Navigating an Unprecedented School Year With Bessie Speers

by Victoria Jones

Posted September 22, 2020

For this month’s edition of At The Helm, Victoria Jones spoke with Bessie Speers, Head of School at Tower Hill School in Wilmington, Delaware. Tower Hill School is a private, college preparatory school for students in Pre-K through 12th grade.

Bessie shared how Tower Hill has prepared for its faculty and students to return to campus, how they’re working hard to create an engaging and inclusive community, and her advice for fellow Heads of Schools as they navigate an unprecedented school year. 


Victoria: I just saw yesterday the recent NAIS survey that said for 61% of schools it feels like the start has been smooth sailing. How are things at Tower Hill? 

Bessie: So far, so good. We are in person and it is going ok! I think this is certainly a direct reflection of the positive attitude, resilience, and determination of our faculty – and our students and families. Our faculty and entire school team did a tremendous amount of work preparing over the summer in order to be ready. This was not a typical summer!

How did you prepare your faculty to return to school when things changed so frequently?  

We tried to be as flexible as possible, accommodating faculty and/or students who needed to operate remotely for medical reasons. I know this was complicated for a lot of schools. We have a small number who have chosen this option.

It was important that we take this approach, but it does present a challenge. Right now, our teachers are getting used to two different modalities – most being fully in-person and a handful fully remote. It’s very different from when we were all home and on Zoom in the spring. It takes some getting used to and of course we need to pay careful attention to being unified as one community, regardless of which way one teaches.

Now that everyone is back, we are adjusting and learning as we go – it takes longer to get simple things accomplished. Our youngest kids are terrific about wearing their masks and following the rules. I find that the older we are, the harder it is to wear a mask all day, but we are inspired by our littlest students!

I do think that when you have some faculty teaching live and some remote, there may be perception issues about it being easier for those at home than for those teaching in person. I’ve encouraged our remote teachers to be proactive by really making an effort to stay involved and to put on a mask for a couple hours every day while on Zoom, so they can relate to the in-person experience. We want to stay united as a faculty.

At the same time, as we’re figuring out the logistics, we’re also trying to have fun! A few weeks ago, we had our opening faculty meetings under a tent outside; we were all socially distanced with masks. I think it was as celebratory as it could have been – we had a t-shirt toss and ribbon cheers. We encouraged everyone to wave their smile sticks every time they smiled, so that even under our masks, we could feel each other’s happiness.

Some of our schools are facing the potential of withdrawals and refunds. I’m curious – how has COVID impacted your enrollment numbers and finances?

As soon as COVID hit, we created a financial impact team that includes the CFO, an admissions staff member, and a couple other faculty members. We have met every single week. I said from the beginning that I don’t care if we get on the call and say we don’t have any updates. I think meeting consistently is still important and it has helped us to be even more proactive with our resources.

We also readjusted our budget forecast based on a low, medium, and high enrollment projection, which is what a lot of schools did. Before COVID, we had a five-year financial model that projected 812 students, and then we readjusted for COVID and our high was 808. Amazingly, we ended up at 814, so higher than our pre-COVID high!

I do think retention has to be our focus now. This isn’t an easy time for students and families to adjust to a new school, and as you know, all the retention studies say that it’s basically make or break in the first couple weeks. So, we’re working hard to set up Zoom meetings with our new parents and with new students in these first few weeks.  

Creating that community—for new and returning students—feels more important than ever, but of course there are challenges in pulling this off. What have you been doing to engage all members of the Tower Hill community?

I think what we’ve learned is small touches go a long way. Our admin team has set a goal to do something celebratory or notable once a week. It doesn’t have to cost money, it just has to be uplifting and creative. For instance, last Tuesday, I recorded a video of myself saying, essentially, it’s day two and we’re doing great! We sent that out to everyone with a short note – it was a whimsical and quick way to keep everyone’s spirits up. Then, at the end of the week, we ordered personalized chocolate bars for all of our students and faculty. That was small dollars well spent.

But of course, I recognize that when we’re many months into this, it’s going to take more than a chocolate bar to keep morale high and everyone feeling engaged. I’ve talked to my Board Chair and trustees about this, and suggested they create essentially a monthly calendar of Teacher Appreciation Days. I’ve also spoken with our Parents Association about how they can help encourage faculty and make them feel appreciated. Of course, I’ll be sharing that message too, but I think it’s different when they hear it from parents.

One thing I did last Spring that was well-received was a cupcake candle blow out. Once a month, we would have a Zoom meeting where everyone who had a birthday that month—teachers, parents, students—could join. Everyone would go around and share their birthday. Then we would sing happy birthday and I would blow out a candle on a cupcake for them in my kitchen over Zoom. It was so sweet to see students bond over their shared birthday month and celebrate together, even in this small way. And it only took 15 minutes!

So, I think it’s about finding small ways to reach everyone, over and over again. There’s no denying it’s going to be a hard year, but we can lean on each other.

Of course, another important aspect of creating community and culture is diversity, equity, and inclusion. How has DEI been part of the conversation and plan?

When the BLM protests were occurring over the summer, it was really important to us to make sure our door was open to everyone who wanted to talk. A group of our faculty offered to have conversations with parents and students and trustees – we had a lot of Zoom calls this summer.  

I think our young alums had the hardest time. They still feel very close to the school, but because it’s been 5 or more years since they were students here, they are not always fully aware of how we have changed and what we are doing.  We had to do a fair amount of educating about our programs. Of course, we should continue to challenge ourselves – and we have to be humble enough to recognize where there are problems and opportunities for improvement. At the same time, we’re trying to more intentionally communicate how the school continues to improve each year.  

Our Director of Social Justice, Dyann Connor, has done a great job. The events of the summer solidified the work we were already doing and that we were headed in the right direction – we now have a diversity task force that is 80 people strong. I think the hardest part was balancing what we would like to be doing in support of DEI work with getting the school up and running.  

Now that the students are back, how are they adjusting?

Our students have been amazing; they’ve been very respectful. We’ve been very clear with them, particularly with the middle and upper students, that their behavior on the weekends could impact whether we are able to stay open. That’s a heavy load to put on them, but it’s important they understand.

When we were preparing for our students to return, I asked our admin team to write down what they thought the five biggest priorities would be during our first two weeks back at school. A lot of the responses were around health and safety logistics. We needed a way to boil all the information and procedures down into something that was easy for our students to remember. So, we came up with “Hands, Face, Space.” We have big signs all over the school, and I think that’s made a difference. It has provided a focus and an easy way to check in with our students to help them follow protocols. Now they are repeating it, so we know it is working!

I know many Heads consider COVID-19 the largest professional challenge they’ve faced – do you feel that’s true for you?

I think it depends on how you’re wired. This type of crisis is more manageable, I think, for leaders who are okay with ambiguity, which all head of schools have to be somewhat comfortable with.

Personally, I am okay with ambiguity. One thing that has been hard for me is that I don’t love details – I like considering the bigger picture. And I admitted that right up front! COVID requires a lot of attention to detail. Thankfully, there are members of our admin team who are great with details, so they have been invaluable to our team. We have a great team of people that I can really rely on and trust. So, I guess I don’t necessarily feel like this is the biggest challenge I’ve faced because this is a crisis we’re all experiencing. I think recognizing that takes some of the weight off our shoulders.

At the end of the day, you know you cannot please everyone and that is hard. I felt better when we sent out a survey at the end of the first week to ask how everyone felt things went on a scale of 1-10, 1 being difficult/challenging and 10 being excellent/exhilarating. And in each division, the majority of the bar graphs were 8 and above. The things people were complaining about were lunch or the dress code, and any head of school knows, if they’re complaining about food or the dress code, that means you have the big things right.

The work you and everyone at Tower Hill have been doing really is inspirational. Do you have any advice for your colleagues?

Well, I’ve tried really hard to be present in my community. When I’m in school, I’m barely in my office. I’m constantly walking around so I can ask how things are going, what people need, how I can help. I think that’s key.

I’d also say – we’re all trying to figure this out, so reach out and stay in touch. There’s no one who can understand the situation as well as another colleague who’s in the same world. I belong to a couple of different groups of head of schools with whom I regularly consult. It’s good to hear their perspectives and to provide each other with moral support.

Lastly, I think for those of us who are at institutions with a history, we have to remind ourselves that our schools have endured difficult times before. Let’s use common sense and follow the advice of medical professionals, and trust that we will endure this, too.  

Every month, Development Guild leadership spends time with leaders from across the nonprofit sector to hear their perspectives, what’s on their minds today, and what they believe the future holds. Read more At the Helm interviews.