An Independent K-12 school on a beautiful wooded campus, 3 miles from Washington, D.C.

Susan

Passions: I was born and raised in Washington, DC, but I have deep ties to the state of Texas. I’m a political junkie with an advanced degree in public policy and experience working for many years in government and non-profit organizations. In my free time, I love to spend time outdoors with my family, friends and beloved dog, Rocket. If given the chance, I will hike or backpack on any trail or up any mountain. I volunteer and fundraise for the causes close to my heart, including Potomac. One day, I hope to get back to writing that young adult novel I’ve been meaning to finish.
Favorite Thing About Potomac: The teachers. Every year they continue to amaze me.
Memorable Potomac Moment: Watching my kids get on the Potomac bus for the first time. It was a “big kid” moment and they have never looked back!

Susan
Mother of 10th grade twins

Our twin girls were about six months old when my husband decided on a whim to begin speaking only Spanish to the children. He had learned to speak Spanish while attending high school in Texas, and he then became fluent while working abroad.

My husband continued speaking the language to our daughters for years, despite being frustrated that the girls would speak English back to him (a common phenomenon among young learners of a second language). Since I only spoke English with the girls, it became harder and harder to get them to speak in Spanish. We read to them in Spanish and watched videos in Spanish. When they were three or four years old, their comprehension of the Spanish language outgrew my own limited knowledge, so I would turn on the English subtitles when they watched Spanish cartoons. While they clearly understood a substantial amount, they still rarely spoke Spanish to their Dad or to anyone else.

Then without warning, it seemed, the twins' elementary school days were upon us. Gone was a full day at home, and they soon began participating in after school activities like soccer and ballet. They took Spanish at this school, so they had some exposure to the language, but our efforts to be a bilingual household languished. As the early school years flew by, we would occasionaly lament that all of the effort we put in their early years had been wasted.

Years later, however, that early exposure to Spanish has paid off for the girls. We credit Potomac for helping our family realize the hopes we had for our twins to eventually be become fully bilingual.

When the girls arrived at Potomac in the fourth grade in 2010, the Middle School was undergoing some changes. A dynamic new division leader – John Mathews, who now heads the Middle and Intermediate Schools – was in his second year as MS Head. That fall, Mr. Mathews was charged with helping implement a new language program in the division. Beginning that year, all three Middle School grades (4 through 6) took Spanish simultaneously, and the program was altered over the next couple of years until it was fully realized.

Prior to implementation, a committee of faculty and administrators was charged with investigating the best way to add a foreign language to the lower grades. It was an in-depth and thoughtful process with input from many constituencies at the school. The committee concluded that Potomac should choose only one language and forge as close to an immersive environment as possible. Students in grades 4 through 6 now learn the language through connections made with other subject areas.

As part of the Intermediate School's 8th grade language program, my daughters traveled to Spain with their teachers and other students. That trip made a lasting impression, and now, as students in the Upper School, Spanish is among our daughters' favorite classes. They have both honed their language skills in the many levels of classes offered in the US, and they've benefitted from studying alongside friends who speak the language at home. Both have expressed a strong desire to study and live abroad and will likely make foreign language study a centerpiece of their college experiences.

We are so grateful to Potomac's Spanish teachers for helping us to promote what we think of as a part of our own family's mission statement – to raise global citizens who can speak and think in more than one language. As parents and now as a family, we believe that speaking a language other than one's own native language can promote peace and international harmony. In short, it helps achieve a fundamental human need: the ability to understand one other. Thankfully, our kids are in a school that promotes just that.

Over the summer, The Potomac School lost one of its most beloved teachers and administrators. In July, Assistant Head of School Bill Cook passed away after a courageous battle with cancer. At the All-School Opening Assembly in September—a big tradition and highlight for the school community—Mr. Cook was honored posthumously with the inaugural presentation of Potomac's Excellent Teaching Award. Head of School John Kowalik observed, "Mr. Cook had a deep regard for scholarship; more importantly, he had a genuine interest in each and every student in our school. I think all who knew him would agree that 'Bill Cook' and 'excellent teaching' are synonymous."

During the months since Mr. Cook's passing, I've continued to learn that just about everyone has a "Bill Cook story" (or many). He was the kind of teacher we hope will influence our children and is absolute proof that one teacher can make a difference. Here is my own Bill Cook story:

The Middle School years – 4th through 6th grade – were truly the "wonder" years, and our twin girls made a seamless transition to Potomac from their previous elementary school. We reveled in the MS's many traditions – the 4th grade Egypt Dig, the 5th grade Invention Convention, the Greek Olympics complete with togas and Zeus, and the Medieval Fair. We also loved their formal library time, the daily recess and outdoor education, and the fact that we received many detailed and frequent progress reports from classroom teachers but no letter grades for the kids until the end of 6th grade. As 6th grade came to a close, I was filled with what I can only say was an enormous sense of dread about the girls moving to the 7th and 8th grade—a difficult time of life and especially so for girls. I couldn't imagine how I was going to get through those years with one teenage girl much less with two at the same time! And then I met Bill Cook.

That 6th grade spring parents were invited to a transition meeting for the Intermediate School, designed to guide families who have questions about the next school year. Mr. Cook introduced himself at the start of the meeting as someone who had served in many roles at the school but most recently as an interim head of the IS. He began his talk by saying that most schools and educators looked at the 7th and 8th grade years as a bridge between childhood and high school. He said it was sort of universally viewed as something that everyone just needed to cross over to get to the other side but without much more thought to it than that. At Potomac, in contrast, he preferred to think of this particular bridge in life as the Ponte Vecchio—a bridge but also a "beautiful destination" in and of itself. A place to linger and sightsee and a place to enjoy all the views, people, and everything it had to offer. Finally, he talked about that journey over the bridge and that we shouldn't try to rush it. We should take in the wonderful things happening there: the growth, the emotional development, and the learning. He sketched a portrait of the teachers in the IS as just the kind of educators who especially enjoy this particular bridge. I remember that talk like it was yesterday because his words guided me through those early adolescent years along with the support of many caring, understanding and excellent teachers from the IS. Now that my kids are heading into the second quarter of the 10th grade, they are over their Ponte Vecchio, but they have begun another journey on their way to adulthood. I have never forgotten that excellent analogy or how it shifted my own thinking about growing up. Thank you, Mr. Cook, for helping me to cross that bridge, too.

Some years ago, I had a chance to go to one of the assemblies that Potomac Upper School students attend every week. It was a new experience for me as my own children were not yet in high school. While I attended the assembly to support a friend who was the featured speaker that day, I was struck by the four words I heard at the assembly's closing. One of the Upper School teachers came to the podium, said a few words of thanks to those participating in the assembly and then - in a booming voice – directed the students to "Go Well!" The nearly 450 teenagers in attendance snapped to attention and responded in unison, "Stay Well!" Then, contemporary rock music (which is always chosen by the students and plays between class transitions) filled the auditorium as the students filed out, off to their next class. I was so impressed with this simple yet meaningful closing that I asked another teacher about its genesis. She told me that the "Go Well/Stay Well" verbal exchange is a translation of a traditional Zulu greeting. It was added to the assembly format years ago thanks to an English teacher who taught the South African tale Cry, the Beloved Country as part of the 10th grade English curriculum.

Now that my kids are in Upper School and they have recited that greeting every week, it continues to resonate with me and I return to it again and again as a parent of young teens. In reflecting on their first year as Upper School students, I've realized that no matter what we say, or do, or model, ultimately we just want them to "Go Well and Stay Well" after they leave us. I think about this saying as they are walking out the door in the morning to get on the Potomac bus. I imagine I will think of it when they are walking up to their college dorm for the first time in a few years.

This 21st century world our kids live in can be highly complicated and competitive, but when I return to that simple and concise four-word phrase it helps me keep things in perspective as a parent. As another school year comes to a close, my kids are preparing for their first final exams and they are excited to attend their first Potomac graduation. In a few short years, we will be attending their own graduation and I hope that we can say we have sent them into the world prepared to "Go Well and Stay Well."

On their first day of school at Potomac, my daughters came home and reported that there had been lots of cheering at school. I honestly didn’t believe them (they were nine at the time) because when I was a kid I hated the end of summer, so I couldn’t imagine anything less cheerful than school. Then I saw the pictures in Paw Prints: upperclassmen holding up signs as everyone got off the buses. Signs that read, “Go Potomac!” and “Roar!” Alongside the Panther mascot, the older students were dressed in blue and orange spirit-gear: cheering. As they clapped, hooted and hollered, they also helped teachers direct kids to the various division front doors or gave high fives to the youngest students.

As school got underway, I began to see that the cheering wasn’t just on the first day of school, but every day of the school year: in classrooms as well as on the playing fields. In both the most overt and subtle ways, kids were being taught to cheer not just for their school – Potomac Pride! – but for each other as well.

Over the years since our girls have been at Potomac, I’ve thought a lot about that cheering and what it might mean to them long after they leave the school. In all of today’s hyped up parenting literature there’s been an abundance written about how we too often congratulate kids for doing what’s expected of them. In the age of tiger moms, helicopter parents and attendance trophies, we are constantly being told to stand back and let our kids fall down so they can develop the strength to get back up again.

I couldn’t agree more with that cacophony because I know from experience that the most important lessons I’ve learned always came from my most spectacular failures. But what I also learned from those many failures was that my willingness to take another risk or to try again often came from the support system I had in place at the time: the friend in graduate school who bravely helped me study for applied statistics even though I hadn’t taken a math course in years; the English teacher who encouraged me to rewrite the paper for the third or fourth time; or, the supervisor at my first job who said, “it’s ok, you can fix it when you come back tomorrow.”

So while it’s true I’m a big fan of failure, I am also a big fan of having as many cheerleaders and coaches in our lives as possible. I think we should absolutely let our kids fail, but I hope they don’t think they are all alone when they do. They will always need people in their lives to cheer them on, but I also hope we are teaching them to do the same for others. While I fully recognize how much I learned from my failures, my biggest successes always came when my parents, professors, mentors and colleagues were there to cheer me on. I hope my children have people like that in their lives, but more importantly, I hope they also become those people, too. Because what I remember most from those epic fails – as my teenagers would now call them – are the people who were there to encourage me to get back up and try again. Whenever someone asks me, “How come kids love Potomac so much?” My answer is always the same: “Because Potomac loves them back.” I think maybe it’s all the cheering.

We were skeptical. That’s the best way I can describe how my husband and I felt as we headed over Chain Bridge on a beautiful fall day on our way to Potomac for our parent tour many years ago. While I’d known about the Potomac School all my life and some of my close friends were graduates and parents there, the fact that it was in Virginia gave me pause – a lot of pause. I told my husband, who is from Texas, “Washingtonians send their kids to school in Washington, not Virginia.” Furthermore, I reasoned, I’d have to cross a bridge to get there and we “don’t do bridges or the beltway.” While I thought of myself as liberal and open-minded, clearly I wasn’t about this.

After the short six-mile drive from our house, we pulled up to the Potomac School driveway and ascended the hill to the school buildings – all arranged in a K to 12 “walk of life” configuration. Driving past those state of the art facilities, the woodland trees and hills of autumnal color, the many playing fields for both boys and girls, and the vast wide-open green space, a great sense of calm came over me. All of my life I had sought peace and balance through the natural world. A thought occurred to me: what if my young children could experience this feeling everyday?

Our tour of the classrooms and campus that morning confirmed our impressions of the campus. The curriculum seemed to meld perfectly with the outdoor space. The culture at Potomac encouraged expansive thought and intellectual inquiry about the wider world rather than rote memorization. I knew from our many afternoons on the playground as well as our family hiking and camping trips that my girls thrived in the outdoors. And, I understood from their previous school experience that they would do well in a progressive and collaborative learning environment that valued the questions as much as the answers.

Well, you know how this story ends. It’s now many years since that Tuesday tour and our little twin girls are now Potomac Upper School students. They start their day at school when their bus drives up that hill and they take in that same scenery we were awed by back then. They have come to really appreciate what the natural world has to offer because as busy teens constantly in the grip of technology and social media, they need the open space and fresh air from a class outside or a run on a wooded trail more than ever. They are Potomac kids through and through – as comfortable wading through a muddy creek as they are working on a challenging geometry problem. When I think back on my anxieties of that day so many years ago, I was afraid to cross the bridge to Potomac both literally and figuratively, but I am so glad we did.