Feature: Not Just Filling the Gap
An Interview with Interim Rector Amy Richards
Jana F. Brown
Amy Richards was born in Washington, D.C., where her father was based as a career FBI agent. The Goble family, which included Amy and her six siblings, moved to Concord, N.H,. in 1974, to a home at the bottom of Dimond Hill, just up the road from St. Paul’s School. Richards completed the final three years of her secondary education at Concord High School. After college, she returned to Concord and initially worked as a permanent substitute teacher at Concord High. She soon learned that St. Paul’s had an opening in the Math Department and, subsequently, worked at the School for 10 years, from 1984 to 1994, before leaving for New York. Most recently, Richards retired after 14 years as head of Crystal Springs Uplands School in Hillsborough, Calif. She sat down with Alumni Horae editor Jana Brown.
Alumni Horae: What attracted you to the field of education?
Amy Richards: I went to college knowing I was going to major in math, but I was convinced I wasn’t going to be a teacher. I thought I was going to be an actuary, but a couple of things got me off that path. One, I got married when I was in college. I was hired by Concord High School; I taught physics as a permanent substitute and then I came back the next year and taught mathematics. Because I was a math major, not a math education major, I did not have a teaching credential. At the end of two years, the district said to me, ‘You either have to get a credential, or you have to find other work.’ I ended up interviewing for a position at St. Paul’s. Despite having grown up just down the road, I knew nothing about St. Paul’s. I wasn’t even entirely sure it was co-ed as of 1984.
AH: How did your perception change once you got inside the campus?
AR: Once I was here, I understood how it came to be that I could have lived literally down the road from this institution and known so little about it. Because of the immersion that one embraces when you’re a teacher here, I suddenly came to understand that the job is so all-encompassing that there really is very little in the way of opportunities to branch out beyond the campus. I was hired in 1984; I taught math, I lived in Armour (then the infirmary), worked in Middle, I lived and worked in Kitt, I lived in the Miller’s Cottage and worked in Ford. That creates an all-inclusive set of experiences that helped me understand the relationship St. Paul’s has with the greater Concord community.
AH: What do you feel you learned about yourself and about what you wanted to do next based on those 10 years at St. Paul’s?
AR: I was on sabbatical one of those years. I received a Klingenstein Fellowship in 1992 and I went to New York for the year – from Concord, N.H., to 120th and Amsterdam, which was a little bit of interplanetary travel, to say the least. I often told people that, if it hadn’t been for the Klingenstein program, I would have stayed at St. Paul’s forever.
AH: You would definitely have a good seat in the Chapel.
AR: Yes, well that’s true. I have family here in New England, I went to Concord High School, my husband’s family is from New England, his brother works at Exeter, his sister lives in Vermont; the ties are very strong. I loved my time at St Paul’s, but I went to New York for a year for the Klingenstein program for aspiring school leaders, and I came back to St. Paul’s to run the ASP from 1993-94. The kernels of ambition were presented. I realized that, if I wanted to do more, I probably had to get more experience. So, I left St. Paul’s in 1994 and became a dean of students at the Riverdale Country School in Riverdale, N.Y. From Riverdale, I went to Spence School [an all-girls school in New York City] and then ultimately from Spence to Northern California. I went to a place where neither my husband nor I had any connections. But I really thought in going to Crystal Springs Uplands School in Northern California that I was going be able to find the same community I had found, in particular, at St. Paul’s.
AH: How did your years as a teacher Inform your transition to being an administrator?
AR: As an administrator, I tend to be someone who asks, ‘What’s the evidence? How do we know what we know? Or what’s the problem we’re trying to solve here?’ I like to see the evidence for a proposed solution, a direction, or a decision, and I think that comes from my years as a math teacher at St. Paul’s. It would be an exaggeration to say that I operate exclusively on data-informed decisions, but I certainly like my decisions to have at least some component of data. The other thing I will say about 10 years at St. Paul is that the Math Department was in the Moore building, and there was a room on the lower level where we would congregate between classes. Because we shared classrooms, the result was there was a great deal of collaboration. There was an expectation that you would be prepared to teach anything and everything. We had open hours in the mornings and we shared responsibility so that a student who had a question about anything could come in and ask. That engendered quite a bit of collaboration that I grew very attached to and looked for in subsequent positions.
AH: It’s a unique position to be an Interim Rector for one year. What drew you to it?
AR: I retired from Crystal Springs Uplands School with a notion that I wasn’t done. That is, I was going to put my hands on the steering wheel again at some point. But I decided to take a year off, so school year of 2018-19 was to be my gap year and an opportunity to take stock and decide what I wanted to do next. In anticipation of that, Frank and I bought a house in Portland, Ore., and moved all of our worldly goods there.
AH: What changed?
AR: I can tell you where I was when I read an e-mail from the consultant at Spencer Stewart saying, ‘I know you’re planning on taking a year off, Amy, but it turns out St. Paul’s School is looking for an Interim Rector.’ This was right at the end of May, and I was very taken aback, because the position was to start on July 1. I didn’t see how that was going to be at all possible, and then there was also my husband, who was very much focused on relocating to Portland. But I talked with the consultant, I talked to [Board President] Archie [Cox ’58], I started reflecting, and recollecting my time at St. Paul’s, the impact that it had on me as a young, relatively inexperienced educator, who was just trying on for the first time any notion of potential leadership. St. Paul’s had a very positive and profound impact on me in that way and, as a result of those conversations, I felt the gravitational pull. It was an opportunity I never thought would be made available to me, at a school that shaped my perspective, shaped my career, shaped how I looked at education as a whole.
AH: What is that educational philosophy?
AR: My statement of educational philosophy for years quoted Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot’s book, The Good High School, in which St. Paul’s is named. As I pondered this opportunity, it just became increasingly apparent to me that, if I were fortunate enough to be offered the position, I would definitely say yes. My husband and I had many conversations about it, and ultimately realized that whatever was to happen after St. Paul’s would still be there.
AH: How do you think the School has changed since you were last here as a faculty member?
AR: Every day I learn something new about St. Paul’s circa 2018. I went to the first of several sessions with the student leaders. In 1994, St. Paul’s did not have prefects, we did not have the Living in Community program. The School has recognized the great potential that lies within the student population, and the opportunity to leverage that to help shape in positive and healthy ways all of our students’ experiences is pretty remarkable. The facilities have evolved. In 1994, we didn’t have a health center; we had an infirmary, which tells you something about how we looked at students’ physical wellbeing. We didn’t have an academic support system. St. Paul’s didn’t have openly gay students.
AH: What about the School has remained the same?
AR: There are a number of things that radiate permanence. Both Chapels – you spend time in either one of those spaces and you realize the symbolism of those structures as gathering spaces. I’m cognizant of the fact that generations of Sixth Formers have gathered together in the Old Chapel to launch their last years at St. Paul’s School. The sense of community is very present here. In my opening Chapel remarks to faculty and staff, I referred to the village of St. Paul’s, but I’ve since realized that it’s actually not the most accurate word, that a more accurate word would be the kibbutz of St. Paul’s. A kibbutz is a socialist collective, where the success of one has implications for the success of all, but the joys and sorrows of one are the joys and sorrows borne by all. There’s a strong sense of mutual welfare. That was true at St. Paul’s in 1994 and it’s true of St. Paul’s in 2018 – maybe even more so.
AH: What qualities do you possess that make you suited for this interim role?
AR: I do have friends who have been interim heads, and the role that they’ve played has depended on the needs of the institution. Institutions in the midst of leadership turmoil will sometimes call in people to help calm the waters and put out fires.
AH: What do you feel like the charge is At St. Paul’s?
AR: It is not a leadership turmoil. That is not the case. I’m certainly a transitional leader, and by that I mean a transitional bridge between Mike’s leadership and Kathy’s. Mike and I have conversations, Kathy and I have conversations, all in an effort to ensure the seamless transition, because that’s critically important for any institution. I think part of my responsibility is to identify those tasks and decisions that I will take on and complete and those I will hand off in their entirety to Kathy. I think what I’ve heard as well from trustees, and from members of the faculty and staff, is this is a community that has been buffeted quite a bit. I used the word besieged, but probably buffeted is more accurate, and that there’s a strong need for – the word one employee used with me was healing, but I actually think it’s more of a desire to see the School start to look forward, and learn what we can from the past, including some significant missteps and lapses in judgment. We need to be able to confront that past with courage and a willingness to learn, but also to turn our attention to the future. I think that’s part of my charge – to remind people that no institution can afford to encase itself in amber. We always have to be evolving, identifying the needed areas of growth and working on those areas. I didn’t want to take the position to be simply a placeholder. Part of the other charge would be to continue to inject into initiatives that Mike started the momentum that carries them forward into the next chapter of St. Paul’s, the next era under Kathy.
AH: As someone who had been an insider, but then was outside the School for many years, what was your reaction to all the negative media coverage?
AR: It’s helpful to remember I was 3,000 miles and three time zones away. There were revelations going on everywhere. St. Paul’s was just one of a number of such reports that I read. I will tell you there was no small amount of heartache and heartsickness that it did so much damage, that so many lives were impacted in devastating ways. One has very complicated relationships with the people or institutions you love. It’s a very complicated landscape, and I do think it is possible to hold in one hand a great love for a person, or a place, or an institution, but also to be heartsick at aspects of its history and its story. I think that, as I read some of those revelations and some of those reports, I had this contradictory set of emotions in response.
AH: Talking about looking to the future, what do you think are the best ways for the School to begin doing that?
AR: Some of this work is already underway. I think it starts and ends at the same place, which is prioritizing, holding our students at our focus. That would be present-day students, future students, and past students. They remain the priority. They are now, they will remain forever our priority, and in doing that we put in place the best possible safeguard for current-day students and future students, and we attend to the needs of those who were damaged by institutional lapses in judgment, missteps, and blindness.
AH: What are you most excited about by being at SPS this year?
AR: I am very excited to see the School set in motion; I mean seeing how the School designs and delivers the experiences to our students – and their response to those experiences. In order to authentically describe St. Paul’s School circa 2018 to prospective families, I need to be in their spaces, I need to go visit some classes, I need to go to a house meeting. I asked the faculty for permission to do that. I said, ‘It’s not part of your evaluation cycle, I just need to be able to see you at your best, and often you’re at your best in your classroom, your studio, on the field, or in your house.’ I’m most looking forward to that.
AH: What do you wish people who aren’t part of the community knew about life at St. Paul’s?
AR: It’s a great kibbutz. I wish that people would know that the experiences for students are deliberate in design, deliberate in delivery, meant to be connected, and meant to allow students to acquire and hone skills they need not just for the next four years, not just for the next chapter in their lives, but ever after. I’ve learned things about St. Paul’s that already I wish I could have exported back to my school in California, and I have every day only more and more admiration for the place and the people who populate it.
AH: You’re the first woman to hold this role, and then Kathy Giles will become the first permanent female Rector. Tell me how you feel about that and why it’s important after 160-plus years of men leading the School.
AR: I’ve been a female head of school for 14 years, so I don’t think about it. But I also realize that the institution hasn’t had a woman in this role, so I have to keep it in my frontal lobes. There are adjustments in terms of expectations and how this is going to work. My first year, in 1984, there were two women in the Math Department. We used to sometimes joke that St. Paul’s felt at times like it was a boys school with girls. So much felt very Y chromosome. I was chair of the Women’s Committee at St. Paul’s for I don’t know how long. We looked at the distribution of workloads across the men and women on the faculty, organized the 20th anniversary of co-education – and brought Maya Angelou to SPS to speak, and encouraged the institution to hire more women. We also did an inventory of the men’s and women’s bathrooms, the number of stalls. In 1984, it didn’t feel or seem to us that there were near enough women’s bathrooms on campus.
AH: You have your own bathroom in this office, just for you. That’s progress.
AR: [Laughs] The great leap forward. My own personal journey has been great, but the institutional journey has been great too. There are opportunities made available as a result of my appointment and that of Kathy’s. Whether it’s the lens of gender, because any conversation of gender in 2018 has a much bigger connotation, and it is a much bigger connotation now that we have begun to talk about gender being something other than binary. I think there are opportunities in my appointment, and that of Kathy’s, to engage everyone in the community of St. Paul’s in some interesting conversations about gender. That may have been more difficult in the past.
AH: What is something that people would be surprised to know about you?
AR: Well, I told you I’m one of seven children. Little things about me. Hmm. The usual stereotypical ones come to mind. I’m coming up with longtime – 30 years now – a vegetarian. When my father was an FBI agent, we lived overseas for two years, when he was assigned to the American Embassy in Tel Aviv.
AH: Anything else?
AR: Let’s see. It’s fair to say that my first interaction with St. Paul’s was as a trespasser. Growing up down the street, my siblings and I used to sneak down to the grounds and go swimming and also to go sledding on the old ski jump.
AH: Last question: How was Cricket Holiday?
AR: I was getting instructions from faculty about Cricket Holiday, and one of the things someone said to me was, ‘And then you take the new students and faculty on a walk.’ And I said, ‘I do?’ And they said, ‘Yes, don’t you remember that?’ I said, ‘I’m so glad you told me that so I can get familiar with the route. Because, imagine the headlines in the Concord Monitor: First Responders Called out to St. Paul’s School Campus to Rescue New Rector.’