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Tom Woelper of New England Innovation Academy: “The great empathetic listening movement”

I have ways to go with NEIA since the school will welcome its first students in September 2021. As a new school, NEIA will be free from the cultural inertia that often results in schools reverting to traditional educational means. The health, social, economic, and climate crises facing our world today expose our K-16 educational […]

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I have ways to go with NEIA since the school will welcome its first students in September 2021. As a new school, NEIA will be free from the cultural inertia that often results in schools reverting to traditional educational means. The health, social, economic, and climate crises facing our world today expose our K-16 educational system’s failings and present an opportunity for a paradigmatic shift. Parents who subconsciously, perhaps, sought school experiences for their children similar (and thus reassuring and safe) to their own have seen behind the veil during distance learning. They are now ready to explore new options.

Our goal is ambitious. NEIA wants to change the education model and, in doing so, be an exemplar for schools across the country and the world.


As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tom Woelper, Founding Head of School at New England Innovation Academy.

Tom has had a distinguished 31-year career in independent education, most recently serving as the Head of School of Far Hills Country Day School in New Jersey. Before his tenure at Far Hills, Tom served as the Assistant Head of School and Dean of Academic Life and taught history during his 14 years at The Hotchkiss School. Tom began his career in independent school education as a teaching intern at Groton School and then as a history teacher and Class Dean at The Taft School. Following a sabbatical year from Taft, Tom served as the Head of the Ake Panya International School in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Tom also has served on the Board of Trustees of the New Jersey Association of Independent Schools, where he co-chaired the Accreditation Committee.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

My friends in college knew I would be a lifelong teacher before I did. I always loved learning and working with kids and gravitated toward being a camp counselor and tour leader of student biking and hiking trips for summer jobs. Besides my parents, my teachers had the most extensive influence on my development, both academically and personally. That opportunity — to make a difference in students’ lives — is why I love what I do.

As I took on leadership positions — as a Class Dean at Taft School, Assistant Head of School & Dean of Academic Life at Hotchkiss School, and then Head of Far Hills Country Day School — I increasingly focused on how schools must prepare students for our rapidly changing world. And yet, despite disruptive technologies, the competing forces of globalism and tribalism, new demographics, and the changing nature of work, schools by large have not changed that much, remaining mired in the factory model education.

There needs to be a paradigmatic shift. Like the ones where I have worked, long-established schools have such strong cultural inertia, so change happens slowly, often around the edges. When I learned about the opportunity to be the Founding Head of New England Innovation Academy (NEIA), it was a dream come true. Here was a school that literally has Innovation as its middle name seeking not merely to prepare students for this rapidly changing world but also to change the paradigm of education.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

NEIA is taking a human-centered design approach to building our curriculum and program, which will teach our students human-centered design both as a process and mindset. Human-centered design starts with an empathetic understanding of the needs of the end-users — our students.

Most schools start with state or national standards or experts and do not consult students. Our goal is to help students discover their passion-driven purpose and move from idea to impact — this way, they will become the next generation of innovators. We will focus on real-world inclusion through projects with industry and community, career awareness and readiness, and global immersion. We will also focus on interdisciplinary, project-based learning that will culminate with students’ option to take the IB Diploma Programme or the IB Career Programme in grades 11 and 12. In addition to this academic preparedness, we will center on wellbeing, social-emotional learning, functional nutrition, outdoor skills, and life skills as a co-equal strand of our program. Our students will have true agency — voice and choice — so they pursue meaningful and relevant interests while at NEIA and over a lifetime.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

In 1999, I was appointed the Head of Ake Panya International School (now American Pacific School) in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Living as an expatriate and working at a young international school, I learned so much about my American parochialism. During hot-wet (monsoon) season, there are heavy downpours almost every afternoon. After a few weeks on the job, I walked down my tiled front steps with a coffee cup in one hand and books in the other, the morning after one of these downpours. I slipped and came within inches of cracking my head on the steps. I told this story to the school’s Founder, and a few days later, nine monks arrived to bless the house. The ritual consisted of chants during a soi sin ritual, making alms to the monks, sprinkling lustral water throughout our home, binding our home with a white string, and making a special white symbol at the front entrance. The ceremony was beautiful and soothing, and the house felt like home after that. I also never slipped on those stairs again — and I thought that holding the railing was the solution! I learned that it is important to suspend judgment and fully and freely give yourself to new experiences.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

When I was a student at Lawrenceville, my Housemaster and history teacher, Herman Besselink, was my first mentor — and indeed, I likely would not be a teacher if not for him. As a teacher, his passion for history was contagious. At Princeton, I majored in history and wrote my senior thesis on Abraham Lincoln, who, not surprisingly, was Herman’s favorite historical figure. Herman personified passion and taught me to pursue and share my own.

However, more than that was Herman’s belief in me, even when — especially when — I made mistakes. I was the president of my dorm and had the responsibility of checking in students on weeknights. One Friday night, a student slipped off campus to attend a nearby college party, and he called and asked me to check him in, which I did.

I remember waking up in the middle of the night to see Herman pull out of his driveway, and knew in that instant that something was wrong. The boy I had checked in created a ruckus and got arrested. The next morning I was confronted by my Housemaster and came clean. I was devastated. As tears ran down my cheeks, he said, “Tom, I do not like what you did, but I still believe in you.” Herman taught me to hate the sin but love the sinner. He taught me the power of forgiveness. I have carried this lesson with me ever since.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Disrupting an industry is good when it creates a new way of thinking or doing that empowers people and makes their lives better in a socially and environmentally responsible manner. For example, Encyclopedia Britannica, founded in 1768, had withstood the test of time as the go-to standard for knowledge until January 15, 2001, when Wikipedia began with its first edit. In a few years, this multilingual open-collaborative online encyclopedia created and maintained by a community of volunteer editors using a wiki-based editing system proved to be superior to Britannica, which relied on experts and professional editors, in terms of accuracy and authority, not to mention expense.

The algorithms that shape our preferences on social media and when consuming media are a disruption that cuts both ways. On the one hand, these algorithms anticipate our needs, making recommendations and suggestions before we ask. I have enjoyed many Netflix movies thanks to those recommendations. On the other hand, I worry that these algorithms are also stripping us of an element of our humanity, narrowing our interest, putting us in echo-chambers of like-minded people, and pushing us to extremes. The divisiveness that presently characterizes our society is a product in part, I believe, of those algorithms. They shape how we think in ways most do not realize. We must interrogate our assumptions and values, rather than to have them constantly reinforced.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

My wife and I were married in a quaker-styled ceremony where guests said a few words if so moved. A dear friend read Max Ehrmann’s “Desiderata,” which I have returned to throughout my life during times of trial, transition, and celebration. The poem grounds me. There are so many lines of wisdom, and this phrase — “And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should” — reminds me to embrace serendipity and focus on the moment rather than angst over the past or worry about the future. In a similar vein, I find great comfort, wisdom, and advice in the “Prayer for Serenity,” particularly the opening line: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

I have ways to go with NEIA since the school will welcome its first students in September 2021. As a new school, NEIA will be free from the cultural inertia that often results in schools reverting to traditional educational means. The health, social, economic, and climate crises facing our world today expose our K-16 educational system’s failings and present an opportunity for a paradigmatic shift. Parents who subconsciously, perhaps, sought school experiences for their children similar (and thus reassuring and safe) to their own have seen behind the veil during distance learning. They are now ready to explore new options.

Our goal is ambitious. NEIA wants to change the education model and, in doing so, be an exemplar for schools across the country and the world.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

I love TedTalks & Ted Radio Hour because of the vast library and range of topics. I keep learning. Sir Ken Robinson’s 2006 talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity” — the most viewed TedTalk in Ted.com history — was one of the first TedTalks that I watched and a provocation that led me to think about what school and education can and should be.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Gandhi’s well-known phrase — “Be the change that you wish to see in the world” — is echoed in NEIA’s mission statement. Perhaps this could be paired with the Dala Lama’s quote, “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.” We can make a difference — and we should not wait for others to do so. NEIA can make a difference not just in its students’ lives but in the field of education.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Given the divisiveness that currently characterizes our nation, I would want to inspire “the great empathetic listening movement,” where we would listen, without comment or judgment, to the hopes, dreams, and fears of others and rediscover our shared humanity.

How can our readers follow you online?

https://twitter.com/twoelper?lang=en
https://www.linkedin.com/in/j-thomas-woelper-a9009717/

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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