Head of the Campus School, Chris Marblo (pictured above, reading aloud to a captive kindergarten audience) sat down with Brittany Collins of the Lab School to speak about his journey to SCCS. Below is an excerpted transcription of the conversation, in which he offers insight into his educational philosophy and hopes for the future of the school.
Brittany Collins (BC): To put a bit of context to our conversation, could you talk about your journey in the field of education, as well as your journey to Smith?
Chris Marblo (CM): “I will give you the Reader’s Digest version! I began as a high school English teacher and was considering getting a Ph.D. and going the professor route. By chance, I got a job at an independent school as a Middle School Head and an Upper School English teacher, and that got me into administration. I liked it, and eventually became a Head of School at two different pre-K-8 schools—one in Maryland, one in New York City—and then, after being in the field for twenty-seven years, I wanted to take a break and explore some other interests. For the past five years, I explored different leadership opportunities, one at an arts organization and another at a spiritual retreat center. Both of those experiences were good, but not what I had hoped, and I was in the process of looking at leadership positions in schools again when a good friend of mine told me about the Campus School.
It’s been a lot of fun here—great for this stage in my career. I didn’t want to go to a school that was similar to those I had already led; this is different because it is a school that is connected to a college, so there is a novelty to it that keeps me interested and growing. And there’s a real challenge here, and a real opportunity, to move this school to a new level.”
BC: What do you see at the Campus School that is unique, or different from the institutions where you have worked before? How does the lab school model change your role?
CM: “The biggest difference is that it’s a lab school. What an opportunity. My role has evolved; initially, this role was conceived of as a principal, an instructional leader, but we expanded my duties to really take on marketing and fundraising and strategic planning, alongside all of the other instructional leadership. It’s more like a Head of School job, which is what I’ve done. I’ve got my hands in lots of different pots, and our relationship with the College has also been amplified; we’re getting more support and connection to leadership at the College, which is great for us as a school. The College, for example, is helping to fund this new curriculum position for which we’re hiring—a senior level person who will do all of the important curriculum work that we have planned. The curriculum person will also be teaching a college course at Smith, and I’ll be teaching a course. For me, that’s great, because I have taught on the college level and loved it; working with children and working with college students is going to be amazing.”
BC: What is your proudest accomplishment inside of education? And outside of education?
CM: “Inside of education, as a teacher, it’s when you have an impact on a person. I can think back to my teaching days when I affected this high school student, and I know because I run into these people years later, and they tell me, and that’s really rewarding. As a leader, it’s when you can advance an entire institution, not just academically, but the entire interrelationship of the curriculum, and teacher development, and marketing, and fundraising, and it all feeds in, and the whole thing moves forward together—that’s a really particular kind of challenge, and one that I like, and one that we’re pursuing here. When you’re done at a place and can look back and say ‘Wow, we really did move forward as an institution,’ that’s a great moment, and it’s always collective work—it’s always team effort—and you’re a part of it as a leader, but it’s a collective effort.
Outside of school, having children, but also just the challenge of being a human being and continuing to evolve and grow and think—kind of a spiritual growth—is something that takes up a lot of my energy and time. I’m definitely someone who is growth-mindset oriented; it’s all part of a large adventure, and you want to keep excited and interested in life itself, and that’s what I try to do.”
BC: Was there a teacher or a mentor who inspired you to enter the field of education?
CM: “Oh yeah, I was lucky to have many. I can think of Mrs. Miller in sixth grade; I can think of Mr. Gavin in high school; I can think of Father Fay in college—amazing; Bob Berlin in graduate school. Just incredible teachers, and they definitely inspired me. I didn’t go to teacher training; I didn’t study education. But, when I was finished with graduate school and had studied the Humanities, I was left with ‘What now?.’ I thought about the teachers who had influenced me, and I wanted to do something meaningful, so I thought I would try teaching. And here we are!”
BC: Did those teachers have similar teaching styles or characteristics that inspired you?
CM: “Yes, whether they were teaching kindergarten or graduate school, they all cared about me—and every other student they had, I’m sure—as a person. Not just as a student, but as a person. They wanted to help me grow as a person. It’s that unique, personalized attention that a great teacher has for their students—and that my teachers had for me—that has an empowering and amazing outcome.
I was just writing, actually, about one of my former English teachers and how he created a culture in his classroom that was really respectful of reading. In the moment, it didn’t look like he was working very hard, but looking back I can see how it was a lot of work, and it did elevate us into how we conceive of ourselves as a community of readers. I didn’t see it in that moment; I saw it ten, fifteen, years later, so there’s also that trailing, tailing effect of a teacher, which is always cool to see.”
BC: How does the Campus School think about community development outside of the curriculum in each classroom? As a whole school, how do you approach the ethos of this institution?
CM: “There are two responses: One, we are doing some core foundation work in terms of what we regard as our central values and principles, so we’ve revised our mission statement. We’re coming close to finishing some core learning goals, and some core principles, which are not just words on a paper but are real, actual, operating beliefs—so that’s important. But we’re also doing a lot of work on diversity and inclusion. We got a grant from the President of the College to get some training, which was wonderful; we have a Diversity Committee, and we’re looking to one day soon have a Director on our staff to really move this work forward, because it’s so critical. So, both clarifying the foundational beliefs, and then the diversity and inclusion work, are two manifestations of community.”
BC: What’s a little known fact about ‘Mr. Marblo’?
CM: “The musician life, being really into music; in college, I played guitar—back in the early 80s—and I still play. I’m really into music and just wrote something in our newsletter about my first concert, which was David Bowie, and I somehow connected that to our technology taskforce. We’re talking about putting together a Campus School band, as there are a lot of teacher musicians on our staff.”
BC: Thinking about the future of SCCS, and the future at SCCS, what are some of your tangible goals and hopes?
CM: “All of our tangible goals and hopes are articulated in our new strategic plan, which we started working on in the spring of 2017 and then had to analyze the financial implications of it, get the College to buy into it, which they did, and now we’re implementing it. The reason we’re doing this is because it will make the experiences of the students better. There were 20 people on the steering committee: parents, teachers. We wanted talent around the table. Part of the discussion was about what a lab school means in the 21st century. The model is one hundred years old, and it kind of faded in the 60s and 70s, but what does it mean to resurrect it and make it stronger now? There’s room on the stage to answer that question. One of our key concepts is that we’re a private school with a public purpose. We want to be open and collaborative with our public school colleagues; we want to serve the region and the profession. This is a dynamic, unique place with lots of possibilities and 91 years of history to build from. We need to keep it fun and interesting and vital.”
BC: How will you go about tracking that progress?
CM: “I’m a big believer in something Grant Wiggins said. He does a lot of thinking about backward design, and his point is: ‘You can assemble credible evidence. It may not be quantitative, but it’s credible, and it’s evidence.’ So everything can point to an outcome that’s going to be credible. It might be numeric, like ‘We’ve grown our enrollment by X.’ But it might be qualitative, in a survey, or an assessment from an outside accrediting agency. That is a big part of what we’re promising, that we will somehow understand the impact of the work that we’re doing, and measure it, and share it in whatever way makes sense. Just as you would do for a student, because you can’t reduce everything a student does to a number. It’s very similar to how you would approach teaching, to how you would approach the managing and leading of a school. Every year, I’ll give an update—a report card—about how we’re doing.”
BC: Shifting to the topic of your humanities background, are there any authors who influence your approach to education?
CM: “My approach to education is really rooted in this larger, not religious, but spiritual thing—the idea that it’s about a person growing. The people who really influenced me where when I was sixteen, eighteen, twenty-two—when you’re formative. I think about people like Dosteovsky, Camus, and Kafka; I was struggling to understand them at that age, but they were the ones that shaped the kind of existential realities of life; the challenges of living, of finding your own voice, and reasons, and meaning. A lot of history, a lot of philosophy, some theology mixed in—it’s all a part of what makes you think. It’s the liberal arts. My particular focus was Humanities; that’s what I studied in undergrad, and again in graduate school—which is really this broad-based approach, and that’s how I approach what I think education can and should be. Someone was saying that the Campus School is really a mirror image of a liberal arts college, and that’s really appropriate. The College is our campus. The College is our school. It’s our classroom, and we need to use it and leverage it for the benefit of our students.”
Compiled and transcribed by Brittany Collins