Grant me the serenity to accept those things I cannot change, the Courage to change those things I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference.
“Concedeme la Serenidad para aceptar las cosas que no puedo cambiar, el Valor para cambiar las cosas que puedo cambiar y la Sabiduria para conocer la diferencia
Mary Spencer, Dean of Students
The clock on the wall in Mary Spencer’s office spells its numbers in Spanish--uno, dos, tres--a small nod to her background that began with much of her childhood--12 years--in South America. Spencer went on to major in Spanish and began her foray into education as a Spanish teacher. “I even dream in Spanish,” she says.
Spencer’s father eventually became the Episcopal Bishop of Colombia and Ecuador. She explains that this combination of “preacher’s kid” in a missionary family and living abroad has shaped the way she responds to others. “I’ve had people say that my ear, or my heart, or my mind is more in tune to nuance sometimes--that I tend to be a little more empathetic and listen for what people are trying to say, rather than what may be coming out of their mouth.” This empathy was likely also fostered by that early exposure to families living very different socioeconomic and cultural realities.
With an ear for language, Spencer is a listener. She values the connection that can only come from truly hearing someone, but she also quite literally detects subtleties in phonemic language itself. “I can tell if someone was raised in the Andes mountains or on the coast,” she notes. “It’s a part of who I am.”
Listen to this weeks episode of the Teachers' Lounge
Spencer also comes from a strong independent school tradition and background. While she did return soon after college to work as an administrator at her alma mater of Chatham Hall, an Episcopal boarding school in Virginia, she knew it was wise to experience work life outside academics. So, before resuming a career in education, Spencer did temp work which landed her in the home office of a large insurance company in Virginia. Here she installed the “mini-computer” in offices and trained brokers, agents and staff on how to use the computer system. “It gave me a different insight about what parents are juggling outside of a school setting,” she says.
Spencer later met and married her husband, Andy Spencer, Episcopal’s new Director of Advancement, and her career continued at the Virginia Episcopal School. She became the Director of Women’s Life, Spanish teacher and head coach for varsity field hockey and assisted with the basketball team. The school had recently become co-ed, and Spencer worked to make sure all voices were heard equally and that programming was representative of all students. In the midst of all of this, the couple’s children, Sarah Elizabeth (S.E), and George, were born and Spencer says that it was “almost idyllic to raise kids in a boarding school environment.”
The Lovett School eventually recruited Andy, and the family moved to Atlanta, where they remained for nineteen years. It wasn’t long after they settled that Spencer began subbing at Lovett and eventually moved into teaching and administrative roles. Here, she nurtured her approach and philosophy. “There is one ‘d’ in Dean,” she says. “Discipline is only one factor.” Spencer’s prior work with social-emotional learning inspires the majority of the way she approaches her role as Dean of Students. “Students are learning the skills to learn from their mistakes,” she says. She shares that she, herself, is flawed--we all are--and that “making mistakes doesn’t make you a bad person.” Spencer sees her role as one that first meets people where they are, one that offers and expects respect, and one that is both consistent and fair. “I’m not good at playing games,” Spencer comments. And while she is known to often use humor in her interactions with students, she finds sarcasm and discipline that puts a child down to be incredibly harmful.
It’s no wonder Spencer leads with empathy. Language research indicates that “Children in multilingual environments have social experiences that provide routine practice in considering the perspectives of others…” (Kinzler). And while Spanish is less and less a part of her daily interactions, Spencer’s ear for language and emphasis on clear communication is at the forefront of how she forges meaningful relationships with students.
“Why was it so easy for me to say yes to Episcopal?” she asks. From the outside looking in, Spencer witnessed a clear sense of community, an honor code that values living with character, and rituals and traditions that reinforce who we’re all striving to be.
Katie Sutcliffe is beginning her seventh year at Episcopal and has served in many capacities involving writing and service learning. Currently, she directs the Thesis Program, teaching both Seminar juniors and Thesis seniors, and is the co-creator of LAUNCH, Episcopal’s annual TEDx-style student-planned and executed showcase of ideas and projects. Katie’s own history involves this blend of service and writing: after graduating from a small liberal arts college in Indiana with an English degree, she moved to the Deep South with Teach For America where she taught middle school English and worked passionately on issues of educational inequity. She later earned an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from the University of Pittsburgh and returned to Baton Rouge where she has continued freelance writing. Katie infuses social justice initiatives into her curricula and seeks to help her students make meaningful connections with those living a different experience within our larger community. She’s passionate about character education and project-based learning, as well as research and writing that