Letter From The Headmaster
James Alan Astman, Ph.D.
January 9, 2018
I was twenty-seven when I started teaching at Oakwood, just a few months after our youngest child was born. The year was 1975. Little could I have imagined the gift that would be offered me four years later: to become the head of a school I had grown to love. More than four decades later, that feeling is undiminished.
Earlier this fall, I turned seventy. Serving as Headmaster has been the privilege of a lifetime. But the demands of leadership require an unrelenting around-the-clock commitment. That is why I began talking with our board’s Executive Committee over two years ago about my decision to retire as Headmaster, effective in June 2019—a year and a half from now.
We agreed on the importance of announcing my decision well in advance, in order to give the Board ample time to conduct a comprehensive search. The Search Committee is composed of current and former trustees, and will seek wisdom from every constituency. Our Board of Trustees knows it has my wholehearted support in its quest to find an exemplary new leader for this remarkable place.
Retiring as Headmaster will not mean I am departing from Oakwood. Instead, beginning in July 2019, I will serve as Headmaster Emeritus. In this capacity, I will lend my experience and expertise in any way the trustees and next Head of School request. Ensuring that Oakwood continues to flourish is my highest priority.
Thanks to a visionary Board, I will also be able to focus on educational priorities that extend back to Oakwood’s earliest days. As many of you know, I am a Visiting Fellow each March at Oxford University, where I teach and research human rights education. (Oakwood was founded by parents who were committed to a progressive education for peace and human rights.) I have a profound appreciation for the role that teachers and parents can play in cultivating the qualities of character and thoughtfulness on which democratic life depends. And it is to these twin concerns—pedagogy and parenting—that I am eager to devote my professional life in the years ahead.
Of course, I am also eager to enjoy more personal time, especially now that Marlene and I have three grandchildren—and one more on the way! Both of us have always considered ourselves twice blessed, since Oakwood has been our second home and our second family. Here is where our children, Jenny (’88) and Joel (’93), grew up; where many of our closest friendships have taken root; and where I have been supported and mentored all along the way. My greatest mentor, founding parent Chuck Haas, played an incomparable role in my education as a school head. I miss him every day.
It has been deeply gratifying to help the school transform over the course of my Headship—in the continual growth, originality, and moral clarity of our programs; in the scope, beauty, and warmth of our facilities; in the number, quality, and diversity of our students; and in the school’s stable and strong financial position.
But equally gratifying are those many dimensions of Oakwood life that have not changed. We remain a place with a rare and always relevant mission. Our North Star is caring and trusting relationships between teachers and students—where inspiration is a two-way street. Our families participate in virtually every dimension of school life. We still privilege substance over form and collaboration over competition. And, from our first days, we have known that the best preparation for the future is for young people to be fully and joyfully engaged in the present.
If I have helped Oakwood “grow up,” then surely the reverse is also true. There have been so many people along the way who have helped me learn about what’s most vital at the school, about good leadership, and about true friendship. Above all others, my gifted colleagues — teachers, staff members, and administrators alike — have taught me much more than I could possibly have taught them in return. And because I am at heart a teacher, I continue to learn from, and to treasure, the students of all ages whom I have had the privilege of knowing.
I cannot close this letter without thanking the board chairs and trustees with whom I have worked in such close partnership for so many years, as well as the generations upon generations of parent volunteers who have helped ensure our community would thrive. I carry a profound appreciation for the first courageous parents who founded Oakwood, most of whom I was honored to know. I feel especially fortunate that Cheyney Ryan—in whose parents’ backyard the school began—is my dear friend and constant teacher. And I am continually thankful for Margo Long, who has guided our elementary school, and been my trusted partner and friend, for all the years I’ve served as Headmaster.
To lead a school like Oakwood is to be married to your job. So no one deserves my gratitude more than my wife, Marlene. It was Marlene who, with Chuck Haas’s advice, began our Alumni Association more than 35 years ago; who created our signature ceramics program; and who has served as secondary school nurse for three decades. She has been my anchor through the periodic crises and grievous losses that our community has endured. And, most of all, she has shared the joys of belonging with a whole heart to our beloved Oakwood community.
I confess that writing this letter seems surreal, and not just because I will remain Oakwood’s Headmaster for the better part of two school years. It also seems surreal because Oakwood is so much a part of me, and I a part of it. That is why I am devoted to its future and excited by the prospect of new leadership for the school. And I am eager to pursue new opportunities: to contribute to the school, to my profession, and to current and future parents as they strive, in partnership with us, to raise children who will make the world a healthier and more compassionate place.