Meet the Head of School
Getting to Know Carson Smith
Members of the RCDS community are already familiar with his credentials. Carson Smith, the ninth Head of School, brings impressive experience as a teacher, administrator, and educational leader to The Rumson Country Day School. Since much of the RCDS community remains #TogetherApart as a result of COVID-19, the new Head of School sat down for a wide-ranging conversation about his background, beliefs, and priorities for the coming year.
Carson, before coming to RCDS, you led the Middle Division at Thayer Academy for a decade. What is your approach to leadership?
I’m somebody who likes to get to know every student in the school, and not just by name. I enjoy what I do obviously, and truly believe I have the best job in the world, because I have the privilege to come to school with enthusiastic students every day. No matter what I do as Head of School, I’m still going to want to interact with the students. When I was a division head, I always coached. I taught history. That will have to change a little bit as I take on this role for the first time. But I’m somebody who is going to be present every single day. I’ll be in classrooms. I’ll be at games. I’ll be at plays and concerts. It sounds a little bit corny but this is more than a job. It’s a way of life, and living on campus and engaging with the community is really how my family and I have chosen to live.
As far as faculty and parents, I think I’m transparent. I am always willing to tell people what I think. Sometimes I don’t have the answer, and I’m perfectly capable of admitting that. I don’t have to be the smartest guy in the room. I try to be humble, and honest and open with people.
“I have the best job in the world because I have the privilege to come to school with enthusiastic students every day."
When did you know you wanted to become an educator?
It was after I graduated from college. I had planned on working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the FBI. I’d actually interviewed to become a U.S. Marshal. But I had a friend who taught at a little school in New Hampshire. We’d just graduated college and I visited. It was an idyllic New England fall day and we were walking around. Students were playing basketball around a hoop nailed to a barn, and I started to remember my own boarding school days. I fell in love with the idea of being a teacher and applied for every job under the sun until I got a chance to teach at Waterville Valley Academy. That was the start for me.
What’s the best piece of advice you ever received as an educator?
There are a couple of things. When I was a young teacher, trying to get my foot in the door, I got a great piece of advice from a family friend who taught at Phillips Exeter Academy. He told me about his first teaching job, at his alma mater, a boarding school in Connecticut. His very first faculty meeting, he sat next to one of his former teachers who looked at him and said, ‘Just sit in the back and keep your mouth shut.’
Now that story has a negative connotation. But I took it to mean, you are new. One of the most valuable things you can do is just take it all in, get to know folks, and understand and respect the traditions and practices of the place you’re going. Don’t try to be the person who comes in and purports to know everything right off the bat. That’s how I’ve always conducted myself. I have beliefs that are important to me, but I also think it’s really important to listen.
The second piece of advice came from my headmaster at Thayer, who taught me to try and see the good in everyone. Students, faculty, parents, everyone. Education is a human endeavor. It’s messy. Parents can get upset. Students make mistakes all the time. But you have to assume good and noble intent in everyone. If a parent is upset for example, he or she is advocating for their child, which they are supposed to do. If students make mistakes, it’s because their brains aren’t fully developed, they’re impulsive, and that’s what they are supposed to do. Likewise for faculty members. We’re not all perfect. We are human beings and we make mistakes. If you can understand that 99% of the time no one feels worse about a mistake than the person who makes it, assume everybody is doing the best they can, which makes for a better environment all the way around.
When you interviewed for this position, what did you see at RCDS that you found unique or especially appealing?
One thing I like about RCDS is its appreciation and adherence to tradition. Earlier in my career I taught at Cardigan Mountain School, which was an unapologetically traditional place. I think the two schools share some similarities in that this boarding school had an honor code that reminds me of The Four Pillars at RCDS. Having a clear set of values that adults and students understand, appreciate and practice, is very appealing to me. Schools that embrace who they are — and don’t try to be all things to all people — that appeals to me as well.
The N-8 model is also an aspect of RCDS that I’m very excited about. I’ve never worked at an N-8 school before, my background is in middle school. When I worked at a 5-12 independent school, the middle school students were always trying to get to the upper school. They couldn’t wait to get across the street to the upper school. It’s healthy I think, for eighth graders here at RCDS and other N-8 schools, to become leaders. To not be chomping at the bit to get somewhere else, but to enjoy the time they have here and enjoy the opportunities they worked towards in terms of traditions, trips and leadership.
This is your first time as Head of School. How are you finding the top job so far?
As you know, I accepted the job last September and obviously, the job that I accepted is very different than the job I’m in. So it’s more of a challenge, frankly. We’re dealing with a pandemic. But you never know what to expect in this job. And COVID-19 is one more unexpected event that we will all deal with. Everyone is pulling on the same rope. The Board of Trustees, faculty, staff and administration have all been incredibly supportive and we’re figuring it out.
Professionally it’s been great, and personally, everyone has been incredibly welcoming. People have reached out to me, and more importantly, to my kids. It’s a big move for them and everyone has been terrific.
That sounds like a good approach to these uncertain times when answers aren’t easy or immediate. Is there anything new you’ve discovered these last few months that would inform how RCDS moves forward?
With distance learning in general, not necessarily at RCDS, I’ve learned that nothing beats in-person school. When the pandemic started, there might have been a handful of folks who said, ‘Schools are in trouble now, because everyone is going to fall in love with distance learning.’ There might be a couple of people still on that bandwagon. But I think people have come to understand that while distance learning can hold us over for a while, you can’t replicate the day-to-day interactions. I learned that last spring at Thayer and continue to believe it today.
What are your priorities for the coming year?
First and foremost, I’d like to get back to normal as much as we can. I obviously don’t have complete control over that. But to the extent that we can get back to good old fashioned regular school, I’ll be happy to do that.
Secondly, it’s to get to know everyone here at RCDS. That includes students, faculty, administration, staff, parents and board members. Over the course of the summer, I’m having one-on-one meetings with all faculty members, administrators, staff and trustees, to start. I want to get to know people on a personal level, but also professionally, understand what they value about RCDS and what can be improved. I’ve asked everyone who comes in my door, ‘What are one or two things the School could do better?’
If and when I see a consensus, then maybe that will be something I agree with too. I don’t come to this role thinking, ‘There is one way to do things.’ There are all sorts of successful schools that do things in different ways. That being said, I have values and principles that are important to me, that I want to make sure the School is fulfilling. Most important for any school is to fulfill its mission. You need to make sure that the mission is at the center of everything you’re doing, and that every decision, big or small, is made with the mission in mind. And I think RCDS is on the right track with that.
Any little known facts about yourself that you’d like to share?
I’m a big skateboarder. People don’t guess that. I putt around, don’t do tricks anymore. I had a skateboarding club at Thayer. We used our collaborative design lab to make skateboards that the students would paint, decorate and all that good stuff. I’m excited about the wood shop here.
Fast Facts About Carson Smith
Origins: New Hampshire, from the age of 5. Attended Berwick Academy and then St. Mark’s School, a boarding school in Massachusetts.
Lifelong Learner: B.A. in Government from Connecticut College. Master’s degree in Social Studies Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. Candidate for Ed.D. in Educational Policy and Leadership from Vanderbilt University.
Previous Posts: Middle School Director at Thayer Academy, Braintree, Mass. Before that, Mr. Smith was Dean of Students, history teacher and coach at The Derryfield School, and math teacher, department chair, and coach at Cardigan Mountain School.
Married to: Amy Howell, Executive Director of the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Dad to: Kathryn, Huntting, and Margaret who will begin the eighth, fifth and first grades at RCDS this fall.