Kari Ostrem, Head of School Elect, spoke with new incoming students recently, and shared a personal anecdote about a formative school experience. One particular teacher shaped her understanding of how important it is to create a sense of belonging in school. You can listen to or read her remarks below. 

I’m really pleased to be here as the seventh head of Riverdale Country School. I am excited for this journey, and I hope you all are excited for the next journey of your lives as well.

What attracted me to this place is this question that Dominic has relentlessly pursued with this faculty, “How do we help students thrive?” What an inspirational question!

And so I want you to think as I talk in the next couple of minutes. How do you want to feel when you leave high school? What do you want that feeling to be when you walk across that stage in four years?

This faculty is an amazing faculty. The students are an amazing set of students who really want to welcome you to this community. The teachers want to get to know you for all of your values, your hopes, your dreams, your passions, your struggles, your ideas, and every part of your identity that informs those, and ultimately support you in becoming able to make the world a better place by asking the question,

How do we give you the skills, the confidence, and the joy to make this world a better place? How do we help kids thrive?’ It’s such an inspirational question.

So I want to tell a story today about thriving. About my first grade teacher, Roxann Henken. I grew up in Northern Illinois, in a small town, and I remember walking into our school and going to classroom 1B, and when I walked in, I saw this tall, thin, jet-black, long-haired woman. I don’t remember a day that she didn’t wear black. So in New York, she’d fit in just fine. But in Northern Illinois, to a group of wide-eyed five year olds, she was decidedly a witch.

I walked into this first-grade class really excited to talk about math, spelling, and reading. And at the end of every day, Ms. Henkin would sit us around in a circle, and she had on that green metal desk. Remember those where you could hear the drawer open as it squeaked? She had on that desk a big blue velvet bag tied with a white ribbon. And inside that bag was a collection of warm fuzzies, and at the end of the day, we would sit in a circle, and she could ask us any question she wanted. “What kind of math strategies did you use today?” “What do you think will happen next in our read aloud?” “What spelling word did you learn?” Those are great questions, and I was ready for those questions. I was eager for those questions. But that’s not what Ms. Henkin asked. She asked questions of belonging. “Where did you see kindness today?” “Who helped you experience joy?” “When did you feel like you belonged?”

Students would tell their stories and give Ms. Henkin all the details. And at the end of the story, she’d reach into that blue bag, and she’d pull out warm fuzzies, and she’d give a warm fuzzy to each of those students who was in the story. And I never saw her load the bag up with warm fuzzies. It wasn’t a very big bag, but every day she had enough warm fuzzies for every single student in that story. These warm fuzzies were produced, I was sure, by witch magic.

When I entered first grade, I was ready for the questions of academics. But what I learned in first grade was how to ask the questions of belonging.

It wasn’t until I got to high school that I realized the reason I could answer questions of math and critical thinking was precisely because I had been taught how to ask the questions of belonging

So, when I looked for schools where  I could work,  I looked for schools that valued the whole student. Mind, character, community. That’s the kind of school I wanted to be a part of. That’s what Riverdale is because how do you separate those?  What is critical thinking without a sense of justice? What is inquiry without empathy? Communication without integrity? 

So I wrote that story about three weeks ago, and I figured if I was going to share it, I should fact check it. Roxanne Henkin is a unique enough name, so I looked her up online. And you know what this woman is doing now?

I have had 20 years of incredible educators – almost exclusively incredible educators – in pre-K through high school. And I chose to tell you the story of my first grade teacher, who is now a professor of education for the whole child, for critical literacy, and teaches how to hink about educating the whole child: mind, character, community. It’s not that I expected her to still  be in room 1B, but I realize the deliberate choices we make as teachers, they matter. Community matters. So I wrote to Ms. Henkin, Dr. Henkin now, and she replied within about 10 minutes, “I still have the warm fuzzies,” she told me. “And I’ve dedicated my life to this idea of educating the whole child.” About 10 minutes later, I got a second email answering the question you’re all actually wondering. “No, I’m not a witch, but I did dress up as one on Halloween one time. Maybe that’s what you’re remembering.” It’s actually the real magic that I remember.

So I come here excited to pursue these questions at Riverdale. And I think if I were in eighth grade, having just really excelled in my middle school experience, having been accepted to an amazing school like Riverdale, ready to embark on this journey, and someone were up here talking about kindness and joy, I might have some questions, “Will we read? Are we going to do math? Is there programming?” because that’s what I wanted to hear.

But here’s what I’ve learned. In order to do those things well, your community matters. In order to learn deeply, your community matters. Because if you trust your community to embrace you and support you and want the best for you, you’re going to raise your hand when you don’t know the answer. And that’s when you learn. If you trust your community to be a part of what you’re going to grow to be, the best version of yourself. You’re going to ask for feedback on a thesis statement because you know it needs feedback. And if you trust this community, that part of your brain that worries about what other people think – and it’s always there for all of us –  is a little less active. And that part of your brain that wonders about the world and how to make the world a better place and think critically and creatively, that part is even more active. That’s the promise of Riverdale. That’s why I’m excited to be here as a teacher, as a parent, as an administrator, as part of this community, because community does matter. And I hope when you walk across that stage in four years, and I shake your hand, you step down, and you say, “I felt like I belonged.” So thank you for being here this morning.