In our educational leadership series, we’re introducing you to individuals who shape the landscape and school culture at our partner institutions. Kicking off the 2017-2018 school year series, meet Matt Micciche, Head of School at Friends School of Baltimore. He’s sharing his vision for Friends, why he believes their challenging and caring coeducational school environment is a place where students thrive, and thinking beyond the binary.
And — surprise — did you know he was a triplet?
Meet the Head of School: Matt Micciche, Friends School of Baltimore
Fresh new school year! How did you spend your summer break and what is the one thing you’re looking forward to most this year?
Every summer, my wife, Frances, and I and our three children go to Maine. Since we’re both originally from New England, this gives us the chance to visit with family and friends, and to enjoy the cooler weather. We spend lots of time on the water, fishing, and going to the beach.
As for the start of the school year, Friends School has always been a place that attracts innovative and creative people – educators and families— and over the past year we’ve been engaging those folks in powerful conversations about what education needs to look like in order to meet the demands of the modern world. We’re calling the thinking that has emerged from this dialogue our “Compass for the Future.” What I’m most looking forward to professionally is the launch of several strategic initiatives that have arisen from this reimagining – initiatives, I might add, that stem from our name:
Friends – we are proudly a Quaker-based school, grounded in the intellectual inquiry and values-based practices that such schools have been known for over more than three centuries
School – we wish to expand and refashion the definition of ‘school’ on many levels: by individualizing learning through mind-brain science and by providing students with opportunities to personalize their education according to their interests
of Baltimore – Friends, founded in 1784, is the oldest school in Baltimore, public or private. We know that our collective and individual futures are tied inextricably with Baltimore, and that by more fully connecting with and strengthening our city we improve the long-term prospects for our students and our school.
Tell us a little bit about your background. How long have you been at Friends and what brought you to the school?
This is my 13th year as Head at Friends, which is hard for me to believe, even as I say it. I began my career in education at Wilmington Friends School in Delaware, where I served for 10 years as an Upper School English teacher and on the administrative team. I’m not a Quaker, and before Wilmington, I had very little idea of what Quakerism was and what it meant to be a Friends school; however, I quickly learned that the environment in that school was exactly what I was looking for. From there, I was thrilled to be appointed Head at Friends School of Baltimore, where I’ve found that the core qualities of all Friends schools – respect, curiosity, kindness, and social engagement – are every bit as strong as they were in Wilmington. I can’t imagine a better environment to teach or learn in, and I’ve been doing plenty of both for the past 23 years.
If you had to choose three words to describe Friends, what would they be? And why?
Stimulating, challenging, and caring. One of our school’s foundational Quaker beliefs is that the truth is continually revealed, which makes for an incredibly stimulating environment, one that is always charged with the possibility of discovery and innovation. There is simply no room for complacency and resting on your laurels at Friends School.
I say challenging and caring in tandem, because I have so often seen our teachers find just the right balance between these two qualities in working with our students (my own children very much included). They come to know each student, their strengths and weaknesses, and they challenge them to realize the potential within, all the while reassuring them they will do whatever it takes to help them meet those challenges. This is the recipe for growth and development: holding high standards and offering unwavering support. Invariably, when I talk to students and alumni about what they cherish most from their Friends experience, they mention the deep and enduring relationships they have formed with their teachers.
Just a few weeks ago – and I’ve heard many similar comments during my tenure here – an alumnae wrote and told me that “Friends School taught me so much more than just what we learned in our traditional classes and I am very grateful for the experience. … With all sincerity, I learned more important lessons at Friends School than I did at Harvard.” That’s the kind of feedback that makes being here so exciting, because it reminds you that in addition to giving our students an extraordinary academic experience, we’re helping to shape their lives in other, equally important ways.
Social justice and responsibility are hallmarks of the educational practice at Friends. What does this look like on campus?
Social justice and responsibility are, as you say, a fundamental part of who we are as a school community, and the commitment to them emerges from another core Quaker tenet; the belief that there is that of God in every person. This means that we all have a responsibility to be aware of and care for the people around us, from classmates, to those in the broader community, to people in distant countries.
Our students are encouraged and empowered to think about and address the needs of others from the youngest ages. Our Pre-Kindergarten students, for example, are introduced to this concept through the simple act of baking cookies with one of their teachers. Several years ago, she started bringing the cookies to the Helping Up Mission downtown, and having the students send notes to the men at the shelter along with the cookies. A robust pen-pal program has since emerged. It may sound simple, but that kind of awareness and engagement at that young an age plants a seed that is bound to grow over time.
Indeed, one of our primary goals with our students is to get them beyond the isolated “bubbles” in which so many of us live and into contact with the full range of people and communities around them. By doing so, we ensure that their lives will be much richer and that they’ll be far better prepared for a lifetime of deep engagement within their communities.
Let’s chat about Friends’ practice of thinking beyond the binary. This can be a bit of an abstract concept for parents. Can you break it down for us?
The longer I work in education, the more I think that a critical part of our work is to complicate and unsettle the assumptions that our children bring to the classroom. I say this because I believe that in a time of information overload, one of the great challenges facing us is the craving for simplification. We seek neat solutions to the messy problems of our fast-paced and complex world. Unfortunately, these solutions are fatally flawed because they don’t take into consideration the full complexity of the issues they are meant to address. In other words, they fail to think beyond the binary, as you’ve put it.
In a school setting, thinking beyond the binary means that we are constantly asking students of all ages to go past superficial understandings and responses, and to wade into the messiness and uncertainty that lies beneath, whether in discussing a piece of literature they’ve read or in solving a math problem. In our curriculum and pedagogy we’ve developed a list of essential skills (communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and information literacy) and habits of mind (creativity, curiosity, empathy, reflection, and resilience) that we actively work to develop in all Friends students. Thinking beyond the binary is fundamental to any one of these and, I would argue, will be critical to our graduates as they strive to tackle the challenges — professional, political, ecological, and more —they’re going to encounter.
In a recent commentary in The Baltimore Sun, you wrote: “in an age in which diversity of all sorts is rightfully celebrated as essential to meaningful learning, the decision to embrace the enormous benefits of gender diversity that a coeducational setting provides seems only logical.” In your opinion, what are the three biggest benefits of the coeducational setting Friends provides?
I think there are far more than 3, but if that’s the limit, I’d say:
- Life Preparation – This is, in my mind, the most obvious and irrefutable benefit. The world beyond school is, of course, almost entirely co-ed. It seems strange, therefore, to argue that single-sex education is the right preparation for a society where nearly every aspect of adult life involves constant interaction with the other gender.
- Proximity – The best (and perhaps the only) way to really understand and empathize with a group of people is to spend significant amounts of time with them engaged in meaningful work. What our kids come to realize about each other by being educated in a co-ed community is that their hopes and their fears, their interests and their concerns, indeed the whole core of their inner lives, are far more alike than different across genders. They gain a real appreciation of the complexity that exists in people across the gender spectrum, rather than simply filling in with misconceptions and stereotypes the void left by segregation from that group.
- Academic Excellence – To the extent that the genders are different, the opportunity to have the full range of their qualities and experiences in one place is priceless. Consider how much richer any exploration of a topic is when it is informed by multiple viewpoints. Excluding one gender from these conversations impoverishes the dialogue and limits students’ ability to understand the material itself, as well as the ways in which that material is perceived and experienced by others. Some advocates of single-sex education say that boys and girls, especially as they move towards adolescence, become distracted by the opposite gender, causing them to lose their focus on their schoolwork. Or, they claim that one gender crowds out the other from active participation and leadership in the classroom. Frankly, I believe that these generalizations ignore the diversity of qualities and underestimate the strengths across gender identities. It also comes back, again, to the issue of preparation. If schools haven’t taught boys how to relate to girls – and vice versa – in academic settings, they haven’t really prepared them for success at the next level of their educations and beyond
If you had to choose, what has been the single greatest school achievement while you’ve been at Friends?
It’s tempting to answer a question like this by thinking about physical changes in the campus that have happened during my tenure, like our new Performing and Visual Arts Center or the construction of a new Dining Hall, or other improvements to the buildings and grounds. But, to tell the truth, I have been proudest of the honest and straightforward way in which we’ve wrestled with some of the vexing social issues of our time; race and class in our city and our nation; political polarization and the breakdown of civil discourse; inequity in all its forms. It’s hard to categorize our engagement with any of these issues as “achievements,” of course, because the issues themselves are and always will be works in progress. But what I hope can be said about Friends School is that we’ve committed ourselves to confronting these issues and that we are following through on this commitment in good faith. This requires an enormous amount of courage and a willingness to embrace discomfort, and those are qualities that I have always found to be in great supply at our school.
Where do you see Friends School of Baltimore in 5 years?
As I mentioned in a previous response, this question drove the development of our “Compass for the Future,” and we came to realize that to realize our greatest potential involves circling back to our very identity, as captured in our name.
Friends – In 5 years we will have continued to discern and live out what it means to be a Quaker school and how we can best convey that meaning to those who are unfamiliar with Friends. I am convinced that if more people fully understood the unique qualities of Friends School – the respectful and caring environment, the pervasive intellectual curiosity, the deep commitment to social justice, the exceptional quality of our teachers, the ability for students to chart a unique and personalized educational path, to name just a few – they would realize how transformative a Friends education could be for their children.
School – In 5 years, we will have articulated and moved towards the next evolution of what “school” (not just our school, but education itself) will need to be in the future in order to accommodate the challenges of the increasingly dynamic world our students will be living in. This is incredibly exciting to me, as I know that this process will bring about powerful innovations in how, where, and when education happens for our students.
Of Baltimore – In 5 years, we will be more fully of, in, with, and for Baltimore. More and more of our students’ learning experiences will take place in the community beyond our campus and alongside our fellow citizens of Baltimore. We have made great strides in this regard in recent years, through our pioneering University Partnerships Program, our Extradisciplinary Certificate Program and our powerful relationships in the Baltimore community. Over the next several years, we will deepen our existing connections to universities, cultural institutions, neighborhoods, and service organizations in every part of our city. The benefits of these partnerships will flow freely in both directions.
As an aside, we’ll also have a completely renovated Lower School facility that is designed around the kind of teaching and learning the future of education will demand.
What might surprise people about you?
I’m a triplet. That tends to surprise people.
If you had a free weekend (we know, not likely!) in Baltimore, how would you spend it?
With my family! A great day for me would involve both an activity we could all enjoy – like going to the Science Center – and some quiet time alone with a good book.
What was the last book you read? Would you recommend it?
Towards the end of the summer, I read Seward, Lincoln’s Indispensable Man by Walter Stahr, a biography of William Seward, Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State. It was very well-written and gave me some real insights into the circumstances and leading personalities before, during, and after the Civil War. It is somehow reassuring, at a time when we seem so polarized as a nation, to be reminded that we’ve struggled with even greater tensions throughout our history, and have endured and healed, however painfully and imperfectly. I would absolutely recommend it to anyone who is interested in American history or who is looking for a fresh lens on modern times.
Photos by Laura Black