This is the month when school administrators exhale (for just a minute) after a busy year. June marks the completion of Charlotte Riggs’ first year as a head of school and with St. James Academy, an Episcopal PreK-8 school in Monkton, Md.
This month, she reflects on lessons learned as a new head of school.
Kalix: What is the most important leadership lesson you have learned as a new head of school?
Charlotte Riggs: Ask questions, get to know the community and learn the culture of the school. For me, a big piece of this is to be thoughtful and responsive vs. being reactive. The best advice I received before I became head was to listen. It’s so important. I learned that, coming into a school, you need to learn to listen. Not all schools are the same.
[In my first year at St. James], I’ve tried to get perspectives from all areas of the school and community, including people who are part of our church community. I’ve known from other leadership positions that having the full picture of a place and situation can take a little time, but it’s so important in making decisions. There is a time to listen and pause as you make decisions about what is right for a place before you give an answer.
Kalix: Did you learn anything surprising or unexpected about leadership this past year?
Charlotte: Nothing as surprising as it was reaffirming, again, going back to the importance of listening. Visibility has been a priority my first year, particularly for my students. I try to spend as much time as I can in the classrooms and hallways as possible, but it’s a balance because of the work that needs to be done in the office. That’s been an important lesson for me, too. I try to be mindful about the time I am holed up in my office. I set reminders to get out in the hallway or be at check-in, especially at the beginning of each week.
Another reaffirming piece is that I need to rely on my team to help me manage my job. I’m lucky to have a great team. I consider every adult at St. James on the team, not just those on the leadership team. Again, it’s a balance. How can I look at the big picture while looking at the inner workings? Heads need to do both without compromising one or the other.
Kalix: What about learning anything surprising about yourself?
Charlotte: [Chuckles]. At Christmas, I wore an Olaf costume [the snowman from Disney’s Frozen] at carpool. I am not a costume person at all! But I find that with our younger students, I am dressing up more. I started wearing themed headbands once a month. It evolved from being an icebreaker to introduce myself to the youngest students to a way of bringing out the fun in what we do and an ongoing connection with them. It’s so important to have relatability with the kids. They will ask about them and look forward to them.
Pictured: Charlotte Riggs with students and her October fall headband.
The headbands have been the fun surprise. I now have an office full of glittery themed headbands. Again, I am not a costume-y person. I barely dressed up for Halloween before this job! Now I’ve made headbands for 100 days of school, the holidays and more. For a school auction, my item was “Win a Headband-making session with Ms. Riggs.” I have an art background, and the time I spend creating these sculptural pieces has become a way for me to decompress.
Prior to her appointment as head of school for St. James Academy in July 2018, Charlotte was director of the St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School (Alexandria, VA) Middle School, where she was first hired as associate director in 2007. She also served as the art department chair during her tenure at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School. Charlotte has held administrative positions and was an art teacher and coach at the Woodlynde School (Strafford, PA). A product of Baltimore’s independent schools, Charlotte attended Calvert School until middle school and graduated from the all-girls’ Garrison Forest School. She has a B.S. in Art History, Minor Studio Art, from Skidmore College and a Masters in Teaching Visual Arts from the University of The Arts. A standout lacrosse player in high school and college, she also coached in the early years of her classroom experience as an art teacher.
Found value in this interview? Check out a recent interview with Dr. Autumn Adkins Graves, Head of Girls Preparatory School.