Sally (Warner) Read ’08 wastes no time. Two months after graduation from Kalamazoo College she began taking doctoral classes in education at Michigan State University. And in seven short years she she’s landed her dream job as head of the Kazoo School, a private, independent, progressive school less than two miles from K.
“It’s all been a whirlwind, and I have a lot of learning to do as I figure things out,” said Sally.
Like many first-year K students, Sally was open to many post-graduate possibilities. She did know that she loved children and wanted to change the world. During a pre-admission visit to K, she sat in on her sister’s (Becky Warner ’04) developmental psychology class and knew that she wanted to major in that field.
During her first quarter she became a self-described “Dr. [Siu-Lan] Tan [Professor of Psychology] groupie” and signed up to be a teaching assistant for her, which she did throughout her four years at K. Sally particularly enjoyed the co-authorship program at the Woodward School where K students help the children write and illustrate fictional stories.
“I loved Dr. Tan’s class, even though I was a little scared of her,” said Sally. “She really challenged me to do better and to think more deeply than I ever had before.”
Sally’s Senior Individualized Project occurred at the University of Texas (Dallas) where she conducted research on social aggression for the Friendship Project, a longitudinal research project about aggression among children. Sally analyzed the Project’s data bases to discover how gender differences affected the children’s self-reports of social and physical victimization. Going to Dallas was also an opportunity to be with her boyfriend and future husband, Courtney Read ’06.
Near the end of her K experience Sally decided that a career in education made sense for her, and she applied for and was accepted into a Ph.D. program in teacher education at Michigan State University. At age 21 she was the youngest, most inexperienced student in the program, a fact that didn’t intimidate her at all. If anything, graduate school solidified her tendency toward fearlessness (well cultivated at K) and her passion for learning. Both have served her well in her new job.
During doctoral studies Sally was influenced by two progressive educators whose ideas have become cornerstones for her research and for her work at the Kazoo School. John Dewey (1859-1952) was a philosopher and psychologist who advocated for an education based on democratic principles that would prepare young people to be productive, responsible members of a democratic society. Alfie Kohn (1957- ) advocates the viewpoint that education is effective when the learner actively makes meaning as opposed to absorbing information. Knowledge, argues Kohn, should be taught “in a context and for a purpose.”
For her dissertation Sally interviewed and observed third grade students at the Kazoo School who were working on an election year project. She also followed kindergartners as they learned mathematics through the symmetry and patterns of nature at the nearby Kleinstuck Nature Preserve.
“I immediately fell in love with Kazoo School,” said Sally. “Progressive schools often get a bad name for being laissez-faire. My research focused on seeing what progressive education looks like in a real, 21st-century school. I wanted to know how teachers find meaning in their work when they are given the autonomy to teach and learn without the use of a standardized test.”
Sally’s first job after receiving her doctorate was at the Eton Academy in Birmingham, Michigan, an alternative school that specializes in working with students who have learning disabilities. She liked the experience and planned to stay at Eton to teach Spanish. Destiny intervened. Sally received a call from the former Kazoo School board chairperson who invited her to become the interim head of school (for the 2014-15 academic year) and to apply for the permanent position.
At first Sally declined.
“What do you do if you’re 27, and you’re offered your dream job?” said Sally. “I didn’t feel ready for it.”
Then she did a lot of soul searching and sought out the advice of her mentors. She concluded that she would regret missing this opportunity if she didn’t apply.
“I lived and breathed Kazoo School during my dissertation, and I liked it,” said Sally. “It was really what I was looking for in a school: small classes; children’s art everywhere; a spirit of collaboration among students, teachers and parents; and, of course, a vision of the school that I believed in.”
Kazoo School has 96 children in grades pre-kindergarten to eighth grade and it employs 18 full- and part-time teachers. Since 1972 the school has focused on challenging and nurturing children to become independent thinkers and lifelong learners in an environment that seeks academic excellence, social responsibility, and respect for others.
One of Sally’s favorite things to do at school is to interact with the students. She leads school assemblies on Friday mornings and talks with students in the halls. She also sees students at work when she visits classrooms to evaluate teachers. While most teachers fret over evaluations, Kazoo School teachers are comfortable with having Sally come to their classes. They know she misses being with the children, and that takes the edge off her official business.
“The children here are so awesome,” she said. “I take as many opportunities as I can to visit their classrooms and interact with them. The pre-kindergarteners are especially excited to see me. They call me ‘Dr. Sally.’”
Sally enjoys meeting with the children for another reason.
“It’s interesting to see how much they have changed and grown from the few short years ago when I was doing research here,” she said. “I can’t wait to see what they’ll look like a few years from now.
Although the new job has been exciting, Sally admits it hasn’t been easy. In her first month, the office assistant left. A short time later she hired a new business manager. One fine fall day she had a flood in the school basement that began on Friday at 4 P.M. Late in her first fall she had to call an early snow day. Sally got through it all—and she conducted her first fund-raising campaign.
The school had not done a big annual fund drive before, but Sally decided to try it. The results? More than $100,000 and an 80 percent parent participation rate, both significant increases from previous years. The key to her success?
“Follow-up, a great team of parent volunteers, and, more follow-up, with a personal touch,” she said. “I learned a lot about the culture of giving from my time at K.”
Although Sally’s academic background isn’t specifically in educational administration, she has turned out to be a natural leader who uses a collaborative approach with her parents, teachers, and the school’s board of directors. This style has worked well for her at a school where only two teachers are younger than she is.
“There are so many decisions to make all the time, which can be tiring,” she said. “I have been strategic in how I’ve chosen to approach it.”
Sally promised teachers she wanted to make everyone successful by drawing on everyone’s expertise rather than telling people what to do. She set up a shared file of expertise on Google Docs. And she readily consults with teachers whose long experience (15 to 20 years) at Kazoo School has given them deep institutional knowledge of the place.
Sally’s journey has combined vision, hard work, mentoring, and the execution of a plan. It all just happened quicker than she anticipated. Last May, the board of Kazoo School named Sally permanent Head of School.