Back-to-School Night Remarks from Head of School Matthew Gould

Norwood parents, faculty, and staff gathered for this year's Back-to-School Nights on September 15 (Middle School) and September 22 (Lower School). Both events were kicked off with remarks from Norwood's head of school, Matthew Gould.

Welcome and good evening! It is wonderful to see everyone and to officially “kick off” another school year. In particular, it is wonderful to be together! We haven’t been together for Back-to-School Night for two years, so it feels especially invigorating to share this time with you.

I will give a brief talk tonight and, afterwards, you will have the opportunity to visit with your child’s teachers. Of course, the sessions with the teachers is where the “real action” is. This is where a Norwood School education unfolds—in that rare and critical relationship between our teachers and their students. This is where the substance and sustainability of a Norwood School education takes root.

My goals for this evening are twofold. On the one hand, I want to provide a broad, philosophical perspective on the value of a Norwood School education. On the other hand, I want to illustrate how that broad philosophy gets put into practice, in the classrooms, each day at Norwood School. Hopefully, this broad perspective will prove to be informative as you move into the classrooms and hear from our teachers about specific grade-level and subject-area curriculum, procedures, and programs.

I want you to know that I greatly appreciate your indulgence at Back-to-School Night as I don’t often get to talk to parents about these big ideas, so your presence here tonight means a great deal to me. 
I want to tell you a little bit about how the faculty, and I start every year before the children arrive at our doors and start their school year. In my opening faculty meeting, of course, I cover a significant amount of nitty-gritty detail: lunchroom and carpool assignments, accreditation updates, curriculum planning, etc.
But I’m also in the habit of talking about and reinforcing our philosophical core values:
  • What do we stand for as a school?
  • How do we see kids? How do we view curriculum?
  • How do we view the role of education?
I do this because I believe in my heart-of-hearts that a community of teachers, parents, and students who are unified in their core values about school is a powerfully strong community for children. So let me share with you what I shared with the faculty about what I see as our core values. There are four, and I’ll spend just a little time on each one.

Core Value #1: Whole-Child Education
First and foremost, we believe in whole-child education. What do I mean by whole child education?
  • Of course, we are ever cognizant of students’ academic development (we are a school… scholarship has to be of primary focus).
  • However, we are equally concerned with the emotional, social, creative, ethical, and physical development of the children in our care.
We believe that when all aspects of development are attended to, students actually learn more; their academic achievement jumps. As such, Norwood School acknowledges the value of both work and play. We encourage independent thinking in a stimulating environment where the child is motivated by his or her own innate curiosity and a keen desire to learn. The School strives to foster in each student a high level of self-esteem, confidence, poise, and responsibility.

Norwood School values childhood—we let kids be kids. In a society in which childhood seems to be a diminishing concept, we try to keep the spirit of childhood alive for as long as we can.

Core Value #2: Safe Environment
We work very hard to make sure this is a safe environment for children—not just safe physically, but safe socially, emotionally, and academically. At Norwood we want students to feel safe to take risks. We want kids to be known, appreciated, and encouraged. We also want them to be challenged and sometimes struggle.

And, let’s face it… school is a risky place. Elementary and middle school students are asked to take risks on a daily basis. And of course, things at Norwood School are no different. We are asking our children to take risks all the time. We ask them to read poetry in front of their peers; we ask them to try really hard math problems; we ask them to run as fast as they can in P.E.; we ask them to participate in plays and do public speaking.

But what I see so often at Norwood School is students engaged in unabashed and unbridled exploration. And, yes, sometimes in that exploration children come up with the wrong answer or fall short. But what we are trying to impart in our children is that sometimes the journey to an answer is more important than the answer itself.

All of this reminds me of the classic children’s book The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper. The chant, “I think I can, I think I can” reflects determination and confidence based on previous hard work. The chant changes to “I thought I could, I thought I could” after the challenge is conquered. While The Little Engine That Could was originally published in 1930, its message seems particularly important today as a growing number of adults seek to reduce or eliminate the struggles their children will face. The Little Blue Engine reminds us that it would be a great disservice to our children to teach them, “I know I can, I know I can,” without allowing them to encounter the struggles required to build the durable self-confidence they will need to face the mountains that await them. I hope that your children do experience some struggles this year. But I hope that the lessons they find in that struggle are profound and life-long and, ultimately, lead to great success.

All things do come full circle and all disappointments, in retrospect, are part of a complex series of synergies that make our children’s lives full and rich and happy. I wanted to share something one of our teachers recently wrote because I really think it epitomizes what we stand for at Norwood School. In a year-end reflection, she writes:

“I want my students to know that it is okay not to know something or get a question wrong. I want them to be willing to search for an answer. I also want them to always be willing to learn and never give up on themselves even if something is incredibly difficult. If my students leave me knowing this and believing they can learn anything that they put their heart and mind to, then I feel I have done my job!”
Core Value #3: Meaningful Curriculum
Our third core value is about curriculum. We strive to ensure that our curriculum is relevant, rigorous, and interdisciplinary.

Each year, Norwood School graduates enter many of the most selective schools in the DC region equipped with the curiosity and confidence; the initiative and drive; and the knowledge, imagination, and skills they will need to achieve success. But we know that academic excellence requires much more than the rote memorization of disconnected facts and formulas and the ability to produce “right” answers on demand. Rather, it requires asking the right questions and developing strategies that make sustained and meaningful inquiry possible.

From our earliest grades our students are encouraged to become critical thinkers, makers of meaning and solvers of problems. That’s why, from the earliest grades, we strive to make our program exciting and one in which students learn from experience.

In addition, we believe that the arts are a fundamental dimension of the Norwood School experience. Rich opportunities for creative expression (art, music, drama, band, strings) are integrated throughout every child’s daily experience and provide students with various forms of knowing and being in the world. Regardless of subject area, our goal is to bring the content to life in a way that is engaging, relevant, and usable to our students.

Core Value #4:  A Norwood School education is personal.
Finally, core value #4 is that a Norwood School education is personal. Children are KNOWN at Norwood. Whether it is getting to know students through the ritual of the morning handshake or more formally in chapels, assemblies, or classroom activities, students get KNOWN in many contexts and by many people.

Children have a place to shine here! Whether as a student, an artist, an actor, an athlete, or as a wonderfully kind and considerate friend, children's natural gifts are respected, honored, and nurtured. 

Additionally, Norwood School is small enough that kids don’t fall through the cracks, where they are known by their teachers, and where their improved learning becomes the collective mission of many trusted adults. We want students to go to school in an environment in which they are comfortable being themselves!
Now, the philosophy and core values that I have been talking about tonight are somewhat broad in scope, but the amazing thing is that they are put into practice every day by amazing people. And these amazing people, of course, are our teachers. Teachers at Norwood school live the mission—they understand students and how students learn. They nurture children’s gifts such that children may reach their full potential.

Tonight, you will hear from these amazing people. They are looking forward to telling you about their programs and working with you to create a parent-school partnership that will be enduring and that will help set the foundation for the school year.
And, I have to tell you, the other piece of the puzzle is you – our parents. Not only do we value your tremendous support of the School through your time, energy, and volunteer hours; but also the partnership that we count on. We know that by working together, it always benefits the child. We value open communication between home and school, and we appreciate your trust.
I am excited about the coming year! A few highlights:

Moving into new Learning Spaces
We will be learning how to maximize the use of our spectacular new learning spaces. The Marriott Early Childhood building, along with the major renovations in the Middle School, open endless possibilities to enrich our teaching and program with creativity, depth, and personal connections.
Strategic Plan Launch
We will be launching our new 5-year strategic plan, Your Journey Starts Here. With several threads of focus: (1) leveraging our new learning spaces to become thought leaders in PK-8 education, (2) getting DEI right, (3) focusing on environmental education, (4) supporting teachers, and (5) securing financial sustainability – the new plan sets an ambitious course for Norwood to chart significant positive change.

Living Our Mission
But, most importantly, we will continue to work diligently to ensure that each and every child feels safe and loved and finds a place to shine at this remarkable school.
It remains a great honor to lead Norwood School. It is going to be a great year. Thank you for your attention and your support. Enjoy the classrooms!
Located in Bethesda, MD, Norwood School develops students in grades PK-8 into confident lifelong learners who have the academic, character, and leadership skills to succeed in high school and beyond. Recognizing that children are multi-faceted, Norwood provides many opportunities for safe risk-taking, exploration, discovery, and growth in a nurturing, supportive, and inclusive school community.