. Each welcomes a new headmaster, charged with leading his institution into a rapidly changing future. What are both of you hoping to accomplish in your first months on the job?

T.J. Locke: I think what’s great about these schools are the relationships. So, for me, that’s the emphasis of my beginning work: getting to know everyone at the school—not only what they do professionally, but who they are as people, what they believe in, and what their hopes and aspirations are.

John Nagl: I’ve only been on the job, physically in my office, since Monday of this week, so I’m literally learning where everybody’s offices are, figuring out who does what, learning people’s walk-on music. 

How will you follow such strong personalities? Ham Clark oversaw Episcopal’s move to a new campus, and Joe Cox transformed Haverford’s culture.

JN: I feel enormously fortunate to be following in Joe’s footsteps. He’s done remarkable things. He has—most of all, I think—changed the approach of the school from a sink-or-swim to a much kinder, gentler place. I literally have Joe’s shoes in my office as a sign of the big shoes I’m trying to fill.

TJL: I’m just thankful and honored. I’ve got this beautiful new campus, and Ham really laid the foundation for what will be the next generation of key strategic initiatives that will continue to bring excellence to Episcopal. I couldn’t ask for a classier guy. He’s been great and a good friend. I hope to take that great foundation and continue to bring excellence to EA.

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What key characteristics do you want a Haverford or Episcopal graduate to have?

JN: A man of intellect and compassion. Somebody strongly versed in academic excellence, obviously—but also the whole person. I’ve also been heavily influenced by my own Jesuit upbringing and strongly believe in the concept of the man for others. So we want somebody who excels academically, athletically and in the arts and, most of all, lives his life for a higher purpose.

TJL: I think we have very similar goals in that regard. As we move deeper into the 21st century, the kinds of skills kids will need will be some of the same things they’ve needed for years—the deep critical thinking, the reasoning. But, as we move forward, I’d like our students to have a global perspective, to be facile with technology to the point where it really enhances their learning, to take ownership of their own learning.

Is there still value in a liberal arts education?

TJL: Well, we certainly don’t want our engineers to be without ethics. We want our kids to be able to go into the fields of what the country’s emphasizing with math, science and technology. But the skills that you need to be successful in those fields are very much rooted in the liberal arts. As I said before, critical thinking, deep reasoning, the ability to have your own opinion and argue persuasively—whether that be through writing or some other form of technology.

JN: And I think the world we’re living in—and the world we’re going to live in— is experiencing a revolution. It’s arguably the third revolution in history—the agricultural, the industrial and now the information revolution. The last two revolutions essentially created modern civilization. This one will change the world just as much as the last two did, but this one is happening faster. The agricultural took millennia, the industrial took centuries; this revolution is happening over decades. We’re right on the dividing line between people who grew up thinking digitally and living in a digital world and those  who didn’t.

This generation is going to grow up in a different kind of world. In that world, where processing happens so fast, the foundation of values is important. 

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What sort of cultures will you be working to advocate at each of your schools?

JN: I want to create a culture that encourages boys to discover what they love, to find their passion—one that nurtures them as they express that as fully as they can. So much of life is what you do, and if you can arrange to have what you do be what you love, your happiness will follow.

TJL: There’s a culture of excellence that exists [at EA]. And when you complement that with a culture of warmth, you get something special. I’d like to keep that going . You walk onto this beautiful, majestic campus, and relationships feel very intimate, even though you have this great expanse. That’s what I want. I want a real family-like feeling—that when you come to Episcopal, you’re part of the EA family; we care for you as a person. And you want to challenge and nurture everything about it.

What are the things that truly set independent schools apart?

TJL: I grew up in public schools and spent the bulk of my experience there before spending seven years as head at Newman. I always thought I had a great education—academically rigorous, great activities. I had some great teachers. 

But now that I’ve experienced this world, I know that I’m so fortunate that my kids will be able to go to independent schools, because the depth of the personal connection is tremendous. There’s no place in a classroom for you to just sink back and ignore what’s going on. You have to be an active participant.

JN: One of the things that’s interesting about the two of us is that we’re not just heads of school; our children are going to be attending the schools. We both voted with our feet, uprooted our families and came here. As parents, we wanted the best possible education for our children. 

I agree with everything T.J. said about the individual instruction, the supportive climate, the opportunities available to these young people. I enjoyed that at my Jesuit prep school in Omaha, which was an absolutely transformative experience for me, set me on a course for success and carried me through West Point. 
That’s what I hope to give to the boys who choose to attend the Haverford School—that jump-start in life, that ability to find what drives them, discover their vision and understand how much work it’s going to take to achieve it. We want to give them a good start toward that.

How do you justify the cost of your schools to parents?

JN: It certainly is a lot of money, but excellence is expensive. If you’re going to invest in anything, the single most important place to invest is the future of your children. It’s what we owe them; we chose to bring them into this world. It’s what we owe the nation. 

Still, I’m very conscious of the cost of a Haverford education, and I’m already thinking about various ways to minimize the cost growth.

TJL: It’s a challenge for the entire sector. Harvard University is thinking about this, too. As John said, to bring excellence into everything you do is not inexpensive. I think our job as heads of school is to make sure that we’re really getting the most out of every dollar spent, that we’re really maintaining the quality parents expect. If we keep the quality side as our focus, I think we’ll always have people who are interested in investing in independent education.

What are some of the key characteristics you look for in an applicant?

TJL: Certainly, we want someone who is academically curious—a person who wants to be better. In fact, that’s what I look for in everyone at Episcopal, not just the kids. Do you really want to get better at what you do each day ? That certainly has to be in the academic classroom, but it can also be on the athletic fields or the arts. I want kids who will embrace our culture of warm and caring relationships. If you’re not going to fit into that culture, then it may not be the place for you. 

I think most people want that, especially for their children. They want somewhere where they’ll be challenged, where they’ll be nurtured, where they’ll be loved, where they’ll be known. And then they’ll be pushed to do things they didn’t even think they were capable of doing in a very safe and supportive environment—so that when they fall … And I hope they do. I hope they struggle, so we can teach that perseverance and grit that’s so important. But they should also feel great about themselves and be ready for the next chapter.

JN: T.J. used another good word there—grit. I was out on the football field visiting our young men on Tuesday night, and they didn’t need to be there; this was a voluntary practice. They were sweating on the field, and it was hot—and not all of them are going to be starters. But those young men displayed the kind of determination to use every talent they’ve been given to the maximum potential they have. 

There’s one thing I’m looking for. It’s not academic excellence; it’s not athletic excellence; it’s not artistic excellence. It’s that desire to use every ounce of what they have, to wring 60 seconds’ worth from the unforgiving minute. Those are the young men I want to work next to—to work alongside of at Haverford.

Continued on page 2 … 

NEUTRAL TURF: Episcopal Academy’s T.J. Locke (left) with the Haverford School’s John Nagl, photographed July 18 at Rosemont College’s Gertrude Kistler Memorial Library. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)
How challenging is it to have a diverse student body?

TJL: It’s a constant challenge for independent schools. I think that’s the hard work you have to do. Once you get kids on campus, once you get them to see—and their parents to see—what’s possible, people from all walks of life will want to come. Then, it’s a matter of making it work. As head of school, I’ve got to do my job on the fundraising side to make sure we’ve got enough financial-aid funds to make that education accessible. I think we’re all better by trying to replicate the rest of the world as much as possible.

JN: T.J.’s right. The United States a diverse place, and it’s becoming more diverse. Obviously, we want to prepare our boys at Haverford to excel in that world—to understand the different cultures, the different nationalities, the different viewpoints, the different ways of life that make America great, and be able to operate with people from all walks of life. 

It’s hard work finding the right boy for Haverford. It’s hard work giving that boy the opportunity to partake in all that Haverford has to offer. That’s my job—to find the resources to make that happen.

What’s the value of a successful athletic team in marketing an independent school?

JN: I’ve tried winning, and I’ve tried losing—and winning is better. But not at all costs. We have to be very conscious of the pressure to win every single game. I’m very proud of the state and Inter-Ac titles Haverford has won, and I fully expect and very much hope that we’ll add to that. 
But I’m more concerned that we give every boy the chance to compete, that we compete honorably, that we win graciously. And when we’re defeated, we’re defeated with integrity.

TJL: Certainly, it’s fun to see those great headlines. And if an undefeated football team in the newspaper ends up getting a few more kids in the door that wouldn’t have thought about an independent education, that’s great, because we can take it from there. John and I are of a single mind, I think, on the importance of athletics and the value of it. 

But, yeah, who doesn’t love to see great news in the paper and your school associated with it?

How do you approach the recruitment of athletes?

JN: You seek balance. I seek balance. The Haverford School seeks balance. Where is the boy who can bring it on the sports fields, who can excel academically and fits in with the caring, nurturing, supportive ethos I hope the Haverford School will continue to exude under my leadership? That’s the boy I’m looking for, and I’ll raise money to bring that boy to the Haverford School.

TJL: I think we’re recruiting great kids all the time. We’re recruiting great athletes; we’re recruiting top students. To continue this culture of excellence, you want to have the best students you can. We’ll pound the pavement for a long time on the athletic front and the academic front, so we have choice—that we can really decide among many kids who’s the best fit, who really wants to come to EA the most, and who’s the best fit for our culture.

What’s the value of  independent schools in the college admissions process, especially with the country’s larger institutions?

JN: The first thing I tell parents is that there is no best school—just like there’s no best school in this area. There is the best school for the individual, the right school for their son or daughter. We have to help them understand that first. What they get at the Haverford School, what they get at Episcopal Academy, are people who will help them figure out what the right school is for them.

TJL: The colleges that are not too big, that actually get to know the applicants—that’s where the advantage really comes in. We have a lot of people with tremendous expertise and connections all over this country. They know what the individual schools want; they know the best fit for kids. And we’ll work hard to advocate to get those kids into the best schools that they want to go to, and coach them into what is the best fit so that they can get there. At the schools that care less about the individual, it’s a big numbers game for them. The great part about the numbers game is that they also know the history of how our kids have done at their schools— forever. When a kid from EA or Haverford applies to those schools, they know they need to take a close look. Even if it is a numbers game, that works to our advantage.

What are your thoughts about the SAT and ACT?

JN: Those tests are necessary but not sufficient. I think they do have a purpose, but certainly the smaller schools are going to look well beyond the test scores to try to find the person behind them. I blanch at the thought of teaching the test. We need to teach critical reasoning skills, the ability to write, the ability to think, math skills.

TJL: The problem with the SAT is that it’s meant for everyone in the country. The math on it … Many of our kids are topping out on that math in ninth grade. We’re not going to spend another three years of upper school going back to review stuff you learned when you were in middle school. We want to take that foundation and apply it to do wonderful things, so that when you go to school to study engineering, you’re not just one leg up—you’re all the way. We can’t afford to have the SAT drive our curriculum. But just like anything else, we expect greatness there, too.

What are the strengths of a coed school versus a single-sex school?

TJL: Well, I can’t imagine our school without half our population of wonderful kids. What I want—and I talked about this before—I want our kids to experience as much of the real world as they can. As many differences as there are among [Haverford’s] boys, single-sex schools have to be really good at teaching to the variety of the boys they have. The brain research in education is coming together in a beautiful way to let us know the vast differences in every single child, so all the different data out there about best pedagogy, best practices among schools—all schools need to embrace that research and do what’s best. 
I’m going to be just as excited to root for our field hockey team as I am to root for our football team. That’s great. Our girls are strong. They go into this world, and they’re not intimidated. I think our boys are better young men because they spend every day around young women. There are a lot of skills to be learned there. They’ll work better because of that.

JN: I, of course, came from an all-boys secondary-school education at Creighton Prep, and I found the experience to be enormously positive. It helped me in all sorts of ways.

We integrated young women into drama, our arts program. I find that learning in an all-male environment was less distracting for me at the tender ages of 14-18. 

We run a bridge program for kids entering the ninth grade. I talked to one of them yesterday and asked him about how he felt about moving from a coed school to an all male environment. He said it was probably better for him. I asked him why, and he said, “I won’t be so distracted.” I think that’s a remarkably wise statement from a young man of 14. We do know that boys and girls learn differently. That said, I’m concerned about building men who understand women, know how to work with women, and know how to live their lives with women. One of the things I’m going to focus on this year is enhancing the culture of respect for women.

Where do you see the Haverford School and Episcopal Academy in 10 years?

JN: This one’s easy for me, because my board told me what I’m supposed to do. They said they wanted the Haverford School to be known as the best boys’ school in America.

TJL: Where we’re positioned now, with a national and international reputation, [we’ll have to see] how the field changes in 10 years—how the world changes as we think about how kids learn—and adjust. There will be aspects of our school that will look very similar—the liberal arts education that we talked about. There will be aspects of our school that will look very different—things that I can’t, at this point, foresee. We need to be strong enough as an institution, but nimble enough as a group of professionals, to adjust to the changing world, to make sure we maintain that excellent reputation, so that when people are looking at one of our students, they’ll say, “We know that kid’s well prepared for the world.”

How do EA and Haverford manage their rivalry?

JN: This interview has shown how few differences there are between our teaching and how we think about education. My board members sent their sons and daughters to EA, so I think the two schools should nurture healthy competition. A strong Episcopal Academy makes the Haverford School better, and I hope the converse is also true.

TJL: It’s really a tip of the hat to our predecessors that we’re good friends—and John and I will be good friends for a very long time. I wasn’t here for this, but the stories I heard when we had some tragedies recently at our schools—of our students coming together. To hear that we had lots of Haverford students in our chapel, right alongside our kids is a really powerful message.

When the game is over, and we walk across the field and shake each other’s hands, we realize we have a lot more in common than we do that’s different. That’s the best part about being competitors—we’re healthy competitors. We’re both preparing kids for the larger world, and we’re on the same team.

Our Best of the Main Line & Western Suburbs Party is July 25!