Head of School

Dr. John P.N. Austin

Dr. John P.N. Austin became Deerfield Academy’s 56th Head of School in July of 2019. Prior to Deerfield, Dr. Austin served as Headmaster at King’s Academy in Madaba, Jordan, and before that as Academic Dean at St. Andrew’s School in Middletown, Delaware, where he joined the faculty in 1987.

A graduate of Williams College, Dr. Austin holds a Master of Arts, Master of Philosophy, and Doctoral degrees in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University, along with a Master’s degree from the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College.

Dr. Austin is committed to creating and sustaining  vibrant educational communities that honor student initiative, creativity, and wellness; and to school cultures that foster supportive, caring relationships between adults and young people within a culture of respect, clear values, diversity, inclusion, and educational opportunity.

“The best schools—those, like Deerfield, that sustain excellence in learning and leadership—are confident in their ethos and values. They know who they are, and they build their culture outward from their defining strengths. They understand that one of their greatest resources is their mission, their distinctive history, and rootedness in a particular place. The best schools are also agile, open to change, and attentive to future opportunities. They resist complacency, they are global in outlook, and they embrace thoughtful, studied change relentlessly focused on the quality of the student learning experience.”

John P.N. Austin, Head of School

Recent and Past Remarks from our Head of School

Welcome, Deerfield families and friends. Faculty, staff, and students. Alumni and trustees. I extend a warm welcome to Hannah Pittard, Class of 1997, today’s Commencement speaker. As a longtime English teacher, I am excited to have a novelist and writer like Hannah join us today and share  her thoughts with the class of 2020.

We owe a debt of gratitude to our colleagues in the Student Life Office, Information Technology Services, the Academic Dean’s Office, Alumni Relations, Communications, and the Dean of the Faculty’s Office. They have performed a host of logistical and technical feats to create Deerfield’s first-ever virtual commencement. Thank you. I thank our faculty—for teaching with such creativity and resiliency and dedication—for the care they have exhibited to our students—and to one another—through these unexpected, uncertain and disorienting months.  And I thank our families and our parents for your support, your trust and, most of all, for sharing the lives of your children with us.  

Above all, I welcome and congratulate the remarkable, and Great, Class of 2020.

I knew that our journeys would be linked, with the 2019-2020 academic year being my first as Head of School at Deerfield and your last. It has led us here to this wonderful and in many ways improbable moment, Deerfield’s 221st Commencement, which, as you know, is as much a beginning as it is an end.

A year ago, I wrote a letter to you, the Class of 2020—my first official letter as Head of School—to share my excitement and offer some thoughts about the year ahead and your role as Deerfield seniors, knowing that other students would look to you as examples for how to live and learn here.

I asked you to connect with our new students and help them make Deerfield home. I also asked you to be true to your best self, and model that best self for younger students. I told you that, and I’m quoting myself here, “the shape and tone of this year will in many ways depend on you—on your leadership, judgement, and engagement.” That, of course, was the final draft of the letter I wrote. An earlier, and perhaps more honest, version read, “Dear Class of 2020—I write to you with great urgency.  I’m new, and I am in desperate need of your help and support. I can’t do this without you. Please don’t let me down.”

Every Head of School knows in his of her heart that the success of any given year—its very fate—hinges on the leadership and character of its seniors, that the real power in any school community rests not with the faculty but with its students—and its seniors—most of all, who every day across thousands of decisions and interactions create with one another the texture of our lives together here on campus. Every head of School begins the year, thinking, praying: Please. Don’t let us down.  

You have not. We ask a lot of you in ordinary times—let alone times like these. And even before we were overtaken by this virus, you were historic. You were the first class to hold a pride prom. You were the first to name a young woman Captain Deerfield. You led the way in securing a memorable and historic Choate Day. You sang your way to a Head of School day, imagining, à la John Lennon, no classes.

You have, as Brian Simmons, our Board President, wrote to our Trustees this spring, “shown grit, patience, flexibility and character” beyond your years. You have inspired and led in all ways.  You started out strong. You finished stronger—and over the course of the year you drew strength from one another as great classes are wont to do. You bore disappointment, your exile from campus, the loss of a senior spring and what for many was your final season of athletic competition with grace and cheerfulness and resiliency. When Deerfield shifted online, you did so effortlessly, embracing this new mode of learning with energy, curiosity and a sense of adventure. You stayed close and connected to one another. You saw a greater good—the need to prioritize community health—the health of your teachers, coaches, staff members, schoolmates, classmates, friends and families. You have been first in so many ways.

As a class, you will mark another first next June when you will return to campus for Deerfield’s first-ever—and I hope, last ever— one-year Reunion. Between now and then, even as you move forward in your lives, I hope you will will think about ways to bring the spirit that has given your class such strength, depth and distinctiveness to the greater world—to use your Deerfield education to contribute to the lives of those around you, to your communities, and to the great changes taking place here in the United States and abroad. You have the opportunity, if not the obligation, to be at the center of those changes.

In a certain way, you have been blessed with two senior years in one: one from September to March and a second from March to this very moment—demarcated, of course, by the COVID-19 pandemic and underscored by the ongoing struggle for equity and justice; for stronger and more democratic and inclusive institutions; and for a more humane, more caring and more loving society.

Congressman John Lewis, the great civil rights leader, who passed away in July, said “Freedom is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.”

“Each generation must do its part”—perhaps yours more than most. And that inspires me with hope and confidence for our future—and for Deerfield.  I could not be more proud of you. 

We look forward to seeing you in June 2021. Congratulations and Godspeed.   

Dear Deerfield Community:

It has been painful for me to read of the racism recounted in social media posts and in emails sent to me by our alumni and students, and it is clear that Deerfield can and will do more to create and sustain an inclusive and welcoming campus environment for all students, especially our Black students and other students of color. We stand with and by our students, employees, and alumni in our collective fight to eradicate racism.

I appreciate those of you who have come forward with passion and courage to share your stories and to challenge us to complete the work of creating a school culture that upholds and honors the dignity of each and every student. Your engagement, leadership, and constructive suggestions are both welcome and admirable. I deeply regret that for some of you, the Academy has not lived up to its aspirations, and I agree with you that we can do more, as one of you wrote, “to lead and defend a culture of love, empathy, and justice.”

The centerpiece of our Deerfield values is to foster citizenship “in a spirit of humility, empathy, and responsibility.” I have tried to approach my work in schools, both here and abroad, in that spirit of humility, knowing that there is always more to do and that our mission is never complete, even as we reach for it with all of our collective energy and imagination.

In 2016 the Academy’s Board of Trustees unanimously approved a Strategic Plan for Inclusion, and began to address some of the experiences so painfully described on social media platforms. The plan includes specific goals for the head of school and every senior administrator and their respective departments; it is a living document that may indeed be expanded based on what we have learned over the past four years and in recent weeks. It continues to provide sustained strategic vision and steady guidance as we work toward multiple goals—from addressing gender equity in sports to recruiting faculty of color—to ultimately making Deerfield a school that embraces all and allows each student to flourish and grow in confidence and character.

I am deeply grateful to our student leaders and faculty and staff who, over the last four years, have moved our work forward. Yet progress is no argument for complacency. Among the work to be done is setting new goals in the areas of: improving Deerfield’s climate and culture, and reviewing existing policies on conduct and citizenship (including disciplinary processes more closely aligned with our overall goals); teaching, learning, and curriculum; advancing staff and faculty recruitment and retention; establishing regular all-school forums on issues of civil and human rights that will sustain and deepen community inquiry and discussion; and enhancing access to the Academy through financial aid. Over the next weeks and months we will develop an inclusive process to shape this work and will draw on the creativity, experience, and wisdom of our extended community.

As you know, we have been working to put in place plans to reopen school in the fall, and in designing those plans we consulted widely—drawing on the wisdom of other educators and experts in multiple fields and exploring a range of approaches. (Those plans may be found here.) This model has served us well, and we intend to advance the Strategic Plan for Inclusion—as one student leader recently challenged me to do— with the same creativity, urgency, and intention that have informed and shaped our important—and essential—preparations for September. Our continued work demands thoughtful deliberation and broad consultation—including deepening and extending conversations within our community of students, parents, faculty and staff, trustees, and alumni—on issues of equality, justice, and equity.

I am committed to creating a culture at Deerfield where every student’s individuality and dignity is honored and celebrated, and where every student feels a powerful sense of belonging and agency. I will continue to encourage all members of our community to voice their concerns and perspectives, and I will listen and hear you. Thank you.

Dear Deerfield Community,

I write to you as tens of thousands of people across the country take to the streets to honor the lives of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, express outrage at their killing and, not for the first time in our history, demand change. We have been here before; their deaths reflect a long history of violence directed at Black Americans that reaches back many hundreds of years and that continues to find expression today. The pandemic that has killed over 100,000 Americans has compounded existing disparities of opportunity, reinforced longstanding patterns of racial inequality, and attacked—ferociously and disproportionally—communities of color.

To our students, families, and alumni of color: We stand with you against hatred, police violence, and racism in all its forms. We stand in solidarity with those across our cities and towns who speak for human dignity, civil rights, and peaceful protest. The brutal death of George Floyd—and the unspeakably disturbing video of his final moments—have left many of our students fearful of the very authorities responsible for their physical safety and security, despairing of their future, and, justifiably, in search of answers—and a better way.

On March 31, 1968 in the National Cathedral, at a moment of national crisis that is eerily similar to the one we now face, Dr. Martin Luther King, in one of his final sermons before his assassination, offered his theory of history: “The arc of the moral universe is long,” Dr. King said, drawing on the words of the 19th-century abolitionist Theodore Parker, “but it bends toward justice.”

In light of the past weeks, Dr. King’s words may seem unrealistically hopeful, perhaps even naïve. Dr. King was neither. He had deep knowledge of our country’s terrible history of racial violence, and he understood how injustice, unequal opportunity, and systemic disadvantage echo through time and persist into the present. Against these, he brought disciplined non-violence, strengthening our civic culture even as he fought for legislative and political reform. Repeatedly threatened and attacked, he understood the fear and insecurity that came with being Black in America, and he frankly admitted that his belief in a universe bending toward justice was a matter of faith—not a question of fact. But with that faith, Dr. King told his congregation that day, we can “hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”

A stone of hope. That is what I choose to share with you today. Even as we join the families of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd—and the families of all of those lost to racial violence and pandemic—in mourning and a struggle to make sense of these last weeks, let us keep faith. As our culture descends into acrimony and cynicism, let us keep faith with one another. Let us dedicate ourselves to dialogue and conversation so that we may learn to listen and hear the call of those who have been abandoned to poverty and invisibility. If our political institutions fail us, let us not retreat or disengage: Let us commit to reform, renewal, and democratic transformation. Let us, as Dr. King did, keep faith in the unrealized promise of equal justice and dignity for all. Most of all, let us work harder together, and do better; over the next few days, members of my senior team and the Academy’s faculty will be reaching out to our current students and families—in solidarity and action—as we strive to realize what Deerfield, at its best, stands for: an education that honors and loves each student with a full and open heart, and, through the lives of its graduates, seeks to redeem the world from injustice and hatred.

Faithfully, and with my best wishes for your health and safety,

School Meeting, January 8, 2020

Good morning Deerfield! It’s great for us to be together again. This morning, I wanted to offer some brief thoughts on the past months—and my hopes for the new year. One of the things I love about schools is that they are rich in beginnings: the opening of school in September; this, the new year—2020!—after we return from winter break; spring term, and Commencement, which marks the first chapter of the exciting journey our seniors will soon be taking.

The new year offers each of us—and all of us together—the opportunity to reflect and think anew; to reaffirm values and hopes; to set new goals for growth and to rededicate ourselves to longstanding ones. Not for nothing is the new year celebrated as a moment of resolution and renewal.

Over the past weeks, my media feed—like yours, I suspect—has been abuzz with news—much of it deeply unsettling. We have seen yet more shootings in churches and places of worship; ugly incidents of antisemitism and religiously and ideologically motivated hate crimes here in the US and across the world; rising conflict between Shia and Sunni; in size and intensity, historically unprecedented wildfires in Australia—perhaps more evidence of the declining state of our climate, the most important shared resource we possess.

I don’t like dwelling on bad news, since it risks reinforcing our media’s unfortunate, if highly profitable, bias for catastrophe. Thankfully, the news is not all bad, especially if you read—as I sometimes do—with a bias for optimism. Even as the world is beset by challenge and conflict, there are voices of resolution, reason, hope, and renewal. Here are a few:

Science magazine announced its “breakthroughs” of the year. If 2019 is any indication, the coming year stands to be one of continued discovery and progress; something that we, as students and aspiring scholars and scientists, should recognize and celebrate. Last year scientists saw further into the universe than ever before, capturing the first-ever image of a black hole. I’m not sure how you capture the image of an absence, but that’s what a team of radio astronomers in the Netherlands did. And our students from the Lone Star State will be glad to know that we have a new Texas Hold’em champion: an Artificial Intelligence program from Carnegie Mellon University that taught itself this multi-player version of poker by playing over one trillion hands against itself.

Last year, researchers and doctors developed successful treatments for Ebola, cystic fibrosis, and severe malnourishment. These are extraordinary advances in medical science that will likely save tens of thousands of lives. The human rights columnist for the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof, argued, (not without comment or disagreement, let it be noted) that the past year was “in the long arc of human history the best year ever.” “The bad things that you fret about are true,” he wrote. “But it’s also true that since modern humans emerged about 200,000 years ago, 2019 was probably the year in which children were least likely to die, adults were least likely to be illiterate, and people were least likely to suffer excruciating and disfiguring diseases.”

In his annual New Year message, Pope Francis spoke against violence directed at women and celebrated the heroism of mothers and parents who risk perilous journeys from poverty and conflict to escape persecution and provide their children a better future. He celebrated the feelings of empathy and care that bind us together; the only antidote—he argued, to what he called the “globalization of indifference”—even as he reflected on his own human failings and imperfection.

New—and older—voices have been heard, from athlete Megan Rapinoe to novelists such as Colson Whitehead and Margaret Atwood. Each have challenged us to think with greater nuance and complexity about gender and racial identity, history, and human rights. Reflecting on the fire that nearly destroyed Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, Greta Thunberg—that young woman of remarkable determination—asked the European Parliament “to act as if your house is on fire.” You may well disagree with her proposals to address climate change, but who can’t admire her call for what she has termed “cathedral thinking?” The idea that we should lift our eyes, enlarge our perspective, and think with ambition about the great issues facing the world. Sanna Marin—sworn in as the Prime Minister of Finland at age 35—thus becoming the world’s youngest national leader, was elected on the simplest of platforms: human dignity and opportunity for all.

In his annual report on the United States judiciary, the Chief Justice of the United States spoke of the “humility and integrity” required of judges, and of all public servants who wield great power. He wrote of the importance of civic literacy and education as a foundation for national renewal, and he generously celebrated the service of “teacher-judges” Sonia Sotomayor and Merrick Garland—colleagues with whom the Chief Justice often disagrees on points of constitutional interpretation.

On the occasion of the United Nations upcoming 75th anniversary, and looking to the next decade, Secretary General António Guterres took the opportunity of his New Year’s address to remind the world of the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals. I hope you will study these and heed the Secretary General’s call: “The world needs young people,” he wrote. “Keep thinking big.”

Yesterday I received an update from our friend, colleague, and teacher, Mr. Flaska, who helped organize and lead our boys’ hockey trip to Czechoslovakia and Slovakia and who is presently on sabbatical. He described to me their extraordinary visit to Auschwitz where, in his words, they “came face to face with an unthinkable human act.” At the end of that update, he quoted one of his own great teachers and mentors. “Now that you know,” this teacher asked after a similar visit, “what will you do with that knowledge?” It is a question for all of us. It speaks to the ultimate purpose of our time together here at Deerfield: connecting what we learn here to the kinds of lives we live as citizens now and in the future. It reminds us that with the gift of an education such as this one—and the future opportunities it affords—we have a responsibility to leverage for goodness. What will you do with what you know?

So, now—beginning today—I hope we can rededicate ourselves to teaching, learning, and exploration; to deep and sustained intellectual engagement; to living well together as a community and to celebrating our differences, united by our common values—especially caring for others. I hope that we can work together to think about what we can do to imbue each day, each class, and each of our interactions with one another with kindness, vibrancy, and joy.

Most of all, I hope that we can build on the spirit, energy, and creativity that have characterized the first half of the school year, and move through the winter term inspired by one another and the accomplishments of the past months. If there are setbacks, so be it. Let’s confront those with resilience, grace, and grit—and with the support of friends and adults.

The future is always uncertain, unknowable. But of one thing I am absolutely certain: It is a great moment to be a student and 2020 will be a great year of learning. Because of you. Thank you for all that you do to actively create the spirit and ethos of this school.

Good morning.  I am delighted to have this opportunity to welcome you to campus for our Fall Family Weekend.

I want to start by thanking you for entrusting your children to us and for allowing us to play such a meaningful role in their education and development. Deerfield is enriched every day by the voices, perspectives, and experiences that each of your children brings to this school. Their contributions to our campus community are what make Deerfield so dynamic and diverse.

I also want to thank you for the many ways you make the Deerfield Experience possible. Your time, input, concern, volunteer efforts, and support are evident throughout campus and enable us to carry out our mission.

I have approached these opening weeks as one of Deerfield’s newest students. For me, these have been weeks of learning and conversation: spending time with our students as they study, play, and come together during our school meetings and family style meals; meeting with faculty and staff; discovering the unique strengths of the Deerfield community. There is a strength of culture; a spirit and affection among the students, and a tradition of teaching and mentoring here that is unique in the American educational landscape.

I am happy to report that the school year is off to a wonderful start. We began the year with 655 students from 49 countries, and they have brought incredible energy, purpose, and joy to these first weeks. We have seen the opening of the D.S. Center for Health and Wellness. We have had four extraordinary all-school events: a presentation by Dr. Riche Barnes of Yale University, reflecting on our all-school read, Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing; a surprise visit from His Majesty King Abdullah II, who graduated from Deerfield in 1980—His Majesty offered a high-level briefing on the geo-politics of the Middle East, and he took questions from students; a powerful reading from National Book Award-winning novelist Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried, from his new book, reflecting on war and fatherhood and memory; and the presentation of the Heritage Award to Roberto Powers, Class of 1971, for his distinguished service and citizenship as a US diplomat and foreign service officer.

There is a lot more on both the near and distant horizon. Students may already be thinking about participating in a trip over the March vacation. These trips, and other experiential learning opportunities, are coordinated through our Center for Service and Global Citizenship. Listening to Mrs. Brown’s presentation on Wednesday about our diverse travel opportunities, I’ll admit that I was a bit envious, thinking what a fantastic thing it is to be a Deerfield student. There are domestic and international trips being planned—everything from an exploration of activism and leadership through the lens of the civil rights movement, which includes a trip to the American South, and international travel to Jordan, Tanzania, Costa Rica, France, and England, among other countries.

Closer to home and coming up soon is the fall production of Antigone, which begins its run on October 29 in Deerfield’s Black Box Theater. And Choate Day is on November 9. Students keep telling me to get ready, because the school spirit will shake the rafters. From what I’ve seen already, I believe them, and I’m excited to celebrate our nearly 100-year-old rivalry with Choate and cheer on our teams. I know some of you plan to trek back to Deerfield that day, which is great. For parents and alumni who won’t be here but would like to stay close to the action, we are livestreaming all five of our varsity contests.

When I started in the fall, my first letter was to the Class of 2020, knowing that we would have one year together. I wanted them to enjoy and savor their final year here and also remind them of their roles and responsibilities as leaders among the student body. They have shown a lot of character already, set fine examples, and have been kind and gracious to those younger students who look up to them.

In addition to time spent with faculty and students, I have greatly enjoyed meeting members of our alumni body—some recent, some as far back as the Class of 1943—and listening to their Deerfield stories. There is one thing I hear over and over, and it can be stated in a single sentence: Deerfield changed my life. And it did so with a force and intensity unequalled by the years of college and graduate school that followed. Deerfield was, for these graduates, transformative.

One graduate told me that he learned more in a single year of Deerfield than he did in four years at one of this nation’s great universities. Another told me that four years of Deerfield was the equivalent of eight years of college. Reflecting on his experience at Deerfield and the challenges he has faced since he ascended to the throne in 1999, His Majesty shared his belief that leadership is best expressed through service, commitment to others, and kindness to all—all of which, he told us, he experienced here.

These stories have confirmed what I believe is an essential, irrefutable truth: namely, the irreducible power of a secondary education—not as a means to an end—but as itself precious, defining, transformative; a place where our students discover capacities that support and enrich them throughout their life—what my friend and predecessor Dr. Curtis called ‘worthy ways of being.’

Our Student Life Office does an incredible job in so many areas, and for the past few years they have established a Student Life Symposium that encourages and instills a community-wide theme throughout campus. Our first theme was ‘Gratitude,’ followed last year by ‘Mindfulness,’ and for 2019-2020 the theme is ‘Habits of Humility.’ I want to quote from Amie Creagh, our Assistant Head of School for Student Life:

‘When we pause and are mindful of ourselves and our surroundings, we can appreciate and be grateful for the good fortune that has brought us together. A focus on the Habits of Humility encourages us to be aware of the important role we all play in the creation of this healthy, happy, school community. It is not created by one person alone; it is more than one act alone. Rather, Deerfield is the accumulation of all of us and the small decisions we make each day.’

All of us here on campus—faculty, staff, students—are encouraged to weave this theme into our classrooms, work, and lives.

One of the challenges—and strengths—of a place like Deerfield, and this certainly applies to our incredible teachers, is that we must be focused and intentional about the day-to-day needs of the students while simultaneously looking ahead. Our faculty members do this very well because they teach, mentor, coach, and, in most cases, live alongside students, which gives them invaluable insight, allowing them to adjust classroom instruction on the fly or find ways to encourage and inspire each student depending on that student’s individual needs. This is among the great advantages of a close-knit residential community like Deerfield, where we encounter one another in many ways throughout a given day.

At its best, a Deerfield education creates the conditions where young people discover their best selves—selves of deep character and strength that stand the test of time and experience—not simply the challenges of college, as our graduates can attest, but the challenges of adulthood as they embark on careers; seek to align their own interests and passions with meaningful work in the world; create their own families; and seek to live a life of purpose and integrity.

This approach to education takes the long view: it sees high school as the defining, formative moment in a young person’s journey towards a fulfilling, interesting, joyful, and meaningful life. That, ultimately, is what Deerfield Headmaster Frank Boyden meant when he said: ‘The test of worth of any school is . . . the record of service of her alumni.’

His words, more relevant today than they were 50 years ago, reflect broader shifts in the educational landscape: from mere ‘achievement’ to the pursuit of enduring forms of excellence; from strategic, transactional learning to deep learning driven by wonder and curiosity; from the short-term goal of meritocratic advancement to a broader inquiry into the contours of a life well-lived.

Deerfield has always placed character, values, and life-long learning first—even as the broader culture has narrowed its vision of what a great school can do.

Not long after my first conversation with the Deerfield’s President of the Board of Trustees, Brian Simmons, in the summer of 2018, he shared with me Deerfield’s six core values. You may be familiar with these, but let me read them to you:

  • Citizenship in a spirit of humility, empathy, and responsibility;
  • Face-to-face interactions characterized by joy and generosity of spirit;
  • Connectedness to our unique setting and the contemporary world;
  • Reflection and balance, promoting intellectual vitality and self-understanding;
  • Pursuit of mastery built on a foundation of breadth and versatility; and,
  • Shared experiences, large and small, as sources of relationships, identity, and community.

This brief list provides a fortifying, aspirational language for learning, teaching, and education for the 21st century that is distinctly Deerfield: mastery, citizenship, joy, empathy, generosity, community, connectedness—and perhaps my favorite—intellectual vitality. These values offer us a powerful framework for conversation, and ways for you to think about the meetings you will have with faculty this weekend—as well as the longer-term hopes and aspirations we all have for our children.

It is not a surprise that three of our core values speak to a powerful and defining human dimension of education—its essential relational character: ‘connectedness,’ the ‘shared experience’ of community, and ‘face-to-face interactions’ in the spirit of generosity and kindness.

Deerfield practices ‘connectedness’ with intentionality throughout our program, and this suggests a number of questions that we—and you, as parents—might ask when meeting with faculty. No need to write these questions down or memorize them, but perhaps let them inform and guide your discussions.

  • Are my children developing open, trusting, positive, and supportive relationships with their teachers, advisors, coaches and dorm parents?
  • Are they comfortable working and collaborating with other students and working in teams?
  • Are their interactions with adults and peers positive, supportive, and kind?
  • Do they recognize and express kindness and gratitude to staff, to teachers, to you—their parents?
  • Are they taking advantage of the tremendous diversity of the Academy and extending themselves outward, beyond their core group, to include others?
  • Are they resisting the allure of exclusionary peer groups?
  • Are they seeking out new opportunities for engagement?
  • Are they taking advantage of the many opportunities the Academy offers, and have they made a positive commitment to making the community stronger and more vibrant?

We know that the kind of learning that matters most unfolds slowly over time, certainly more slowly than we, as parents, would sometimes like, sometimes unpredictably, and rarely in a linear way. Much recent research suggests that it is ‘mindsets’—habits and aptitudes that endure after we have forgotten much of what we learn in school—that matter most. That is why we speak of the values of ‘mastery’ and ‘reflection’ as guiding values. These too suggest important questions:

  • Does my child see learning as a process that happens through practice, revision, and trial and error?
  • Do they embrace discomfort, difficulty, and setback as a source of learning?
  • Can I see evidence of a growth-mindset—the belief that effort, practice, and hard work, rather than innate intelligence, is the key to performance and success?
  • Do our children take joy in learning and pursue it for its own sake?
  • Are they developing what our Academic Dean Ivory Hills has beautifully described as a ‘practitioner’s mindset?’ Are they learning to think in a disciplined, present way—as a scientist, a historian, an artist, and a scholar (a very different thing than when you simply learn subject area content)?
  • Is my child developing a robust sense of self-confidence, habits of self-management, and appropriate levels of independence and self-direction?
  • Are they practicing healthy habits of self-care in the areas of nutrition, sleep, and exercise?
  • How are they balancing fun, friendship, and study?
  • Is my child managing their screen-time—or is it managing them?
  • Are they developing that most Socratic capacity: knowledge of self? Do they express an understanding of their strengths and interests?
  • Can they assess their own performance and set goals for future improvement?
  • Is my child developing the capacity to be moved? By their connections to friends and peers? By reasoned argument? By the poetic power of language? Are they receptive to beauty and open to wonder?

A ninth-grade student recently told me that they had been reading Walt Whitman’s ‘When I Heard the Learned Astronomer’ in English class—a poem I discovered as a student in high school and often teach. This short poem has a voice worth heeding—with its skepticism of easy measurement and the way the speaker embraces wonder, mystery, and first-hand experience as ultimate sources of learning. Here it is:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars. 

As we think about the educational journey of our children, let us, like Whitman, enlarge our perspective on what it means to be educated, let us have patience, and let us remember that the most enduring qualities of mind and character we hope to impart to them take time. Most of all, let us have faith—absolute and uncompromising faith—in the promise of our children and in Deerfield to help realize and foster that promise.

I wish you a great weekend with your children.

Thank you.

Dear Students and Families,

As we look with anticipation to the coming school year, I extend to each of you the warmest of welcomes. I am incredibly excited for the fall, and I am looking forward to meeting you in just a couple of weeks.

If you are new to Deerfield (as I am!) rest assured: You will find here a community that is warm, embracing, and caring. We are ready to help you settle in, make new friends, and model Deerfield at its best—and the faculty and staff have been preparing for your arrival with purpose and energy throughout the summer.

I arrived on campus in early July. As the oldest member of the Class of 2023, I have spent the past weeks learning as much as I can about Deerfield: reading everything I can about its history, walking the campus and the outlying fields, taking in the extraordinary beauty of the valley and swimming in the River, working in the library and enjoying the warmth, conversation, and generosity of my new colleagues.

One of the things I have been struck by in my conversations with staff and faculty is the great pride they take in Deerfield and in you. Deerfield is unique in American education, and its greatest source of strength is perhaps its least tangible: an ennobling belief in the transformative potential of a residential school committed to the highest values of character and excellence.

At Deerfield, we are called upon to “act with respect, honesty, and concern for others and to inspire the same values in our community and beyond.” Together, we honor diversity and the essential uniqueness of each and every student, even as we seek to create a sense of shared experience, purpose, and unity.

These values have long defined the Academy. I believe they are more relevant, more consequential, and more important to the world than ever before. So I am fortunate, humbled, and proud to have the opportunity to partner with all of you as we work to realize Deerfield’s potential—and yours.

I wish you all the best for the remaining days of summer—and a year rich in learning, challenge, friendship, and joy. I will see you on campus soon, and I look forward to what I know will be an amazing year.

We gather today to mark the beginning of a new school year, to honor all of those who have come before us and made the opportunity of this school possible, and to celebrate the promise of Deerfield.

As it is the beginning of school, I thought I would begin my remarks by taking us to the Boyden Library. I’ve spent some early mornings there recently, preparing for the school year, and it’s fast becoming one of my favorite spots. I sit in the reading room to the side at a small table, under the watchful portrait of Mrs. Boyden.

As many of you know, Mrs. Boyden was one of Deerfield’s most admired and longest serving members of the faculty, having perhaps the longest tenure of any teacher in independent school history—an extraordinary 63 years.

Each morning I walk by her portrait, and each time, Mrs. Boyden’s eyes—direct and expectant—catch my own; as I move, so too do hers. And not simply her eyes. Her entire person and attitude seem, strangely, to shift and pivot as I pass. Wherever I step, her eyes follow. It’s both unnerving—’Be careful, young man,’ she seems to say—and reassuring.

That illusion of animation, that shift of her posture—the way she seems to turn toward me—captures something essential about Mrs. Boyden, something enduring about the art of teaching—the attitude of great teachers and what Deerfield teachers have always done.

‘A teacher never teaches,’ she once wrote.

Does that strike anyone here as odd?

‘A teacher never teaches.’

That can’t possibly be true.

We know from her students that Mrs. Boyden was not just a great teacher, but a transformative one. And what, after all, is a teacher supposed to doexcept teach?

But let me complete her thought. ‘A teacher never teaches,’ Mrs. Boyden writes, ‘All she can do is direct you so that you might learn.’

This is most striking, most wise—and worth considering.

Some history: Mrs. Boyden began her career in the early years of a new century, at a moment when the world was changing—in ways that are not unlike today. Across the globe, great migrations were underway—from farms to cities, from the east to the west, and to the shores of this country. The economy lurched amidst technological transformation and disruption. Stirrings of a broader civil rights movement were underway as immigrants, women, and African-Americans stood up, demanding to be heard—testing our democratic institutions. The population swelled, particularly the population of young people, and new schools—larger in scale, impersonal in character—emerged to accommodate these changes. These new schools prized efficiency, and in form resembled the industrial structures they were intended to serve. Teaching, in these schools, was largely didactic, rote, and authoritarian.

At the same time, a new vanguard of educators and scholars like William James, John Dewey, and W.E.B. Du Bois emerged to challenge this pinched, narrow view of education, insisting that learning is a quest for self-discovery and mastery—and that schooling should be directed to the full flourishing of human potential, freedom, and autonomy.

Enter Mrs. Boyden, who, even though she may not have read these scholars herself, somehow seems to have breathed in—and given life to—the spirit of their ideas.

To her, education was not a commodity or a transaction—nor was it meant to be a servant of the new industrial order. It was a gift: something offered by a teacher and graciously accepted—and returned in kind—by the student. She envisioned teaching as a dynamic, creative relationship between teacher and learner—an inspired collaboration.

There is, however—for you, our students—a catch: no matter how skilled and committed your teacher may be, there is no guarantee that you will learn. That is the arresting paradox at the core of Mrs. Boyden’s philosophy. A teacher, remember, never teaches; a teacher directs.

Mrs. Boyden says to her students—as we say to you each year: The responsibility to learn is yours. You make your education. You give it shape and animating force. And in the end, the performance is entirely your own. Learning is nothing if not participatory. This explains the expectation I see in Mrs. Boyden’s eyes. It is the expectation that we will be attentive, alert, engaged, active, and creative in pursuit of learning.

This view of education is demanding, challenging, yes, but also empowering; it honors—it absolutely requires—your individuality, your voice, your energy, and your imagination.

That was the progressive, empowering turn in Mrs. Boyden’s philosophy. In this way, she was a pioneer, an innovator—even, in her day, a radical. This was Mrs. Boyden’s great contribution to Deerfield, to us, her fellow teachers, and, to you, our students.

In contrast, it is well known—even notorious—that Mr. Boyden had little interest in classroom instruction. Here is how the great writer and Deerfield graduate John McPhee describes Mr. Boyden’s 1902 science class in the exacting discipline of physical geography: “He used to take a rock into class with him, set it on his desk, and tell his students to write everything they could about the rock.”

I could be wrong, but I suspect that this is no longer a recommended instructional practice at the Academy.

Mr. Boyden seems the very opposite of his wife, yet he was no less radical, and what he did in his own sphere—our school meetings and sit-down meals, the many shared experiences that fuel Deerfield’s unique and powerful spirit—was marked by genius, and it was every bit as innovative as Mrs. Boyden.

His view of learning was founded on the primacy and importance of human relationships. To him, learning was experiential. It happens across the full range of school settings and, most importantly, by our immersion within community—a community where we have defining obligations to one another, where friendships are deep and enduring and full of joy. To Mr. Boyden, learning derives from what we do together—and by what we do with and for others.

That is why Mr. Boyden embraced the village and town of Deerfield as an essential part of the Academy. That is why he welcomed to Deerfield students who were shunned at other schools—often for reasons of religion and ethnicity. That’s why he pioneered affordability long before it was a common practice, famously asking families to simply ‘pay what you can.’ He understood, intuitively, the power of a diverse student body to deepen learning, and he anticipated the intellectual and social benefits of an inclusive community, albeit in a way that was necessarily circumscribed by the time in which he lived.

The importance of connection and community is manifest everywhere in the Deerfield of today. Steadily and with intention, those who succeeded the Boydens took inspiration from their spirit of innovation, deepening existing commitments and building outward from them to pioneer new initiatives. These leaders—leaders like Mr. Kaufmann and Dr. Widmer, who are here with us today, and my friend and predecessor Dr. Curtis—pushed Deerfield to embrace coeducation; they championed the arts, global experience and learning, and more purposeful forms of civic engagement and service. Together they secured the resources necessary to extend and expand the financial access that Mr. Boyden pioneered and prized. These are extraordinary accomplishments—ones that will echo into the future and touch generations to come.

The Boydens understood the kind of school that was needed for their times; we must discover anew, together, the kind of Deerfield that is needed for ours.

We live during a particularly challenging moment for schools, one marked by a hostility to long-standing educational values, a skepticism about the worth of the intellectual life, and a mounting distrust of institutions of learning. It is all too common to hear science, scholarship, and expertise dismissed. Our public discourse is sometimes marked by an intolerance for complexity, the expression of uncertainty or nuance. Each of these trends is deepened by the balkanization of our civic life, economic stratification, xenophobia, and a corrosive suspicion of others. All too often, invective substitutes for dialogue, drowning critical reflection, collaboration, and compromise—in my view, the only resources we possess for solving the urgent problems facing us.

What is one school to do in the face of such challenges? How are we to meet them?

We meet them by remembering the powerful relationship between learning and citizenship. As an expression of a young country’s most noble civic ideals, Deerfield was founded in 1797 on the idea—again, entirely new for its day—that there is a powerful relationship between what students do in school and how they express citizenship and service in the future. We must stay true to that great experiment.

We meet these challenges through our continued commitment to access and affordability—ensuring that we are ready to enroll students from across this valley, this nation, and the world—now and in the future, knowing that our greatest educational resource is a dynamic, diverse, creative student body.

We meet these challenges by insisting on the unique and irreducible power of secondary education—not as a means to an end and not as mere preparation—but in itself precious and defining—and by recognizing that the years of high school are, at their best, years of wonder and formation, where the contours of character and judgement are indelibly defined and where the sustaining habits of curiosity, creativity, and joyful exploration come to life.

We meet these challenges as Deerfield has always met—by empowering our students to discover their best selves, to lead, and to actively shape a school culture that is kind and inclusive—one that stands as an inspiring rebuke to the small-mindedness and pettiness that sometimes characterize our public life.

We affirm the scholarly virtues of thoughtfulness—by asking questions, by thinking well and carefully, by listening actively and deeply, by reading—critically, appreciatively, attentively—by opening ourselves up to new and divergent points of view.

To meet the challenges and opportunities of a future we cannot predict or fully anticipate, we must seek to renew and invigorate the liberal arts as a lasting source of wisdom. We must seek to open a dialogue with the world; engage deeply with those mission-minded colleges and organizations that share our educational aspirations; and test our own ambitions against the experience of our alumni and those who understand the challenges that await our students so that our graduates are ready and fully prepared for the future. We must have the courage and the openness to recognize that there is always more to learn—even for a school as remarkable, distinctive, and strong as Deerfield.

In her portrait, Mrs. Boyden stands in front of John Williams house, a deep blue plaid overcoat draped across her shoulders. She is framed by two flowers. They are in bloom; perhaps it is spring. She holds in her clasped hands—the very center of the portrait—what appear to be some student papers and a class roster. I imagine that she is on her way to class, as we are, in a certain way, today.

I have been fortunate to have had many Mrs. Boydens in my life. In those generous and expectant eyes, I see a bit of my own mother, my first and most formidable teacher, a lot of my wife, Ms. Matouk, and something of all of the teachers who have made a difference to me, some of whom are here today—Mr. Stegeman, Mr. Speers, Mr. and Mrs. Roach.

Mr. Taylor, Ms. Lapachinski, Kareena, Irvin—thank you for your warm welcome. Tad—thank you for your kind words, but most of all for your example and friendship, and thanks to my entire St. Andrew’s family for being here. Mrs. O’Brien—thank you, those many years ago, for taking a chance on a very unprepared, semi-literate 13- year-old. Thank you to my family for their love and support.

I thank and I recognize all of the educators, from the valley and beyond, for joining us today in this celebration of the Academy and for your work with children and your service to our schools and colleges.

Thank you, Brian, for that generous introduction. Along with Brian, I want to thank the search committee, and the entire Board of Trustees for the trust, responsibility, and confidence that you have placed in me. Your dedication to this school and your tireless service inspire me—and all of us.

The values of Deerfield—its expansive vision of what a school can be—are not only essential and necessary—they are enduring. Let us preserve, extend, and deepen those values; let us seek renewal in the spirit of those who have come before; and let us do this together, and with strength of purpose, so that we may be worthy of this remarkable school.

I wish all of us a great year of learning. Thank you.

Staff

  1. Austin, John

    Head of School
  2. Carney, Joanne

    Academy Receptionist
  3. Matouk, Monica

    Spouse of Head of School
  4. Merrigan, Martina

    Academy Receptionist
  5. O'Donnell, Judie

    Special Assistant to Head of School

Frequently Asked Questions

Head of School Dr. John Austin’s office is located on the first floor of the Main School Building, in “the bubble” behind the fireplace in the lobby.

Deerfield’s Head of School is Dr. John P.N. Austin, who was appointed in July 2019.

Contact the Head of School

headofschool@deerfield.edu
413-774-1425

Main School Building
Mon–Fri, 8:30am–4pm 

Head of School
PO Box 68
Deerfield, MA 01342