Independent Spirit: Ray Wilson

Fall 2021

1-37-(1).jpgRay Wilson
Head of School
The Northwest School
Seattle, Washington

Photo by Melika Rahmati
In the summer of  ’91, I discovered my calling to be an educator who puts students at the heart of their work. It was during a teaching fellowship in the eight-week Summerbridge Program (now called the Breakthrough Collaborative) that I learned critical lessons that laid the foundation for my career—how to create a lesson plan focused on the student experience, the importance of fostering a sense of belonging for all students, and an understanding of how collaboration and collegiality are necessary when working toward a common goal. From there, I moved into the roles of administrative team member, dean of faculty, and eventually co-director, always keeping these essential lessons at the forefront of my work.
During that initial summer, as a college student teaching rising public school fifth and sixth grade students at independent schools, I saw firsthand the partnerships between local public school districts and independent schools, including Isidore Newman School (LA), San Francisco University High School (CA), and Norfolk Academy (VA). Each independent school provided the location and educational resources for local public school students to learn from college students from across the country and selected local high school students. I developed emotional connections to each student—connections that made me believe that I could make a difference in their learning experience. I embraced the opportunity to collaborate with them for the sole purpose of enjoying learning.
As I start my tenure at The Northwest School (WA), reflecting on my 28-year career in independent schools, I am bringing with me the lessons from my early days of teaching. No matter my role, I always used the resources I had to improve student experiences. For example, as a classroom teacher, I encouraged the students to not only learn the content of my Sociology of Malcolm X course but to apply their knowledge to their lives outside of school by discovering parallels and differences with the life of Malcolm X. As a director of athletics, I ensured that all students had the necessary equipment and access to skill development. And as a division director for the past 11 years, I’ve strived to lead colleagues with a focus on the principles instilled in me that summer: focusing on students, being collaborative, and maintaining a high level of collegiality.
This foundational belief that all students can learn as long as they are surrounded by caring adults, kind peers, and strong school partnerships with their families—which was cemented during my fellowship and fostered by many of the independent schools I’ve worked in throughout my career—will be the lens through which I approach my work ahead. I know that if it weren’t for my experiences that summer, I would not be the educator I am today. But those lessons and the opportunity to form lasting memories about an educational experience, for at least one person, was the catalyst for a lifelong calling.

What’s your independent school story? Share it with us. Send a note to [email protected].