Q&A With New Head Christian Donovan

This month, on his first visit since accepting the job, Friends School’s incoming leader sat down with a panel of Quill reporters.

Christian+talks+with+Quill+reporters+about+making+mistakes%2C+finding+meaning+in+Meeting%2C+and+why+he+learned+so+late+to+love+The+Beatles.

Christian talks with Quill reporters about making mistakes, finding meaning in Meeting, and why he learned so late to love The Beatles.

Amid a packed calendar of meetings, Christian (who asked students to call him by his first name) discussed everything from his high school soccer career and childhood love of country music, to his Quaker roots and plans for the school. Here is a transcript of the conversation, edited slightly for length and clarity.

Christian:  I’m excited. This is the meeting I was most looking forward to. I’m curious about what questions you’re going to ask me.

Carson:  To start off, for our readers, could you highlight your personal philosophy, and dive a bit into your Quaker roots?

Christian:  Let me start philosophically: I really value relationships. That’s one of the things I’m interested in whenever I enter any community. I’ve been at three different schools, so this will be my fourth. One of the things I love about independent schools, and in particular Quaker communities, is that relationships are key to everything that we do. My hope, as I enter here, is to build relationships, whether that’s with faculty or students or administrators. I don’t totally know what my priorities will be, or what the school’s priorities should be. I’ll learn along the way. Since I first got here this morning, in every meeting I’ve learned something about the community. So that’s been great.

As for Quaker roots, my history is Quaker. I don’t identify as a Quaker, but my mother is a Quaker, and I went to Quaker high school. Partly, I went because there was a tradition in my family where my mom and her brothers and sisters, my uncles and aunts, all went to Quaker school. I showed up in high school not knowing a ton about Quakers, other than that my mom occasionally took me and my sister to Meeting for Worship.

As middle schoolers, we kind of dreaded going to Meeting, because it was an hour of sitting in silence without anything to do. But working at George School (the school before the one I’m working at now), I really came to appreciate it. It’s funny: when I graduated, I thought, “I’m never going back to Meeting for Worship.” Then, I found that when I was in college, and as an adult, it’s actually one of the things that I missed the most. I wouldn’t be surprised if students here thought that too, like: “Oh, I don’t know if this is great.” And then when they leave it, that moment where you have some time to breathe quietly and reflect, I think, is really, really important to people.

So I went to Quaker school, then I worked for a couple years at another school, then I came back and worked at George School and was there for 11 years. Being in a Quaker environment again is really special, and was one of the reasons why I was attracted to Friends.

A lot of that comes from the way Quakers make decisions. I love the school where I am now; I think it’s great. It moves at a pace, though, that I think is a little unhealthy. I would not be uncomfortable sharing that with them; in fact, I have. Some of that comes from the fact that we don’t take as much time to sit and reflect with the decisions that we make. We don’t have the same consensus process that we use to make decisions. We do sometimes, but it’s not built into the structure of how we make decisions. And I get that consensus can take a long time. It can take a long time. It can be frustrating sometimes; it’s bringing people together, and along, and it can be really hard. I do think we come out with better decisions when we do that, though.

Krisna:  On those ideas of bringing people together, what are your plans for working on diversity at Friends, or in collaboration with the DEI office?

Christian:  I’m not totally sure yet, because I feel like I need to be here and try to figure out what it feels like the community needs. I think, or I suspect, that there can be a strong marriage between Quakers and DEI work; I don’t think those two things have to be mutually exclusive. I’ve loosely heard that, here, there’s some – maybe the right word is tension? – around the slowness of Quaker process, the deliberateness of Quaker process, and the feeling, in particular around DEI work, that it needs to be immediate.

How do you wrestle with that tension? I think that is going to be one of the challenges to work on, while I’m here. But I do believe the two things can go together, because Quaker values call us to think about things like equality and community. One of the things that I’ve benefited from in my career is that, when I was younger, I was somebody who wanted to make decisions really quickly. Spending a lot of time at a Quaker school made me slow down, and I think that was a real benefit. I think it also helped that I wanted to speed things up. So I think the two things can come together. But I’m not totally sure how it will happen.

Khalil:  On your topic of goals for the school, is there a goal you had already planned before you had all those meetings? Was there a specific goal that you thought: “This school, I think it needs this. I think I need to drill down on this”?

Christian:  There are two things, based on having been here when I was interviewing for the job, and subsequent meetings. Mr. Bisgaard and I talk once every couple weeks; I’ve talked with the clerk of the Board a bunch; and I’ve started to have some meetings with administrators here as well. The two things that seem to bubble to the top are:

  • Hopefully we’re coming out of the pandemic, but one never knows, right? There’s a sense of community that I think potentially was lost; that’s true at my current school too. So my sense is, rebuilding that will be really important in the next couple of years. Talking with Mr. Bisgaard, he was telling me a lot of people here are brand new, and started here when you were not in normal school. I’m not sure there’s any going back to what things were like before, nor do I actually think we should go back to exactly the way things were before. But establishing a set of community guidelines around how we’re going to operate, in whatever we consider the “new normal” post-pandemic, will be really, really important. So that’s one thing.
  • The other thing that I have started to get a sense of is: defining what academics mean at Friends sounds like something people are thinking about. It sounds like students are thinking about that; adults are thinking about that; parents are thinking about that. So that may be a task that I take on when I start.

Those are the two things that I’ve thought through, as I think about entering. But I’m going to spend, at the very least, my first year listening, trying to understand the culture, making sure I don’t upset people, all of that kind of thing.

Khalil:  It’s good to know that. I’m sure everyone at the school will be glad to hear it. Another thing I want to talk to you about is: obviously, since we’re a school, learning is a very important thing. Is there a mistake you made, or something you learned, at an old school, that you think will help you here?

Christian:  That’s a great question. I’m sure there are lots of things. I talked about one, which is consensus. Well, consensus with communication. I’ve spent mostly a career in administration, so I haven’t done a lot of teaching. I end up in lots and lots of meetings where lots and lots of decisions get made, and it’s easy for the people in the room to agree on the decision, then forget what the next step is, which often involves telling other people what the decision is and why we came to that rationale.

One of the things I’ve learned in the pandemic at my current school is how important clear and concise communication post making a decision is – and then helping people understand why we made that particular decision. Invariably, in any meeting, there’ll be lots of people who weren’t in the room, but then have to come along with you. So I have taken the tactic of overcommunicating. There’s the adage that you have to hear something seven times or something before you actually learn it. One of the things we started to do at my school is communicating in as many ways as possible: in person, through email, through in-person announcements.

Carson:  You mentioned your experience bringing consensus to a school administration that you thought was too fast-paced, and didn’t really consider things like Quakers do – we refer to it as the Quaker process. Could you take us into a snapshot of you trying to implement that at another school?

Christian:  One of the things I brought to my current school is that we now have a protocol for when we make decisions. Before, after we made a decision, there wasn’t a clear “What are the next steps?” So we now have a protocol that we use in meetings whenever a decision’s made:

  • What can we share outside of the room that we’re in?
  • What are the next action steps that we’re going to take?
  • Where do we need to communicate this decision?
  • Where do we need to get more input and feedback?

That I think has helped to some extent, to bring people along. The other thing is that I much prefer to go and talk to people 1-on-1. One of my current responsibilities at Head-Royce School is that I manage the whole school’s COVID stuff. It’s not a small job. We have something that we call a Health Working Group where we meet weekly, and we talk about everything from: Are we okay with the whole high school being in one room to have an assembly, or are we not okay with that? Should we be wearing masks outside, or shouldn’t we be? Sometimes it’s really minute details. People email me throughout the week things that they want us to discuss in the health working group, and we make all these decisions.

One of the things I’ve taken to doing now is going individually to each person who has sent something, even if it’s as mundane as: We want to have a high school dance; what is their capacity limit to the amount of people that we can have in the gym? And if we’re going to serve food, should the food be inside or outside, cause people are going to have to take off their masks to eat? I find that having that 1-on-1 conversation helps, rather than emailing somebody and saying: “The Health Working Group decided you can have 200 people in the gym; wear masks.” It helps because I can explain the decision in a different way than I can if I just write somebody an email.

Divine:  You’ve spoken a lot about your goals that you’re going to bring to the school. Can you tell us what values or morals you’re bringing to Friends?

Christian:  I’m not sure if I would define this as a value or moral, but I’m going to say it anyway and you can decide. One of the reasons why I’ve spent a career working at schools is that it’s in some ways an effort to give back what I feel like I was given. I had a chance to go to a nice private school. It was a boarding school – I went to George School – and I feel like that has shaped my personality more than any other thing that I’ve done.

As an 8th grader, before I went to George School, I was tremendously shy. I was the kid who would sit in the back of the classroom quietly, not saying anything, and when people wanted me to contribute, that would made me really nervous. I never would have imagined being able to give a presentation in front of a couple hundred people. I’ve largely had a career in admission work, so I had to be in front of people all the time and talk to them about the schools where I’ve worked, or I have to present at an open house – and, obviously, I’m going to be Head of School, which will involve a fair amount of presenting. As a 13- or 14-year-old, I never would have imagined that I could do that.

So back to your question: one of the things I love about schools like this is that, for certain types of students, they really help develop your character. I mean, there are definitely students where, whether they come to Friends or they go to public school, they’re going to be fine. But I think there’s a subset of students where this experience is going to shape who they are in really, really meaningful ways. The reason I’ve chosen to be in this career is because I feel like I was given that – and I feel a responsibility to give that back.

Divine:  Can you tell us what has made Friends School special to you so far?

Christian:  When I got the call from the Clerk of the Board to say, “We’d like to offer you the job,” and I was thinking about, “Do I actually want the job now?” the thing that stood out the most to me was the students that I met. In conversation with other adults, they all said that the student community here feels really kind. I mean, this is a regular school, so I’m sure there are moments where students are not kind to each other. But it feels really kind; it feels, in many ways, healthy. Obviously every school is not without its challenges. But that’s the kind of environment that I was really hoping for.

The other thing that really stands out to me here, that has attracted me from the beginning, is the mission statement of the school. I know missions are very general and they can be interpreted in lots of different ways. But the part of the mission that really speaks to me is the idea that we’re all engaged in a journey together. I think so much of school, often – this is very true at my current school, and it was true even at George School to some extent – is that we’re always wondering what the next thing is. So we come to a school like this to get into college, then we go to college to get a good job, and we don’t think about what the journey along the way means.

I think about this from my own personal experience: I also was sort of on that same treadmill, and in some ways continue to be. But I realized the most valuable part of my career, or my own leadership philosophy, has been thinking about what I learned in the journey along the way. In some ways, those learnings were more important than whatever the destination might have ended up being.

Divine:  The journey is definitely a big part of our school. In case you didn’t know, this year our yearbook’s theme is about journeys.

Christian:  I love that.

Krisna:  You mentioned getting to know some students, and walking around the Friends School campus. What has been your favorite part of your small interactions, or getting to walk around?

Christian:  When I was here interviewing, those interviews are long days, right? I was here from eight in the morning to, I think the first day, nine at night. And that actually doesn’t bother me at all; one of the reasons why I’ve chosen to be in schools is because they are living, breathing communities that are going all the time. But I had a moment where I was in between meetings, and it was after school, and I had, I think it was, a right-after-dinner meeting that I was going to have in the – tell me if I’m using the term correctly? – in the ZAC, is that the alumni center?

Divine:  Yes, it is.

Christian:  You know, that’s right outside the field, so there was a moment where I decided I was going to go for a walk. It was beautiful weather. It was dusk. There was a Middle School girls’ soccer game going on, and the score was one to one. And in the last 90 seconds, the Friends team scored, and won the game 2:1, and it was this amazing moment. It was a moment where I was taking time to reflect on what my day had been like, but also just watching the community at this soccer game where there was a sort of heroic victory. That particular moment felt really special.

Khalil:  One silly question I had was: Do you have any pets?

Christian:  I don’t. I grew up with pets, but I don’t currently have one. I did have a cat for a long time – who was really mean, basically, is what I can say about him. He was nice to me, but mostly me and not to everybody else. He also thought he had opposable thumbs, so he would try to open things all the time. Do you have pets?

Khalil:  I do. I actually have two parakeets.

Christian:  Oh my gosh.

Khalil:  Loud. Super loud.

Christian:  Do they talk?

Khalil:  They don’t talk. They just make noises. If I really tried hard, which I’m not going to do, you can apparently get your parakeets to make chirps that sound like a person speaking. But they can’t actually talk. So, it’s a little unfortunate. I’d love to make my pets say, like: “Hey, good morning.”

Krisna:  What was your favorite subject or activity when you were in school?

Christian:  I can answer both. My favorite subject was math, but that had everything to do with the fact that I had a really, really inspirational math teacher. And my favorite activity was playing on the soccer team. I was not a particularly good soccer player, but I loved playing.

Carson:  That, actually, is my question: what kind of soccer player you were, and what was your favorite experience as part of the team?

Christian:  When I was in high school, we had a team that was really talented, so I didn’t actually make the Varsity to team until I was a senior. I played on the JV a little bit when I was a junior, and got called up for one or two games. Even as senior, I didn’t play all that much. But the one thing that I was most proud of, as it relates to soccer, was that I remember my coach, who was a real inspiration for me, said: “If you want to play on the team, you have to learn to kick with your left foot.” So I spent an entire summer learning how to kick with my left foot, then played left wing for the team. That was a moment of pride. We won a championship that year. Not because of me!

Divine:  What music did you like in high school, compared to now?

Christian:  Man, I listened to a little bit of everything. My parents were really into country music, which I know is not super popular with students, so I grew up listening to country music mostly. Also, my dad, whose heritage is Irish (my last name’s Donovan), for some reason would listen to Irish national anthems. So I happen to know the words to a bunch of different Irish nationalistic songs.

Now I listen to a little of everything: a little bit of R&B, and continue to listen to some country music. I spent some time growing up in Europe, and there’s a period of music that I missed in the 80s and 90s. So some of the music I listen to now is trying to recapture the magic of the 90s.

One funny story is that I didn’t discover the Beatles until I was in my 20s. I mean, I’d heard of them. But I remember the moment where I was listening and I was like, “Wow, this is pretty good!” I remember calling a friend of mine – he’s really into music – and I was like, “God, the Beatles, they’re pretty good!” And he was like: “Where have you been?!”

Anyway, thank you so much. This was awesome.

Students:  [Many thank-yous.]

Christian:  Yeah, definitely, it’s a pleasure. Divine, Khalil, Carson, and Krisna, right? Enjoy the rest of your days!