We met with Bodie Brizendine yesterday, Head of School at Spence Academy, a prestigious all girls school on the Upper East Side. First, a quick note about location. The school is a stone’s throw from the Met and the Guggenheim, and right around the corner from 5th avenue. Bodie’s office has a stunning, uninterrupted view of Central Park; just outside of her office is an elegantly appointed sitting room, with framed pictures of Spence Graduates going back to 1892, when Clara Spence opened the school. The room was something out of Downton Abbey, minus the scheming footmen and delicious crumpets.
We came to Spence to ask Bodie some questions about her vision for the school, and how that vision informs her approach to leadership, education, and organizational planning. This topic could have easily produced cliche regurgitations of Spence’s mission, but Bodie was impressive, coherent, and consistently educational. She didn’t just stick to “strategic growth” in a narrow sense, but connected strategy to educational values in a manner that felt authentic, deliberate, and deeply informed. Bodie was quite obviously an educator; this much was clear when we walked into her office, and saw a tome of literary texts on the bookshelf. She mentioned at the outset that she makes it a point to teach an English class every year; this was her way of “getting in there.” By “getting in there,” I take her to mean getting involved in the actual life of the school, knowing its nature from the inside, a perspective you can only develop if you practice what you preach. She views teaching as a critical part of her leadership, and something she deeply enjoys.
There are lots of exciting things happening at Spence; too many to mention in fact. The school is clearly well resourced and well endowed. The grounds are gorgeous, the campus is growing, the teachers are excellent, and admission is competitive. Despite this pretty privileged position, Bodie seems genuinely progressive; she is devoted to using Spence’s resources to provide girls and young women a high quality education characterized by inclusivity, diversity, and citizenship (students of color comprise 33% of the student body). The school regularly holds community meetings focusing on issues of race, equity, identity, and social reform; students are represented in board meetings focusing on strategic planning; there is much greater effort to promote diversity in the faculty (through recruiting, hiring, and training), and there is no shying away from “real conversations” that involve the entire community (her phrase was “Shaking the Tree,” a phrase she borrowed from Cornell West). And Bodie at her core is devoted to empowering young women through education; this has been her purpose throughout her career, and she herself is a living testament to that empowerment.
Bodie mentioned that a wise leader should be the quietest person in the room, which made me think of Lao-Tzu’s saying, “if you want to lead the people, get behind them.” The quiet leader is mostly quiet in a reflective and deliberative sense, receding from view in order to empower others. The key is being a good listener, encouraging people to step up, and shifting the onus for change on a committed group, rather than the all-encompassing “leader.” Though Bodie clearly has the competence to get things done, she’s very much invested in collaboration, and making sure everyone gets along. This is a welcome departure from heads who trivialize culture, and represent their school’s interests in boring, boneheaded terms: “this is where we’re going, this is what we stand for, this is how we do it.” But Bodie kept returning to the importance of community, conversation, and relationships; it was clear these values framed her perspective on the most essential dimensions of the Spence experience. But she’s also a true planner; very much tactical, strategic, and organized. In this sense she embodies both aspects of leadership, getting things done and providing vision.
Back to the education piece. Spence is investing in various forms of professional development, but the central focus over the next several years is deepening understanding of learning theory, so that it directly informs the craft of teaching. Here the emphasis is on becoming a better practitioner; learning how emerging research on pedagogy, brain science, adolescent development, memory, retention, and motivation impact lesson planning, curriculum development, assessment, feedback, etc. What stands out about Spence’s approach to PD is that they’re not resting on “rapport” as the final determinant of educational quality; yes it’s important to establish connections and relationships, but it’s just as important to develop a rigorous understanding of how to teach intelligence and understanding so that kids become more independent and self assured in the face of academic challenges.
Bodie applies the same logic to faculty, saying that “you want to drive your people wild, but not crazy.” That is, you want to inspire passion, but you also want to provide a structure that directs passion towards real, achievable goals. One without the other is no bueno, in the same way that a permissive school environment without standards of responsibility and achievement is no bueno.
Bodie loves what she does. She said that a few times. She said in order to be a good leader, you have to love leading, which is a confident way of embracing its demands, without seeming arrogant. This was part of her appeal. She was passionate and dedicated to fulfilling her responsibilities, but equally committed to staying grounded.
Spence Educational Vision
With a commitment to academic excellence and personal integrity, The Spence School prepares a diverse community of girls and young women for the lifelong transformation of self and the world with purpose, passion, and perspective
Offering a rigorous, liberal arts study, The Spence School develops high standards and character while creating an environment that fosters self confidence and the joy of learning. Charging our students to meet the demands of academic excellence and responsible citizenship in a changing world, we teach that divers points of view fuel inquiry, engagement, and deeper understandings of complex truths. We believe in the strength, intellect, and vitality of women.