On July 1, 2016, Malcolm Lester began his tenure as Head of School. We sat down with him to discuss his new role, his hobbies and, of course, NPS!
What drew you to National Presbyterian School?
I was attracted to NPS by the reputation of the school and the people I've known for the past 25 years who have been connected to NPS. Early in my career at St. Albans, I became aware of the school through the NPS alumni I taught and coached. Also, having worked alongside Jim Neill in the 1990s, I was compelled by the opportunity to continue all of the stellar work he did here. The strong connection with National Presbyterian Church was also a draw.
You've been on the job about 6 months now — has anything surprised you yet?
People are incredibly nice and warm here, and I had heard that—that was my sense—but it's different when you are on the outside. When you experience it first-hand—the love, the warmth, the community—it's really something else. So it may seem odd to say that I was surprised by this, but I was.
What is your main goal for your first year?
Truly, it's to learn the culture of the school. I think that there can be a societal impatience when there is new leadership. People are excited for change, and want the person to hit the ground running. You do, but that can lead to rash, precipitous decisions, and I don't want to do that. So, my main goal is learning who the people are, learning about them, and learning and understanding the culture as well as I possibly can. I don't want to assume that because I live nearby and have known about NPS for a long time that I know it inside and out. There is a lot to learn!
You've been in independent schools in the Washington, DC, area for a more than a quarter of a century. What has changed the most in that time?
When I started at St. Albans in 1991, there was no email or Internet. That, of course, has changed communication. In some ways it has enhanced it, and in some ways it's taken away from it. Regardless, that is a marked difference. People are more easily accessible, which can be a strength and a drawback. But I also think about the students at NPS and how this technological growth provides them with different learning opportunities, such as allowing them to communicate with people all over the world. A lot happens in a quarter of a century, and I look forward to continued enhancement and change at both NPS and in society at large.
What do you see as a critical focus for independent schools in the next quarter century?
American society is diversifying a great deal. Independent schools nationwide are serving a more diverse clientele. Schools need to try to mimic that diversity in their community - in their faculty and staff, on their administration, on their Boards of Trustees, in their student body. And to be prepared to support diverse populations, including students who may reflect what I would characterize as academic diversity. Years ago, independent schools may have had a reputation or a perception of elitism. In order to stay sustainable and relevant, schools need to shed that label—and have.
Thinking back to your own elementary school experience, do you have a favorite memory or teacher that you want to share?
There were some teachers who I really felt cared about me and loved me. As a kid I liked reading and writing and I liked sports, and I had teachers who didn't try to put me into one of those boxes. They celebrated both the cerebral and athletic sides of me. In 5th and 6th Grade, I had the same teacher, Mr. Wallace. He would always play football at recess with us. He had a boyish side, but he knew how to get down to business. He was a bit like what I have seen from some teachers here: firm, but also fun and playful. He was a transformational figure for not only me, but also hundreds, if not thousands, of students at Fort River Elementary School in Amherst, Massachusetts during his teaching career.
Did you always want to be a teacher?
I grew up in a family of educators. Sometimes you don't want to do what your parents and grandparents have done, but it's in your blood and you can't escape it. My mom was an early childhood educator and when I was young she ran a daycare center in our house, so that was always around me. My dad is a writer and college professor, and my grandmother was a preschool director. So those were the vocational models that I saw. When I was in graduate school, it dawned on me with greater clarity that teaching presented an opportunity to both be in the classroom as an English teacher and to coach.
As an English teacher, what was your favorite book or subject to teach?
The Great Gatsby. I loved teaching The Great Gatsby. During the Gatsby unit, we took a field trip to the cemetery in Rockville where F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda are buried. That may seem unusual, but we read excerpts of his writing at the gravesite and paid our respects.
What do you miss about the classroom?
I'm fortunate to work with young people and to have my office in a location where I am surrounded by children. I get to interact with them all day, so I still get to experience the best parts about being in the classroom. Teaching in many ways is about relationships, and those relationships with students—and colleagues—still exists here, so I don't feel that I am missing out.
You like to run incredibly long distances. How do the skills you need for that level of activity relate to your role as Head of School?
As a Head of School, you need to have stamina. The days are very diverse — there could be eight different activities in a day. Mentally, running keeps me sane and it's my escape. I am an extroverted person and I like being around people; I get energy from them. But it's also nice on the weekends to get out for a 2 hour run by myself. I receive energy from that and being out in nature. It's a mental and spiritual boost. And it's a challenge as well. Some of the ultramarathon races that I do, there is a chance I might not finish. And I like that. It's a way for me to compete, not against anyone else, but against myself. I like the challenge.
Do you consider yourself a nerd, and, if so, what do you consider your nerdiest pastime?
I do and I take that as a compliment. I might go to a sporting event, like a Nationals' game or Caps' game, and bring a book. One of my sons will elbow me and give me a hard time about it.
That sounds pretty nerdy to me! What are you reading right now?
I'm reading a book (Executive Assistant to the Head of School) Margie Topf got me for my birthday called The Legends Club by John Feinstein about Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano and Dean Smith. All are great college basketball coaches, who are, above all, teachers, educators, and leaders.
Tell me something that we don't know about you yet.
I loved babysitting as a kid. My sister is two years older and families in the neighborhood would often ask my parents if she could babysit their children. My parents would say, "Malcolm is the one you really want to ask! He enjoys children and is good with them."
Your office contains a growing number of artifacts, both from NPS and your personal history. Tell us about one that's particularly significant.
This is a teddy bear named "Teddy Junior." He was mine when I was a child, probably since I was about 4 years old. And he's had a lot of love and operations—my mom sewed him up a lot. I don't know who Teddy Senior was or why this one is Teddy Junior. But he has survived many moves, decades, and operations. What's also funny is that I now have a child named Teddy. He's not named after the bear.
One last question. Dunk tank or hot dog suit?
This interview appeared in the 2016 edition of the NPS Cardinal & Annual Report publication.